Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sharpie Scribbles – chapter VI, Benito Santiago


--by Josh Suchon

Note to readers: The feedback on the “You Were Lucky, Hershiser” story was so positive, and triggered so many memories from a childhood where my playground was the Oakland Coliseum, I’ve decided to share more of these stories. I’m blatantly stealing this idea from “Cardboard Gods” author Josh Wilker, who used his baseball card collection to tell the story of his childhood in the 1970s. Wilker gave me his blessing, so I’m going to use my autograph collection to tell the story of my childhood in the 1980s.


When spring training 1989 arrived, I was ready to dominate the autograph scene. It was my third year collecting Sharpie Scribbles, my second year going to Arizona. I knew where to go, when to be there, what to say, what pens to use, and how to be ready.

Without question, that was the best week of autograph collecting in my life. Can’t remember the exact number, but 223 is what sticks in my head. Not a bad haul for a nine days.

I did have some help from family and friends.

My dad took the week off work, and we went to Arizona together. Our routine was simple. He’d drop me off at the ballpark between 8-9 am. I’d get Sharpie Scribbles all morning, while he went back to the hotel to sleep or check in at the office. He’d arrive around game time. We’d watch the game together, stick around a little later for a few more autographs, then go find a place to eat and watch the NCAA Tournament games.

My friend Chris Poulson was a batboy for the A’s at that time. He happened to be in Arizona that same week. Before one game, Chris found me in the stands and said the A’s needed a batboy for the day. The next day, he said the visiting Padres needed a batboy.

Both were great thrills. The more memorable was the day with the Padres. I had a chair next to the on-deck circle. I wouldn’t say anything to the players, unless they initiated the conversation. I remember some fans in the first row were chatting up Benito Santiago, and he was in a good mood.

In his first at-bat, Santiago hit a home run. In his second at-bat, he hit another home run. Both times, I was waiting at home plate with his bat in my left hand, and my right hand extended into the air. When he crossed the plate, Santiago gave me a high-five. Oh man, that was so cool.


I wasn’t a Padres fan, but I’d always liked Santiago. He was the Rookie of the Year in 1987, had that long hitting streak, threw out base runners from his knees, and I thought Benito was a cool unique name. Now, I was a huge fan of his.
 
In the last inning or two, a minor league catcher who was on a lot of those “future stars” baseball cards also homered. And just like with Santiago, I gave Sandy Alomar, Jr. a high five at home plate after his home run. Now, I was a huge fan of Sandy, his brother Roberto, and their dad.

Millions of other kids were stuck in classrooms around the country. I was in the Arizona sun, getting autographs, chasing home run balls, and high fiving Padres catchers after they hit home runs.  

After the game, I was in the Padres tiny clubhouse – and unlike a year earlier at the Coliseum, when my friend raided Jose Canseco’s locker illegally, I was allowed in there. I could ask any player for his autograph, and had no competition. It’s an unwritten rule that players always sign autographs for the spring training batboy that was pulled from the stands. It’s like your paycheck.

For some reason, I didn’t stick around too long. Don’t ask me why I didn’t go from player to player. It was probably because I’d already gotten everybody’s autograph that I wanted earlier in the day. By the end of the game, most of the players were gone. There were only two players that I wanted to get: Tony Gwynn and Benito Santiago.

Gwynn signed my 8x10 photo, and it’s one of the most beautiful autographs in my collection. I could tell he was taking his time, making sure all the letters were neatly written. This wasn’t a scribble. This was a signature. When I got home, I bought a frame and proudly put it on my bedroom wall. This was the first of hundreds of interactions with Gwynn -- as a kid, and later as a reporter -- and all of them were positive.
T-Gwynn took his time, and this one's beautiful.

I didn’t have an 8x10 photo for Santiago to sign that day. But he did sign a baseball card for me and I remember we chatted about something. I’m sure it was something about his home runs. A couple more times over the years, I got Santiago’s autograph again, including on an 8x10 photo.

When I came back to school after my week in Arizona, I had lots of stories to share. All the girls wanted to know how I was so tan. All the boys wanted to know how I was a batboy.

***

The last week of spring training in 2001, my second as the Giants beat writer for The Oakland Tribune, the Giants signed Benito Santiago as a free agent.

This news was a godsend to the reporters covering the team. By the last week, you’re out of feature ideas, you’re sick of watching exhibition games, you just want to go home, and the only news items are the battles for the final reserve spots on the roster. The arrival of Santiago gave us all new storylines to pursue the final week.

I’d talked to Santiago and asked questions in the group interviews, but didn’t mention the batboy story. A few days later, when nobody else was around, I went over to Santiago’s locker and told him the story about the two home runs and the high fives.

“So you’re my good-luck charm, huh?” said Santiago.

***

It didn’t start right away. But at some point, I think it was actually the next year, Santiago started referring to me as “my favorite reporter.”

Truth be told, Santiago was my second favorite person in the Giants clubhouse during the four years I covered the team from 2000-2003. Shawon Dunston was my all-time favorite. Santiago was second. Rich Aurilia was third.

Santiago ran hot-and-cold as an interview subject. Most of the time, he was great to all reporters. Sometimes, he got in these bad moods, blew off crowds of reporters, and could be difficult.

But he was always good to me. A few times, he went out of his way to say, “I’m only talking to my favorite reporter.” I found it hilarious, embarrassing, and empowering all at the same time.

On the night of Sept. 11, 2002, my sports editor called me with bad news. I was supposed to leave the next morning to cover the Giants two-game series in San Diego. But another round of budget cuts was bleeding into the Trib’s sports travel budget, and the bean counters decided they wanted to save two hotel nights, two days of per diem, and a rental car.

