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In Newtown visit, Santiago lifts spirits of children

CHICAGO -- Sitting on stage at the Palmer House Hilton's Red Lacquer Room on Sunday afternoon, flanked by White Sox teammates Nate Jones, Tyler Flowers and John Danks, Hector Santiago simply looked like one of the guys having fun.

The 25-year-old left-handed hurler took part in the highly entertaining "What's your favorite" SoxFest seminar, answering wide-ranging, light-hearted questions from his favorite Minor League city to his favorite reality show. This 45-minute session marked Santiago's only on-stage SoxFest appearance, supplemented by autograph signings on Saturday and Sunday.

But it certainly wasn't Santiago's only question-and-answer session this month. The first one, which happened on Jan. 17, took place at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newtown, Conn., and lasted about 45 minutes to an hour by Santiago's recollection.

In Sunday's seminar, here was Santiago, the breakout southpaw who started as the White Sox closer and ended as a starting pitcher during the 2012 season. In Newtown, Santiago was still a Major League pitcher, but a hero in a town that has welcomed any uplifting feeling since Dec. 14, when gunman Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six staff members at nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Eight of the children were laid to rest at St. Rose of Lima.

Making a difference

Santiago, a proud resident of Newark, N.J., originally planned to go visit a local hospital that had treated his aunt, who had recently beaten breast cancer. That act of kindness never materialized.

At the same time, Santiago had been reading about the Sandy Hook tragedy. He began looking at articles while he was taking part in winter ball in Puerto Rico, with one link leading to another, and Santiago knew St. Rose of Lima was the place where he needed to be.

"I knew I can't do anything to stop [the tragic shootings]," Santiago told during a recent interview. "But you want to do something to help."

A call was placed by Santiago to his agent, Brian McCafferty, asking him to see if a visit would be possible or welcomed. The planning process took about two or three weeks before Santiago, his father, Hector, Sr., and his fiancée, Esther Gomez, made the hour car ride.

This idea came from Santiago's desire to play a part in the healing process. He contacted the White Sox community relations department and had 300-400 pictures sent to him to sign, although he was prepared to bring his own baseball cards and pictures.

Even as a rookie, trying to find his Major League bearings, Santiago instantly fit into the White Sox dedication to giving back that ran throughout the organization. He returned to Chicago in November to support players from the team's Amateur City Elite program on their signing day and made himself available for anything the White Sox had in mind for him in 2012.

"We were exposed to that last season when Hector first came to the White Sox," said White Sox senior director of community relations Christine O'Reilly of Santiago. "He wanted to meet with us.

"He was like, 'I want to do stuff,' and so we actually said, 'We want to talk with you. We can support you.' The organization certainly wants to support players who, on their own, indicate an interest in making a difference in the community."

The White Sox developed "Santiago's Soldiers," with a Facebook page now representing his charitable endeavors. O'Reilly mentioned that Santiago had been connected with youth groups and wants to be involved in the ACE program.

"So, it is just amazing when you have a player who takes the first step," O'Reilly said. "We have a great team and they are all so supportive of our efforts. Here's a guy who has done it on his own.

"I saw the story that ran [on about Santiago's Newtown visit], and that's so telling about the guy he is. I think it speaks really well of the White Sox. We look for those character guys. That's really important."

Helping to heal

Tragedy of this magnitude was not foreign to Santiago. Back on the 12-year anniversary of when two planes hit the World Trade Center towers in New York, with the unspeakable act of terrorism killing close to 3,000 people, Santiago explained to how he was a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Luis Munoz Marin Middle School in Newark, sitting in Ms. Foster's class.

His life changed as he watched the towers go up in smoke from his classroom. The emotional reaction of his teacher became more vividly etched in his memory.

"My teacher went crazy because her son worked in the World Trade Center," Santiago said back in September. "She ran out of the classroom when she heard the news, and another teacher grabbed her and said, 'Hey, you are fine.'"

Traveling to Newtown now was taking place as an adult, and Santiago, while excited to meet with the huge group of kids from the school associated with St. Rose of Lima, still was nervous. He didn't want to say the wrong thing or offend anyone.

During a pre-visit conversation with Monsignor Robert Weiss, the pastor of St. Rose of Lima, whom Santiago referred to as Father Bob, Santiago received advice to talk about sports, his baseball career and some of the fun things he did off the field. During the visit, Santiago took baseball-related questions, but also answered a few on favorite foods, rock groups and sports teams. He did not talk about the Sandy Hook tragedy.

He signed autographs and could see the positive effect it had on these kids. He also understood it was greater than it would have been if he was Hector Santiago, the well-meaning kid from Newark, making the visit.

"There was one kid who said, 'This really means a lot to us and we appreciate it,'" Santiago said. "Then, he kind of walked away quickly. He was almost nervous to say it. It made their day.

"They took over the show. They were in control. They got their chance to raise their hands and ask questions and didn't stop. Father Bob had to come in and set the last question, and all the kids were like, "No."

End of a special day

After the spirited assembly, Father Bob took a group around town that included Santiago, his father and his fiancée. They had coffee and talked about the last month in Newtown.

"Just a really cool town," Santiago said. "A really close town."

Santiago heard about how St. Rose of Lima was overloaded with gifts and letters coming from all over the world, trying to support the fallen in these tough times. A couple of local police officers met the group and thanked Santiago for his act of kindness, adding it was important to produce positive energy for the kids and do whatever possible to get everyone back on track.

Then, in the middle of this uplifting afternoon, while having coffee at Starbucks, Father Bob broke down a little bit.

"Seeing him break down from regular conversation to tears, it gave me chills," Santiago said. "I could feel my tears coming down and I wanted to be strong for him.

"He was just talking about how could this happen. He talked about how touched he was by the people sending stuff. He was saddened about what happened with the shooting, but was uplifted in knowing so many cared."

Focus for Santiago moves back to getting ready for the 2013 season, where he is preparing as a starter, but could work out of the bullpen at the outset. The ultimate single-game greatness for a starting pitcher is throwing a perfect game, something Philip Humber, Santiago's teammate, accomplished last year.

Retiring 27 of 27 hitters, though, would pale in comparison to this special day Santiago spent in Newtown.

"I'd give up a perfect game to give back every day," Santiago said. "I just remember them making an announcement that I was coming in and the kids sort of jumped for joy. I was talking to some of them as I was signing autographs and they were saying stuff like the last month has been rough for them.

"People were scared to go out and do something. I was glad to be part of such a good experience."

Chicago White Sox, Hector Santiago