In return to Tigers, Santiago elated to give back

Former player joins staff as first-base, infield coach

November 3rd, 2017
Ramon Santiago is looking forward to working with young infielders Dixon Machado and Jeimer Candelario. (AP)Duane Burleson/AP

DETROIT -- Fifteen years after Ramon Santiago received his first callup by the Tigers, he got the call again. This one left him overjoyed, too.

Santiago had stopped in Lakeland, Fla., last Spring Training and talked with general manager Al Avila about a coaching position in the organization. The combination of age and injuries were telling him his playing career was just about over, having been out of the Majors since 2015, and the 38-year-old was looking for a way to stay involved in the game.

"I wanted to give it a first try with the Tigers," he said, "because the Tigers are the team that gave me my opportunity [as a player]."

Detroit didn't have any full-time coaching positions at that point; the club had just brought back fellow ex-Tiger utility man Don Kelly in a hybrid scouting/instructional role to give him a sense of both jobs. But Avila and Santiago kept in touch, and when the Tigers changed managers and most of the coaching staff this offseason, they kept Santiago in mind as a first-base and infield coach.

"I can tell you what, I can't describe the words when I received the news I'm going to be the first-base coach and infield guy," Santiago said. "I told Al and [assistant GM] David Chadd and I told [manager] Ron [Gardenhire] they made my day. It's like I never left."

From an enthusiasm standpoint, he still sounds like a player, with the positive attitude and tireless work ethic that made him an effective utility infielder for the Tigers -- and a favorite with many fans in Detroit -- for 10 years over two stints. He learned a few things from those days and the staff.

"I learned a lot of things from Jim Leyland. He was the master," Santiago said. "I learned a lot of things from Geno [Gene Lamont], how to handle myself, how to treat people."

He also learned a lot from Rafael Belliard, the first-base and infield coach on that staff.

"He really helped me a lot," he said. "Belliard taught me how to be patient and prepared all the time, even when I wasn't playing."

But the earlier segment of Santiago's career, when he was a shortstop prospect alongside , might serve him better for what's ahead. Santiago was just 22 when he made his big league debut in 2002 on a Friday night at Comerica Park, playing in front of Jeff Weaver, batting ninth in a lineup that included Damian Jackson, Robert Fick, Bobby Higginson, Dmitri Young and Chris Truby.

Santiago earned a lot of playing time that summer, and even more the year after. The Tigers were rebuilding, and then-GM Dave Dombrowski had decided to run out the prospects and see what they had. Detroit lost an AL-record 119 games in 2003, but Santiago remembers lessons learned from then-manager Alan Trammell.

"A lot of guys helped me out," Santiago said. "When you play so long, you learn different things from different coaches, and that's what I hope to pass on."

As the Tigers embark on their first true rebuilding effort since then, it's Santiago's job to work with young infielders like and .

"To be a good infielder, you have to work hard and practice every day," he said. "You have to do the routine play, the one you're paid to make. [I'll be] working with them, coaching them, the mindset, the preparation before the game. I have a lot of things I want to do with them. I'll get to know each guy, what their routine is, and we'll go from there.

"When I came up in 2002, a lot of guys helped me out, and I really appreciated that. I'm looking forward to teaching them whatever knowledge I got over the years and work together. The key is we have to work together."

He still has the positive attitude. And with three sons, ranging from ages 2 to 8 -- all interested in baseball -- he has the patience. He also has the arm for batting practice.

"My arm feels great," he said with a laugh.