Giant step for ex-Crusader
By Andrew Baggarly
Special to The Advertiser
By Andrew Baggarly
SAN FRANCISCO — Chad Santos' daughter, Kamalani, celebrated her 5th birthday on Sunday. Santos gave her an extra special present.
His first big-league hit.
The 1999 Saint Louis School graduate made his major-league debut with the San Francisco Giants, fulfilling a quest that began almost eight years ago when the Kansas City Royals took him in the 22nd round of the draft.
"This is not just for me," Santos, 25, said. "It's for my wife and daughter. If not for my wife, I'd have quit a long time ago and found another way to support my family."
Santos made his major-league debut as part of a double-switch and singled in his first at-bat, lining a shot up the middle against Phillies closer Tom Gordon. He started at first base the next day and got a hit in his first at-bat before finally making an out to ruin what was a perfect 1.000 career batting average.
Not all has gone perfectly for Santos over the past eight years. He recalled lean times as he made minor-league stops all over the Mainland while supporting his family back home.
"I didn't know anything when I was drafted," Santos said. "I didn't have an agent and the scout who signed me was just starting to work as a scout. Everything was new to me. After I started playing, I found out guys drafted lower than me got signing bonuses and some guys got $30,000 or $40,000."
Santos didn't have that nest egg. So his wife, Jessica, worked as a waitress in their hometown of Kane'ohe to help make ends meet and they leaned on the credit cards for the rest.
Jessica assured him that they would make it work.
It was only after ascending to the high minors did Santos begin making a comfortable salary.
(The major-league minimum is $316,000 and Santos will receive a prorated portion of that depending on amount of days in the majors.)
A few years ago, Santos moved his wife and daughter to be with him in Omaha, the Royals' Triple-A affiliate. But the writing was on the wall when Santos didn't play the final month of last season.
He became a six-year free agent. That's when he received a call from another familiar voice.
Lenn Sakata remembered Santos from when he would drop by Kahala Field. Over the winter, Sakata, a Kalani grad and former major leaguer, would tutor young players who desired to learn. Santos was one of those young players, and he credits Sakata with helping him learn to play the infield.
Sakata, now the manager of the Giants' Single-A affiliate at San Jose, suggested that Santos look at signing with the Giants. Lance Niekro was the opening-day first baseman, but he didn't have an established track record and the Giants had few upper-level first basemen in the system.
Santos would get a chance to play every day at Triple-A Fresno, and possibly get a shot in the big leagues if the breaks went his way. Niekro struggled at the plate and with injuries, and the Giants optioned him to Fresno on Sunday.
"I finally got the break I was looking for," Santos said. "Lenn Sakata is the best and I love him. He made me the infielder I am today."
Santos missed most of spring training with a strained muscle in his side, but he returned in time to start the season at Fresno. At the time of his call-up, he was leading all Giants minor leaguers in home runs (12) and RBIs (63).
"He's earned his way here," Giants GM Brian Sabean said. "It's a classic example of one guy earning his way here and the other guy earning his way back to the minor leagues. That's as simple as I can put it."
Santos might not be a long-term solution. Niekro remains the incumbent and is expected back once he finds his swing. And the Giants are rabidly searching for a first baseman on the trade market. Sean Casey, Craig Wilson, Shea Hillenbrand, Phil Nevin or Javy Lopez could arrive any day.
But for now, the 5-foot-11, 220-pound Santos will split time with Mark Sweeney.
Giants manager Felipe Alou is hoping that Santos' left-handed bat will help the club.
"He can hit a fastball and he is an excellent fielder at first base," said Alou, though Santos made an error in his first start Monday. "He is a smaller guy but we know he can hit for power. We liked him in spring training. He's a tough kid."
Santos has a softer side, though. He has a name tattooed on his left arm: Kaluhiokalani. It's the traditional middle name his wife and daughter share.
Both were there for his debut, and his parents will be in San Francisco this weekend.
"Oh, man, I don't think you have enough paper in that notebook," said Santos, asked to describe his emotions. "I still can't believe it. It's slowly sinking in. It's all worth it to be able to share this with my family."