Santiago's long journey to big league ball

Santiago's long journey to big league ball

Monday starts our week-long package of stories looking at Tigers Latin-American players and how they grew up around baseball. The package leads up to the Tigers' annual Fiesta Tigres celebration Saturday at Comerica Park.

DETROIT -- Ramon Santiago can still remember how to roll a sock tightly into a makeshift baseball. That was pretty easy. Then they'd find something to use for bat.

It wasn't much, but where he came from in his native Dominican Republic, it was the start of a ballgame. As it turned out, it was also the start of a career.

Before Santiago had his own fan club, before he earned a share of the Tigers' shortstop job, before he even started playing organized baseball back home, he had the makeshift ball and bat. They'd play around the apartment, in the street, maybe on the field next door.

In the Dominican, of course, baseball is an obsession. And Santiago was all about baseball, eventually outgrowing the sock and stick.

"Sometimes we'd play near our apartment," Santiago said. "If anybody hit it over the building, it was a home run."

If anybody hit it against the building?

"A double, maybe a triple," Santiago said. "You just keep running until they catch the ball."

If anybody broke a window?

"Everybody run," Santiago laughed.

It was on the streets of Las Matas de Farfan, and later on the rocky infield of the city's organized league, where Santiago honed his sure-handed fielding. The town of just over 20,000 people, located in the western mountains near the border with Haiti, isn't the fabled baseball hotbed of other Dominican cities, but has produced a fair number of Major Leaguers, from Juan Encarnacion to Odalis Perez, Roberto Novoa to Victor Santos. Santiago is the one player of the bunch still in the Major Leagues this season.

Santiago spent a good portion of his childhood in the field, but not always baseball. While his mother worked in a pharmacy, his father was involved with farming. One of his favorite pictures as a kid isn't of his baseball exploits, but as a five-year-old on top of a burro, a small donkey.

"Somebody had to hold the burro," Santiago said. "They can be mean sometimes, start throwing you around."

His dad didn't want him doing a lot of work around the farm, only to help out a little bit. He still has a mark from where he cut open his leg once while hauling grain around.

His family wanted him to focus on his studies, and on baseball. Once he started playing organized ball at age nine in the local leagues, he became a mainstay in town as a shortstop.

There was one field in town for the league to use, and it wasn't a particularly good one. He got the bumps and bruises to show for it. But by playing there, he learned the discipline to keep his eye on the ball and be ready for a last-second adjustment.

"That's why when I play in the fields here, it's like paradise," Santiago said. "That field was so hard, you're maybe afraid to lose your teeth. That's how bad it was. When you see the fields here, how they treat it, that's like playing in paradise on the Major League fields."

During the day, after school, he would be watching for bad hops on that field. Once evening came, he would often be home, watching Major League games on television. However, he didn't have a lot of choices.

"Young players, they always have somebody they like, they want to be like him," Santiago said. "When I was watching baseball, the only channels I watched were the Braves [on TBS] and the Cubs [on WGN]. We didn't have many more channels then. We're a little town in the Dominican."

He remembers watching Rafael Belliard as a utility infielder with the Braves, and admiring him for his glove. But one of the biggest influences on his career from those games wasn't even Dominican.

"Chipper [Jones] was why I started switch-hitting," Santiago said. "Chipper, I liked, and he was a switch-hitter. But I only hit right before. So from then, I said I want to hit like him. I tried it one game, hit it good, so I kept hitting like that."

He was around 15 years old when Jones got him to switch-hit. A year later, the Tigers signed him in December of 1995 and sent him to their developmental academy, where he made enough of an impression to crack the Tigers' farm system in 1999.

He barely knew a word of English at the time, but he worked with Tigers instructors and teammates to learn the language, to the point where he's now one of the more fluent Latin-American players on the team. He and teammate Placido Polanco work with young players when they get to Detroit to make the adjustment.

There's another way he wants to give back.

"Maybe when I go back home, I want to try to help fix the field, for my league," Santiago said.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.