In giving back, Santiago follows dad's example
Lefty 'carries the flag' for Halos in community, happy to help those in need
Before the season begins, the Angels have a routine. They map out the entire community appearance schedule, from start to finish, with blank slots marking a need for participation from players.
There are school assemblies and hospital visits and sponsor events and charity functions, most of which require participation from the stars of the show -- the men in uniform.
Players are asked to check mark which appearances they can attend, with the expectation that they will commit to a few per season, as their schedules allow.
Hector Santiago's response?
"He check marked every one," said Eric Kay, the Angels' director of communications.
"All of them," Kay said.
Of course, the Angels would never ask one player to make every appearance. If he did that, he'd barely have time to actually play baseball. But Santiago's message was clear: I'm here if you need me, whenever you need me, whatever you need me for.
Most of the stories written over the course of a season focus on wins and losses, ERAs and batting averages, pitch selection, runners in scoring position, blown saves, stats, standings, and on and on and on.
This one's different. Sure, Santiago is a Major League pitcher, part of a revamped Angels rotation that will rely heavily on its young up-and-comers. But for a moment, let's focus on something else.
Hector Santiago: Left-handed pitcher. And a really, really nice guy.
This is not a put-on. He doesn't do this for show. Simply, he's a decent fellow with an outgoing personality who likes to help out.
And help out, he does.
"A lot of players are involved in the community," Kay said. "He carries the flag for us."
The desire to pay it forward started long before Santiago became a professional ballplayer. As a 13-year-old middle school student in Newark, N.J., he sat in his classroom and watched across the river as the smoke rose above a burning Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001.
He felt helpless then, especially when his teacher, whose son worked in or around the Twin Towers, ran out of the room, screaming. The students were sent home immediately, and from his house, Santiago watched the second tower go down.
There was nothing he could do then. But it put the wheels in motion. Drawing from the values his parents instilled in him, Santiago set it in his mind to grow up and help people. And he made good on that promise.
For example: last year, while still with the White Sox, he read about the Oklahoma tornadoes that wiped out thousands of homes and killed two dozen people. He asked his agent to help him find a family that needed assistance, and as a result, Bailey Pack, a teenage girl who had lost everything just as she was preparing to head to college, was able to stay on course.
Everything the family had bought her -- a computer, school supplies, clothes -- was gone. So Santiago put together a care package, complete with a new laptop, supplies and a check so she could buy new clothes, and overnighted it to Bailey.
"I wanted to help someone that really needed it," Santiago said.
He had no ties to Oklahoma and, obviously, had never met the family. Bailey's mom, Kelly, incidentally, is an Angels fan, and when he was traded there last offseason, Bailey was the first person he contacted. They continue to keep in touch.
Santiago was ending a winter ball stint in Puerto Rico in 2012 during the events of the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy, and once he returned home, he made the one-hour drive to Newtown, Conn., to meet with a group of older elementary school kids who were emotionally affected in the aftermath.
He wasn't there to counsel; rather, he wanted to do whatever he could to give the kids a mental break from the ongoing trauma from being so close to the tragedy. He told them he grew up around the awfulness of Sept. 11. He encouraged them to stay on the right path. He then opened the floor to questions.
"They were typical kid questions," Santiago recalled. "'Do you like chicken nuggets? Is your favorite food McDonalds? Who's your best friend? Favorite movie? Do you like to play baseball? Who was your roommate in the Minor Leagues?'"
The visit became decidedly more solemn when he met with some of the parents and teachers affected by the tragedy.
"A few of them broke down to tears," Santiago said. "The pastor broke down in tears. The principal broke down. Kids were on the floor, crying. We were up there for 5 1/2 hours. Four were happy and then you start talking about the situation and what happened. We got a little bit of the deeper part near the end of it."
Santiago's huge heart has a lot to do with his lineage. He follows the example set by his dad, Hector Sr., who worked all day installing carpets and wood floors and spent what free time he had helping out in the community.
Hector Sr. was active in recreational baseball, umpiring games regularly, sometimes three times a day. The gig paid $40 a game, but at the end of every year, he told the league's organizers to keep the check and put the money toward the field and equipment.
"I watched him get up at five in the morning to go to work," Santiago said. "And then he has a chance to make sometimes $120 a day [umpiring], for however many years he was doing it. That adds up. But he didn't want the money. Growing up around that was a big part of me growing into wanting to help out in the community."
Santiago has transferred some of the work he started as a member of the White Sox to his new team. In 2012, he created "Santiago's Soldiers," a program that supports disadvantaged kids and their families by inviting them to games throughout the season. That program will continue in Anaheim.
In the meantime, he'll wait for the Angels to call on him when the community calendar needs a boost. He's active on Twitter, too, and follows just about everyone who follows him. He reads the responses sent back to him, and replies to many.
It was through Twitter that the Angels received the first inkling about the player they had obtained after the blockbuster Diamondbacks-White Sox-Angels trade over the winter.
"One of the first things he said when he reached out to me on Twitter was 'Let me know how I can help,'" Kay recalled. "'I'll do anything and everything.' That was my first correspondence with him. That let me know what we were getting."
What they got, apparently, was an Angel, in the truest sense.