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Tuesday, March 15, 2005
Updated: March 16, 4:50 PM ET
Summit could be just the start for Santana

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – To us, it's just a trophy. To Johan Santana, it's more. More, in fact, than we can even comprehend.

To us, it's just another Cy Young award. Something to vote on. Something to argue about on our favorite bar stools.

Johan Santana
Johan Santana, 26, is arguably the best left-hander in the game.

To Johan Santana, however, winning the American League Cy Young last season was an event that changed his life, changed his team, changed his country and changed the mountain town in Venezuela that had never produced a professional baseball player before him.

We are talking about an award that inspired parades, medals and dinner with the president (of Venezuela, that is). So, clearly, we are talking about something that meant a whole lot more in Johan Santana's homeland than an excuse to call a talk show.

"My country is a real baseball country," said the Twins' first Cy Young winner since Frank Viola. "You know, people there are looking at you as a hero, as an idol. What I'm doing is just having fun, just doing what I do. But knowing [what his people think of him], it gives me more energy to go out and perform. Playing baseball is something that makes me feel good. But it's something that makes them feel good, too."

Yes, this is the ultimate feel-good story, all right – for everyone but the hitters.

For the hitters, facing Johan Santana last year made them feel about as good as a House subpoena.

They hit .192 against him – which is 75 points worse than they hit against Tim Hudson. Their slugging percentage was an absurd .315 – more than 150 points worse than they slugged against Bartolo Colon.

"It's fun just to hear the hitters when they get up there," said Twins catcher Matt LeCroy, "because they don't want to hit off him. You hear guys dig in, saying, 'Well, here's an 0-for-3.' "

Actually, 0 for three months was more like it – because, after the All-Star break last season, Johan Santana didn't lose. Not once: Fifteen starts, 13-0, a Gibson-esque 1.21 ERA, only 55 hits in 104-1/3 innings, just 14 earned runs allowed in 15 trips to the mound.

He was the first pitcher in history to win that many games after an All-Star break without losing. He allowed three earned runs or fewer in his last 22 straight starts (24 if you count the playoffs). He gave up one run or none in his last eight starts (10 if you count the playoffs).

And by the time he was through, Santana had spun off one of those seasons that isn't just once in a lifetime. For most of the human race, they're no times in a lifetime.

At age 25, in his first full season as a starting pitcher, he finished the year 20-6, with off-the-chart numbers all over his stat sheet. We can put it in perspective this way:

TRIVIALITY

Johan Santana is one of six active left-handed pitchers who won 20 games in a season before turning 30. Can you name the other five? (Answer below).

Only two other pitchers in their 20s have ever had a 20-win season in which they struck out more than 10 hitters per nine innings, gave up fewer than seven hits per nine innings and allowed less than a baserunner an inning.

One was Sandy Koufax in 1965. The other was Pedro Martinez in 1999. That's the entire club. But not even those two matched Santana's numbers in all those categories. Whew.

"People keep asking, 'Have you ever seen anything like that?'" Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson says, laughing. "And I say, 'Well, I might have seen it in high school. But in the major leagues? I don't think so.'"

When Santana kicked off that second-half rampage, the Twins actually trailed Chicago by a half-game in the AL Central standings. They wound up winning the division by nine games. So their ace truly changed everything.

"It was like the Yankees when they had [Roger] Clemens or like Boston when they had Pedro," LeCroy said. "He was that kind of pitcher for us. When he pitched, when it was his day, you knew you were going to win."

So it seems almost surreal now that a year ago at this time, Santana was coming off elbow surgery, couldn't convince himself to cut loose and was about to stagger to a 5.50 ERA in his first 12 starts. But once he realized the pain was gone, a phenomenon was born.

By September, he had Venezuelan TV crews shadowing him all day, every day. And his Metrodome starts were turning into a veritable Great Lakes Mardi Gras.

"I'd see all the people stand and clap and give me a standing ovation – and I was just going out to warm up," Santana said. "That was an unbelievable thing. ...

"I remember there was a lady who came up to me one day, and she was crying the whole time. I was, like, 'Wow. I didn't know this was that big.'"

But however large this was in Minnesota, it was a thousand times more humongous in a land that had never had its own Cy Young before.

"It was on TV every day," Santana said, "people talking about me. Every game I pitched was on national TV. It's unbelievable to know how many people are following everything you do. Every time I talked to my dad on the phone, he was crying. He was telling me, 'You're the greatest. Just keep doing what you're doing.'"

So being the good son he is, Santana kept doing what he was doing – until there were no more games left to do it in. Then he headed home to Tovar, a remote town of 40,000 residents located in the heart of the Andes.