The rest of the conversation went something like this:

Me: “The plane ticket isn’t refundable. We’re going to eat it.”

Sports Editor: “If you still want to go, you can use the plane ticket. We just can’t pay anything else.”

Me: “If I’m paying my own way, I’m not writing for the paper. These are days off. I just happen to be taking them in San Diego.”

Sports Editor: “That’s fine with me.”

***

The next morning, I used the flight to San Diego. Instead of working, I spent all day at the beach with my college friends. Sometime around noon, I missed a call from Josh Rawitch, who was then covering the Giants for mlb.com, and listened to his message about grabbing lunch or something.

I realized that he didn’t know, and none of the other reporters knew, that I wasn’t covering that series due to budget cuts. With perhaps a couple adult cocktails already in me, I realized the stage was set to pull the ultimate practical joke on my colleagues.

Around 2 or 2:30 pm, I called Rawitch back. I told him I was hanging with my friends at the beach, would be heading to the ballpark soon, and would see him there.

Of course, I never showed up at the ballpark.

As the day went on, the concern grew, especially as I missed the clubhouse getting opened, then the daily pre-game session with manager Dusty Baker, then all of batting practice, and then even the first pitch.

Matt Hodson was the Giants public relations official on the trip. It was his second road trip. On the first, Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent got into a dugout fight. On his second, one of the team’s traveling beat writers was now missing under his watch.

My phone rang with calls. It buzzed with text messages. I ignored them all. I laughed, perhaps downed another adult cocktail or two, and let their imaginations run wild.

***

Around the second inning, after perhaps another adult beverage or two, I enlisted the help of my college friend Ferris. He used my cell phone to call Josh Rawitch. The conversation went something like this:

Ferris: “let Soooosh know that he left his cell phone at the bar. But don’t worry, I’ve got it.”

Rawitch: “Soooosh isn’t here. Where the hell is he?”

Ferris: “What do you mean he’s not there? Where is he?”

Rawitch: “We’ve been trying to figure that out. We’re calling the police to see if something happened to him.”

Ferris: “The last time I saw him, he was talking to these two girls at the bar.”

***

Around the fifth inning, after perhaps another adult beverage or two, I called Rawitch. The conversation went something like this:

Rawitch: “Where the hell are you?”

Me: “Dude, you won’t believe my day.”

Rawitch: “What’s going on? Are you OK?”

Me: “Yeah, I’m OK. Meet me at [some bar I can’t remember] bar after the game. I’ll explain everything. Oh crap, the police are back. I have to talk with them again. Meet me at the bar.”

***

By the time the game ended and Rawitch finished filing his stories, I might have enjoyed another adult beverage or two. It was close to midnight. Rawitch and Hodson arrived at the bar, glad to see that I was OK, and curious just what the hell happened to me.

There’s no way that I can do justice to the story that I told them. I do know that it involved the story Ferris told about last seeing me with two girls at a bar. I was making this up on the fly, when suddenly Ferris blurted out, “tell them the part about Benito Santiago!”

Rawitch and Hodson to me: “What?!?”

Me glaring at Ferris: “I told you not to bring up Benito’s name. He stays out of this.”

I stormed off to the other side of the bar, in mock anger. In reality, I was trying to figure out a way to weave Benito Santiago into this ridiculous story that I was telling. A minute or so later, I came back to the group.

Again, there’s no way that I can do justice to the story I told them. I do know that it involved how Benito always referred to me as “my favorite reporter” and how he would set me up with some of his leftover groupies on the road, especially in a city like San Diego, where he used to play.

I’ll never forget the way Hodson stood there: his mouth wide open, not saying a word, not drinking, stunned, speechless.

Toward the end of this ridiculous story, I said something along these lines: “you know guys, tonight has really made me think about the decisions I make and my priorities. This is really a wake-up call. But I must say, that when it’s all said and done, the one thing that I can count on … is that you two idiots will believe anything I say.”

At the point, Rawitch and Hodson began punching me, and calling me every name you can imagine. I deserved every punch and every insult. I finally told them the truth. I wasn’t working because my newspaper is incredibly cheap. I used a free flight down here though. I was having fun with my college friends.

They hated me even more.

***

About a week later, I was back on the company’s dime and covering road games. Well, somewhat. I was told that I should cover the four games in Los Angeles, but miss the three games in Milwaukee.

At that time, Benito Santiago had been suspended two games after getting ejected from a recent game and umping umpire Mark Hirschbeck. Santiago was appealing the suspension. All the reporters were trying to figure out when Santiago would drop the appeal.

This ejection led to Benito giving me a scoop.
Toward the end of batting practice, I walked back through the visitor’s clubhouse on my way to the Dodger Stadium press box. Santiago was at his locker. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “Benny, are you dropping the suspension tomorrow in Milwaukee?”

Santiago looked around, and saw that nobody else could hear. “Yes, but I’m only telling my favorite reporter.”

This was the pre-Twitter days. If it was 2012, I’d have probably put the news on Twitter. The ‘scoop’ would have lasted all of five minutes. All the reporters would have included it in the newspaper the next day, or their online stories that night.

But in 2002, it was saved for the next day’s newspaper as the lead item in my notebook. None of the other reporters had the story.

I was back in the Bay Area the next day, when Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle called me from Milwaukee.

“How the hell did you scoop us when you’re not even here?”

I just laughed and told him I got lucky.

It was a long story.

It went back to spring training in 1989, when I was 15 years old, and got pulled out of the stands to be the Padres batboy.


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