In August 2013, Hector Santiago found out Hank Aaron would be attending a ballgame he was starting at Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field. It was Major League Baseball’s annual Civil Rights Game, and the legendary home-run hitter would watch the action from White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf’s suite.
Santiago was in his first full major-league season. Not one to miss an opportunity, he ordered an Atlanta Braves No. 44 jersey in advance and, the day of the game, asked a few White Sox officials if someone could acquire Aaron’s autograph for him. They could not, they said; they said the then-79-year-old hadn’t signed for anyone.
So, after he finished his outing in a White Sox win – 61/3 innings, two runs – Santiago made his way up to the owner’s suite himself. In full uniform, he introduced himself and asked the man for his signature directly.
Aaron obliged. Santiago was swayed by the experience. Now, nearly, two years later, the Angels left-hander is obsessive about acquiring as many autographed jerseys as he can through any means necessary. Other major leaguers are known for their collections – Astros reliever Pat Neshek estimates he has amassed 25,000 signed baseball cards over more than a decade, Diamondbacks reliever Brad Ziegler aims to get entire sets of cards autographed, Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson collects NFL signatures – but Santiago is the most fearless.
“No one does it like him,” said Brian “Bubba” Harkins, the longtime visiting clubhouse manager at Angel Stadium.
Santiago will ask anyone at any time, using all kinds of methods and connections, from old friends who know someone to clubhouse attendants to direct one-for-one trades using his teammates’ valuable signatures. He’ll ask hitters he just struck out hours earlier and pitchers who beat him the night before, no matter. He loves the feeling of getting another one he wants.
“He’s a go-getter,” said his father, Hector Santiago Sr., a flooring installer in their hometown of Newark. “He’s always been that type of kid. When he wants something, he’ll go get it. That’s the way he’s been with baseball. That's the way he is with everything. He’s not afraid of nothing.”
Santiago doesn't mind the fleeting feeling of nervousness that sets in just as he's about to ask. And he doesn’t quite understand why more of his peers don't do the same.
“I think some guys do want to do it, but their pride is too much,” Santiago said. “I don’t think (Albert) Pujols is going to go over there and ask someone for their signature. For me, when I first came up, I was like, ‘I don’t know how long I’m gonna be here. This is my opportunity to do stuff like this.’ And I’ve tried to keep that. I don’t see shame in it.”
Said Neshek, long known for his collecting: “I like what he’s doing. For me, I want to ask everybody, but I also don’t want to wear out my name a lot. It’s accepted, but it’s not like a lot of people do it and it’s not too common. I don’t want to walk on thin ice and bother anybody.”
Soliciting autographs is expressly prohibited for credential-holders and most people who occupy a major-league clubhouse on a normal night. But there have never been any rules against it for major leaguers themselves.
Santiago was right to wonder how long he’d last in the majors. He never was supposed to make it there. When the White Sox drafted him in the 30th round as a draft-and-follow prospect out of a small vocational high school in New Jersey, he never had thrown anything but a fastball.
But he threw every pitch at maximum effort, and he threw hard, and Chicago gave him a small signing bonus in 2007, after he spent the season pitching at a Florida junior college. He brought boundless energy, an unusual, unceasing enthusiasm and a willingness to work. Four years later, when White Sox executives became smitten with the screwball he picked up pitching in Puerto Rico the previous winter, he made it to the majors. Two years later, he was sent to Anaheim in a three-team trade that netted the Angels prized pitching prospect Tyler Skaggs.
This season, he has been the team’s best starting pitcher, riding an increased strikeout rate, better control and batted-ball luck to a breakout year. Entering his start Sunday against Seattle at Angel Stadium, he has a 2.68 ERA in 871/3 innings. He's the only Angels pitcher who has finished at least five innings in each of his starts.
Santiago has pitched himself into a chance to make next month’s All-Star Game, and he realizes what a gold mine that would be for his collection. Nobody's going to turn down a fellow honoree’s request.
In the minors, Santiago signed autographs all the time, he said, and he may be the most prolific signer among active major leaguers. Many days, he spends close to an hour near the Angels’ dugout, scribbling his loopy signature over and over, always affixing a No. 53 after the ‘o’ in his surname.
The first autograph Santiago received, as he recalls, was Gaylord Perry’s, on June 1, 2011. Perry was making an appearance at a Double-A game at the oldest ballpark in America, Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Ala.
All the players got an autographed item, and Santiago put a Perry-inscribed ball in his bag and forgot about it. One month later, he was in the major leagues, and he started to see how many desirable signatures he could secure without much effort.
He waited until the next season, when he was a little more established, to start asking his teammates and opponents. First was Paul Konerko, the elder statesman of the 2012 White Sox. It progressed quickly from there.
Now, he carries a silver paint pen, his preferred signing instrument, with him most places he goes. He has hundreds of signed jerseys and dozens of signed bats and balls. A week before the Angels embark on each trip, Santiago examines the opponents. If there are current or retired stars whose autographs he does not yet own, he orders their authentic jerseys directly from Majestic. At first, it’d be five or six at a time. Now, it’s more often one or two.
