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PUERTO RICO HERALD
Catch The Puerto Rican Stars In The World Series
By Gabrielle Paese
October 18, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
In baseball, it's the catcher who calls the game.
Come Saturday night when the World Series starts, two Puerto Ricans will be running the show.
Both the San Francisco Giants and the Anaheim Angels will be relying on Puerto Ricans behind the plate for the October classic. The Giants' starting catcher is Benito Santiago while Anaheim's starter is Bengie Molina.
They are two of five Puerto Ricans playing a part in the World Series. Molina's backup in Anaheim is his younger brother, Jose, and Juan "Porky" Lopez is the Angels' bullpen coach. Veteran backup infielder Ramon E. Martinez is one of San Francisco manager Dusty Baker's options if he needs a right-handed hitter in the lineup.
As major league catchers go, Puerto Rico has its share of All-Stars and Gold Gloves. Texas' Ivan Rodriguez has been compared to the great Johnny Bench. Atlanta's Javier Lopez, New York Yankees' Jorge Posada and Colorado Rockies' Sandy Alomar Jr. are all tops.
This week, though, Puerto Ricans will get to watch two, possibly three, catchers they may have overlooked.
Santiago's story is particularly compelling. In 1987 he was the unanimous choice for NL Rookie of the Year with the San Diego Padres. He was a four-time All-Star and won Gold Gloves for his defensive work from 1988 to 1990. Throughout his career he played with Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Toronto, the Chicago Cubs and Florida.
Four years ago, late nights and partying nearly sent him into early retirement. In 1998, he crashed his yellow Ferrari near his home in south Florida and spent months recovering.
"The doctors at the hospital told me maybe I wouldn't come back and play," said Santiago, who the year before had faced charges that he hit his live-in girlfriend. "I was always positive and I just told them, I'm going to prove you wrong."
He did, clawing his way back to the major leagues in 2000 as a non-roster invitee for the Giants, then stealing the starting catcher position from Doug Mirabelli and Bobby Estalella during 2001 spring training, even without a signed contract.
In the NLCS, his bat was as spectacular as his defensive play.
"The main thing I want to do is take care of the pitchers," said Santiago. "I don't want to be behind the plate thinking of my hitting."
While Anaheim's Ben Molina may not have the hot bat that Santiago has been swinging in post-season play, Molina's hits have been crucial to the Angels' victories because they have come in the clutch.
Still, Molina like Santiago knows his best offense is a good defense.
"Bengie's contributions to the club are incredible," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said in a recent interview. "His throwing percentage and ability to block balls are outstanding."
"The biggest part is his head -- how he's worked with pitchers in calling games and getting them motivated. There's no way we'd be where we are without Bengie Molina behind the plate."
Molina led the American League in percentage of caught base stealers in 2002 by throwing out 32 of 75 (43 percent) and set the Angels' single-season fielding percentage record by a catcher with a .999 mark (one error in 768 total chances).
The pitching staff's success can be directly attributed to Molina as well.
The staff led the league in innings pitched (1,452 1/3) and fewest runs allowed (644). The bullpen was the best in the AL, with a 2.98 ERA. Angels pitching coach Bud Black credits Molina for helping with those numbers.
Molina can bask in the warm glow of praise now, but it hasn't always been that way for the 28-year-old Vega Alta native.
While Benito Santiago was working on his comeback, Molina was still struggling just to get a roster spot in the big leagues. The eldest in a family of three catchers (Jose, who is one year younger than Bengie, is his backup with the Angels while Yadier plays Class A ball with the St. Louis Cardinals' Peoria Chiefs and winterball with the Carolina Gigantes), Molina spent seven years in the minor leagues, a test of wits few players endure for so many seasons.
Kansas City pitching coach Guy Hansen, who in his years as pitching coach with the Puerto Rico winter league Mayaguez Indios, worked with Molina, remembers Molina's start in 1993.
"The amount of concentration and attention that he gave for at least four years before he got game action just shows what a great work ethic he has," said Hansen.
"He was persistent. He had pure arm strength but he had to work hard because he didn't have all the natural baseball skills," said Hansen. "He couldn't run a lick. Concentration was one of the things he learned over the years."
Hansen said that during those early years, Molina was always the first one at the ballpark.
"I always liked to get to the ballpark early, but he'd always be there before me," said Hansen. "He was married and he drove this broken-down car all the way from Vega Alta to Mayaguez and he'd still get there early. He was making peanuts at the time. I don't know how he did it."
Angels pitching coach Bud Black is similarly impressed by Molina.
"The confidence pitchers have in his pitch selection is high. He's a great communicator with pitchers in the game and in the clubhouse. It's very easy to discuss things with him," Black said in a recent interview.
Hamstring injuries have been the bane of his career since his first full season with the Angels in 2000. But even those injuries have been proud moments as Jose, 11 months his junior, was called up from Triple A Salt Lake to fill in this season after the Angels traded their other backup catcher Jorge Fabregas to the Milwaukee Brewers in late July.
"I think it helped both of us," Jose said recently. "If he's missing something, he asks me. We're always talking about catching and cheering for each other. I think he's happier with me here."
"It's just huge," Bengie said. "It's family. I loved Fabregas, but I was so happy to have my family here. That's just something else."
Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at email@example.com.
Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.