DETROIT -- Ramon Santiago can still remember like it just was yesterday when he was a child growing up in the Dominican Republic, as he recounted the fond memories of his childhood during National Hispanic Heritage Month.
The 33-year-old readily admitted it was different than anything he's experienced during his 13 years in the United States. But for him, Las Matas de Farfan was -- and still is -- home. And nothing at home was better than playing baseball.
"We just didn't worry about anything," said Santiago, gazing forward with a big smile as his mind seemingly brought the moments back to life. "Just play and hit the ball as hard as we can. We'd play with a homemade glove, and we'd make a ball with a sock -- take the sock out of the drawer and we'd make a ball with that. It was just whatever possible to play the game. We'd enjoy it."
That was the norm back then, Santiago said. At his school, there were no baseball diamonds. Almost no one had real bats, balls or gloves. There were no Little Leagues. Basically, there were no sports at all for kids.
"If you're going to play baseball, you've got to play on your own. We don't have that," he said. "The only thing they have in school is a court, a basketball court. Every school pretty much has that, but not many basketball players come from the Dominican, so we had to adjust to play on our own."
Adjusting meant playing every day, usually twice a day in the morning and afternoon.
From playing so frequently, he eventually got better. Really good. And as he became older, it opened the door for him to participate in an organized league when he was 9 years old, where he traded in the rock-filled socks for actual balls.
It was five years later, at 14, when he realized just how impressive he was.
"Everybody was talking about like, 'You're good, you're going to sign professional.' So I started putting in a little work extra to prepare for being a professional," Santiago said. "The first guy that really saw me when I was 14 was Victor Mata. He was a scout for the Yankees. He said, 'When I come back, I want to sign you.' But when he came back, I had already signed with the Tigers."
On July 28, 1998, at 18 years old, Santiago was signed by Detroit as an amateur free agent. He started in the Gulf Coast League in 1999, where adjusting to the pitching was simple -- he hit .326 in his first season -- compared to adjusting to the culture.
"That's easy," said Santiago when asked about his biggest challenge. "The language, that was the toughest one in the beginning, and later adjusting to the food.
"But I started picking it up right away. My first year, when I was in extended spring [training], we got English class every other day. And that and watching TV and reading newspaper, that helped me a lot."
So equipped with a new language and a sneaky power swing, he rapidly ascended through the Tigers' Minor League system. He was 22 and had spent a little more than a month between Double-A and Triple-A before making his Major League debut on May 17, 2002.
More than 10 years later, Santiago is on his third contract with Detroit after signing a two-year, $4.2 million extension this past offseason. He's rarely been a mainstay in any lineup during his career, but his versatility -- he's a switch-hitter capable of playing second, third or shortstop -- makes him a valuable asset.
And while he might not be an All-Star, he takes pride in always carrying himself like a true professional -- just like his childhood idol, Tony Fernandez, a Dominican native and four-time Gold Glover.
"I like how he handled himself and the game and how he played in the field, too," Santiago said. "I was always looking for a good player to follow. I was looking for somebody who behaved outside the field too. So Tony Fernandez was my favorite."
Like every offseason, Santiago will head back to his Las Matas de Farfan when the Tigers' season concludes. He'll enjoy spending time with his extended family and will likely teach his sons, Raymond and Andres, how to play the sport he loves.
But thanks to his dedication to community service, the kids won't be playing with a sock and a homemade glove. It will be with bats and balls on a brand-new field.
"I asked the government to make a field for my hometown, and they did it. That's something that really made me feel good," Santiago said. "They listened to me and they brought the field to life, and all the kids are playing baseball. So they got a chance to go professional, too, because they got a field where they can play."
And if Santiago can make it from his hometown to signing with a Major League team by 19 playing with a sock, the children now might have a little more than just a chance.