Every day he arrives at Angel Stadium, especially at the start of a homestand, there’s a chance he’ll have a new autograph waiting for him on his locker chair. He loves that part, too.
In interleague play last August, Santiago opposed Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw at Dodger Stadium. An unfamiliar but capable batter, Santiago stood closer to home plate than most hitters and much closer than most pitchers. Kershaw threw him a 93-mph fastball on the inner half, and Santiago’s swing on a groundout cracked the bat he was borrowing from teammate Efren Navarro.
The next day, the Dodgers traveled to Anaheim to extend the Freeway Series, and Santiago handed Harkins the bat and asked him for a favor. He came through.
“Hey Hector,” Kershaw wrote on the bat, “Get off the plate!"
Santiago obtained a Sandy Koufax signature that series, too. He has signed Chris Sale All-Star spikes from the 2013 game at Citi Field, which Sale offered his minor-league roommate because he knew Santiago grew up a Mets fan. He asked Miguel Cabrera for signed spikes when the Tigers played in Anaheim last month, and Cabrera said he’ll have them ready when the Angels arrive in Detroit in August.
In the two-story house Santiago purchased two years ago in Goodyear, Ariz., the two-car garage is a designated space for most of his signed stuff. The homemade gym, in another room, has several signed jerseys on the wall. Among them are Sale, David Wright, Adam Jones and Cabrera – all of whom happen to have signed sizable contract extensions.
“This is motivation,” Santiago said this month, miming a workout and pointing up. “You’re doing a squat, and you’re like, ‘$60 million, $120 million, $80 million, $300 million.’ You’re tired, and then you look up, and you’re like, ‘Look at that, no I’m not.’”
Through his quest, Santiago has learned about baseball’s past. He does not claim to be a baseball historian, but he knows more than he once did.
Typically, athlete collectors begin before they are professionals. Ziegler avidly asked for autographs as a kid growing up in Kansas City; Neshek started collecting while attending Butler University in Indianapolis, home of the Triple-A Indians, who provided ample opportunities.
“I think there are a lot of guys who play Major League Baseball who don’t even really like baseball,” Ziegler said when asked why more players don’t collect. “They’re good at it, they know they can make a good living, but they know they’d like football or basketball better. There are a lot of guys who don’t know a lot about the history of the game.”
The other side of the story is the value of the collection. Former major leaguer Dmitri Young became a baseball-card collector after retiring in 2009, and three years ago he reportedly sold his graded collection for $2.4 million, although it’s unclear how much he initially invested.
Santiago’s is not yet as extensive and he deals mostly with balls, bats and jerseys. The jerseys are his favorite, framed to his specifications so he can eventually display them below glass flooring in his dream home.
“I tried to frame one of them, and I guess I didn’t do a good job,” Santiago Sr. said, laughing. “I don't get to frame them no more. I’m the gofer now. I’ve gone to eight or nine places, picking up four or five jerseys each time.”
Santiago Sr. said he often asks his son: “How many more you missing?”
There’s never an exact answer. He knows he wants Barry Bonds and Willie Mays more than most any other. Their jerseys are waiting with the clubhouse managers at AT&T Park in pre-addressed FedEx envelopes.
Santiago said he doesn’t turn down any autographs. He’s been personally rebuffed only a few times, most notably by Bo Jackson, who signed only on Santiago’s fifth request.
By now, he has Reggie Jackson, Rickey Henderson, Rod Carew, Yogi Berra, and most every Hall of Famer elected to Cooperstown since he’s been alive. He has Omar Vizquel, the third baseman behind him in his first major-league start, and some lesser-known names he prizes, like his minor-league manager at several stops, ex-Met Joe McEwing. Then there are signatures from athletes in other sports. He has Michael Jordan’s autograph, Scottie Pippen’s, Dwyane Wade’s, Floyd Mayweather’s, and he acquired most, but not all, himself.
Neshek, 34, is curious where the autograph industry is headed. Many players two or three generations ahead of him used to rely on signings for post-career income. Few who play multiple seasons in today’s MLB will need to do the same.
“I’m wondering what, in 20 or 30 years, the cost is going to be to get some of these guys’ autographs,” Neshek said. “Is it even gonna be doable?”
Santiago won’t think about that for a while. He’s occupied enough with thoughts of who to get next and the signatures he already has. He prefers personalizations, and those who mention their own accomplishments, like when Mariano Rivera wrote, “Last to wear 42,” on his.
And then there’s Goose Gossage, the Hall of Fame closer, whose autograph a friend of Santiago’s obtained for him at last summer’s induction in Cooperstown.
“Best wishes to Hector,” Gossage wrote. “You had a nice career.”
The overwhelmingly positive man that he is, Santiago laughed it off. “I love it,” he said.
He loves them all.
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register.
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