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Santana had big influence on Tribe, young fan

Presence of popular first baseman will be missed
MLB.com @MLBastian

CLEVELAND -- Niko Lanzarotta dressed up as Carlos Santana, his favorite baseball player, for Halloween earlier this year. He went all out, too. He wore a full home white uniform with Santana's jersey. He wore red sleeves and sported matching red socks. There was a big gold chain and a beard drawn on to match Santana's signature look.

The only problem was the Lanzarotta family no longer lives outside Cleveland. Niko, the 12-year-old fan who forged a friendship with Santana over the past four years, went with that costume in their new neighborhood in Virginia.

CLEVELAND -- Niko Lanzarotta dressed up as Carlos Santana, his favorite baseball player, for Halloween earlier this year. He went all out, too. He wore a full home white uniform with Santana's jersey. He wore red sleeves and sported matching red socks. There was a big gold chain and a beard drawn on to match Santana's signature look.

The only problem was the Lanzarotta family no longer lives outside Cleveland. Niko, the 12-year-old fan who forged a friendship with Santana over the past four years, went with that costume in their new neighborhood in Virginia.

"I don't think many people got it," Mike Lanzarotta, Niko's father, said with a laugh. "Not like they would've in Ohio."

On Wednesday, the Phillies officially announced that they had signed Santana to a three-year contract, which is worth a reported $60 million guaranteed with a club option for a fourth season. It represents a big loss for the Indians, who are still weighing their alternatives for first base as the calendar approaches 2018. It is also tough news for fans of Santana, who watched him develop into a cornerstone player in Cleveland.

Santana meant a lot to the Indians franchise and the city meant a lot to him, too.

• Santana pens letter to Indians fans

Near the end of this past season, Santana referred to Progressive Field as his "house" and expressed a desire to stay with the Indians for years to come. This winter, though, lucrative contract offers were sent Santana's way and he had to decide what was best for his future and his family. That led him to Philadelphia, but Santana took the time to pen a thank-you letter to Indians fans and the organization on Wednesday.

"This process has been one of the most difficult I have had to experience," Santana wrote. "It's not easy not knowing what the future holds. I cried once it sunk in that I would no longer be suiting up for and living in the City of Cleveland."

Tweet from @MLBastian: Niko Lanzarotta, the biggest Carlos Santana fan you'll ever meet, dressed up as his favorite player for Halloween. The only thing is the Lanzarotta family lives in Virginia now. "I don't think many people got it," Mike Lanzarotta, Niko's dad, said with a laugh. pic.twitter.com/cDK5jhioVY

Santana will forever have a place in the Indians' record books, but he also provided an iconic image for Tribe fans.

It was Santana who caught the final out of the 2016 American League Championship Series in Toronto, pushing the Indians to their first World Series berth since 1997. The Game 5 victory ended with Santana securing the fly ball before dropping to his knees in front of the visitors' dugout at Rogers Centre. From the turf, Santana hoisted his arms skyward as a mob scene formed around him.

Video: #THIS: Indians earn a trip to the World Series

The Indians acquired Santana from the Dodgers in exchange for Casey Blake in July 2008, when he was an up-and-coming catching prospect. Santana broke into the Majors as a catcher in '10, but eventually moved out from behind the plate. There was a brief experiment with Santana as a third baseman, but he put in the time and work to develop into a trustworthy and sure-handed first baseman for the Tribe.

Over the past few seasons, specifically, Santana blossomed behind the scenes under manager Terry Francona. He became increasingly willing to do whatever Francona asked of him. That led to a stint as a leadoff man and even some action in left and right field. In Game 3 of the World Series in '16, Santana started in left field. Francona joked that he nearly swallowed his gum when Cubs slugger Kris Bryant shot a line drive Santana's way.

Video: Francona talks personal development of Carlos Santana

Kissing Francona's bald head became a pregame ritual for Santana, whose fun-loving personality was more and more on display in recent years. During the World Baseball Classic, for example, Santana would dance when he would reach base to entertain his Dominican Republic teammates.

"The last couple years, he's a better teammate, better person," Francona said during the Winter Meetings earlier this month. "He turned himself into a very good first baseman. He's hard not to like. He's lovable. You see him, before the games, come up and kiss me on the head, get handshakes with everybody. He's a great kid."

On top of all that, Santana was productive and durable.

Over the past seven seasons combined, Santana ranks fifth overall in games played (1,070) and sixth in plate appearances (4,590). Only Joey Votto (771) had more walks than Santana (689) during that time period and no Major League player saw more pitches (19,313) than the the switch-hitter did for the Tribe. In that span, Santana averaged 24 homers, 32 doubles, 79 runs, 81 RBIs and 98 walks with an .808 OPS.

Off the field, Santana also made time for his fans, especially Niko Lanzarotta, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 8-months-old. Their friendship dates back to 2013, when Niko watched batting practice, met his hero and asked Santana to hit a home run. Santana delivered that day and he and his wife, Brittany, have kept in touch with the Lanzarotta family over the years.

When news broke that Santana was signing with the Phillies, Niko told his dad, "I still love him."

Mike Lanzarotta, whose job took them to Virginia, said their family is planning a trip to Florida to see Santana and the Phillies during Spring Training. He was also quick to note that Santana's new house -- Citizens Bank Park -- is about a six-hour drive away. Niko will still get to see his favorite player in person.

"It's just Santana to him," Mike Lanzarotta said. "He doesn't care where he is. That's just his buddy." 

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook.

Cleveland Indians, Carlos Santana