When he'd left the previous winter, he was a ballplayer. When he returned, he discovered he was a king.

The day he won his Cy Young award, the townspeople of Tovar staged a parade in his honor, a parade that still reddens Santana's eyes.

"I've never seen anything like it," he said. "I was fighting [tears] the whole time. After the parade, we went into a church [to address the crowd], and I thought they were going to take the whole thing down, so many people wanted to get in. I almost cried."

Santana was rewarded with the largest contract in club history this offseason.

After that, he was summoned to the capital in Venezuela, for a ceremony and dinner with president Hugo Chavez.

"He's a great baseball fan," Santana said of el presidente. "I was surprised by all the things he was telling me about baseball, about guys from a long time ago, guys he followed. It was good to know you've got that kind of support. It was good to know the president of your country is paying attention to what you do."

Even the president no doubt knew there had never been a Venezuelan Cy Young award winner – let alone a unanimous Cy Young award winner. So there is no telling how many kids from his country have decided, in these past few months, that their dream is now to grow up to become Johan Santana instead of Andres Galarraga or Bobby Abreu or Omar Vizquel.

Sixteen different Venezuelans got 100 hits in the big leagues last season. But before Santana came along, only two Venezuelan left-handers – Wilson Alvarez and Omar Daal – had ever won 10 games in a season.

So imagine the impact of having one of their own win a Cy Young. What Michael Jordan inspired on the playgrounds of America, Johan Santana is inspiring, even as we speak, on the ball fields of Venezuela.

"It's an honor to be the first one to win that award," Santana said. "Hopefully, I'll be the first of many. I think that changed the way people think. Now they know that not only can we play this game, but we can pitch, too. It's good to open up those doors."

It may be years before Santana, or the rest of us, will understand the ripple effects of what he has done. But it took a trip one day – to the top of the Andes – for Santana himself to understand how many lives he had touched.

After weeks of attention, parades, interviews and never-ending tumult, Santana journeyed with his brother to the peak of Mount Avila, looking for peace 7,000 feet above sea level. When he arrived, he looked out at the Caribbean and said, "This is heaven. Nobody knows you up here."

But not long afterward, he saw a farmer walking along a mountain stream, peering intently into the water. When Santana asked the man what he was doing, he could see the light bulb go on in the man's eyes.

"He looked at me and said, 'I know you,'" Santana recalled. "I said, 'No, this is my first time here. You don't know me.' He said, 'I saw you on TV. I heard all the stories about you, about your dad crying. You're Johan Santana.'"

The man told him, "My friends are never going to believe me. Can you sign something?"

Santana smiled. He walked back to his car and found a copy of the front page of a newspaper with his photo on it. He returned and said, "I'm going to give you a picture, so they believe you."

So it was there, on that snowy peak, that Johan Santana began to fully comprehend that he had reached the top of the mountain, literally and figuratively. Now he finds himself in spring training, beginning The Year After, contemplating how to stay there.

"He won't change," Anderson said. "The last three months of last season – all the publicity he got, a TV crew from Venezuela following him around – that didn't change him. ... I see the same kid we got five years ago in the Rule 5 draft, just running around the field, happy to be out there."

Santana now owns the largest contract in Twins history – four years, $40 million. His first order of business is using some of it to build new ball fields in his hometown – and in the nearby town of Santa Cruz, which was nearly obliterated by massive flooding in December.

But he is still a baseball player. And that means trying to recapture the magic, to do again what he has done just once – be the best pitcher in baseball.

"To expect him to go undefeated again, to keep doing all those things every time out – obviously, that's exceptionally difficult to do," says his manager, Ron Gardenhire. "But he's one guy who could do it. He has the pitches to be a dominating starter and to do it for a long time."

If the rest of his career resembles what last year looked like, "then you've got Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, guys like that," Gardenhire said. "The difference is that those guys have put together careers where they've done it a long time. He's done it one year. But Johan's got the talent to do that, if he stays healthy." And if that's what he does, if this is what he is, then who knows where this saga is going? There will surely be more trophies, more parades, more cheers, more tears. And Johan Santana might be doing more than merely dining with his president.

"If I ran, I'm pretty sure I'd get some votes," he laughs.

Suddenly, the perfect irony strikes him.

"You know, it's funny," he said. "Last September in Minnesota, they were giving out buttons that said, 'Santana for President.' But they were crossing out 'President' and writing 'Cy Young.'"

He is asked if he ever gave Hugo Chavez one of those buttons.

"I think he's happy I got Cy Young," quips Johan Santana, "and not president."

Trivia answer
Tom Glavine, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, Andy Pettitte and Mike Hampton.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.