Norwalk Reflector: HAZELWOOD: Cleveland truly 'home sweet home' for slugger Carlos Santana
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HAZELWOOD: Cleveland truly 'home sweet home' for slugger Carlos Santana

Mark Hazelwood • Updated Jul 10, 2019 at 4:18 AM

CLEVELAND — The whole day was a surreal scene.

Just looking at the schedule on Monday for Carlos Santana was enough to need a nap. Yet the Cleveland Indians’ first baseman said that while he was sleepy, he also felt like he was dreaming.

Santana — who started in Tuesday night’s MLB All-Star Game at Progressive Field — wanted to embrace a day he had assumed wasn’t going to come.

“This is what I wanted before I retired,” Santana said at a media conference prior to the Home Run Derby. “This is my dream. I’m excited. I’m happy.”

As an All-Star for the first time in his 10th season at the age of 33, one thing was clear on Monday: Everyone was on Carlos time.

The local star of the 90th Mid-Summer Classic, Santana became the first Indians player to start at first base in 20 years (Jim Thome, 1999). His first All-Star selection comes in a year Cleveland served as the host venue.

He began his day at an autograph signing. He was taking pictures and talking to fans, which included holding babies for photos and giving out batting tips to younger kids — along with game-used bats, gloves and shoes.

From there, Santana had one of the biggest media crowds around him at an afternoon press conference at the Convention Center. He then got shuttled back to Progressive Field, where he got in uniform, took more photos — and did another press conference as one of the eight participants in the Home Run Derby.

His every move was cheered throughout the buildup to the Derby, and every swing he took in the event itself. He was edged out in the opening round by eventual winner, Pete Alonso (New York Mets), 14-13.

But the fact Santana was ever in such a position on Monday is still hard to fathom. He debuted in June 2010 as a much-hyped prospect, acquired two years earlier from the Los Angeles Dodgers for Casey Blake.

Over his first full five seasons in Cleveland, Santana batted just .244 and mostly became a pull hitter — but always had solid power numbers, averaging 31 doubles, 22 home runs and 80 RBIs.

Coming up through the ranks as a catcher, he struggled with the position at the big-league level, leading to some growing pains and an eventual shift to first base.

It was a fitting symmetry with the team, as the Indians were up and down throughout his tenure. They struggled through 2010-12; shocked everyone with a Wild Card game appearance in 2013 — then couldn’t quite do enough to get back to October in 2014 or 2015.

But when the Indians shocked everyone by winning the American League pennant in 2016, it was fittingly Santana, one of the key building blocks through lean times, who caught the final out and left us the lasting image of his arms wide open looking to the sky.

The following week, it was Santana volunteering to play left field in Game 3 of the World Series at Wrigley Field in Chicago. He had never played the position before, or even practiced it — but was going to do everything to help his team and stay in the lineup with no designated hitter available.

On the final day of May in 2010, I had the opportunity to interview Santana in a one-on-one setting in Columbus — his last such interview before he was promoted to Cleveland.

He arrived late that day, too — only to give me a look at him alone in the batting cages less than 30 minutes before a Triple-A game with the Clippers. The unmistakable sound of the bat crack is something I’ll never forget.

It sounded like a player who could become an All-Star. Maybe even an all-time Indian.

On Tuesday, he batted cleanup and was an All-Star in his home city. This came after he left Cleveland for Philadelphia, just like Thome did 15 years earlier, for a lucrative, three-year contract for $60 million.

Yet he was unhappy in Philadelphia, and it showed with a dip in numbers — and the smashing of a television after tired of his teammates playing video games in the home clubhouse.

Santana was traded to Seattle in December, then days later, the Mariners traded him back to Cleveland for Edwin Encarnacion, while Tampa Bay was brought in as a third team that saw an exchange of Yandy Diaz for Jake Bauers.

After befriending neighborhood Cleveland police officers during his years in Cleveland, Santana famously never sold his house.

He moved right back in with his family like they had never left — and it’s shown in every possible way imaginable.

On the field, Santana will enter Friday hitting .297 while leading the Indians with 19 home runs and 52 RBIs. He has 17 doubles and 64 walks, and has posted a .958 On-Base/Slugging Percentage (OPS).

He’s reached base safely in 29 consecutive games — the longest current streak in the MLB — and 47 of his last 48 games. Santana ranks second in the AL in OPS, OBP, and wRC+ — only to the great Mike Trout from the Angels.

While the Indians opened the season with names such as Eric Stamets, Max Moroff, Brad Miller, Hanley Ramirez and Carlos Gonzalez in the lineup — while battling through injuries to the pitching staff — Santana has been the steady rock in the lineup.

Off the field, he further endeared himself to the community by taking and passing his U.S. Citizenship test — and was sworn in as a U.S. citizen on April 19.

Are those things all tied together? There is no question.

“Last year, I had a hard season and I learned a lot,” Santana said. “It’s hard because it was a little difficult for me to play with a new team, new friends, new manager. I played for a long time with the Cleveland Indians. It affected me, a little bit. But I’m happy to come back.”

If he plays out next season’s final year on his contract in Cleveland, Santana’s trajectory in the career record books will show him as a legendary figure for the Tribe.

He’s currently 24th in team history in career hits, and will likely be in the top 20 by the end of the season. Santana is also 20th in runs scored, 11th in doubles, ninth in home runs, 15th in RBIs and third in career walks as an Indian — a franchise that dates back to 1901.

Santana will only to continue to climb those ranks in the next year-plus, and has appeared in 21 postseason games for Cleveland — including the aforementioned 2016 World Series.

The Dominican Republic native has embraced Cleveland as his home. On Tuesday, he received a raucous ovation as an All-Star in the city.

It took leaving — just for a year — to realize what it meant to him. Unlike Thome, who returned to Cleveland for six weeks in the twilight of his career eight years later in 2011, Santana got to quickly return and make an impact.

It’s hard to imagine where the Indians (50-38) would be without Santana’s career year to date in 2019. Meanwhile, he no longer wants to imagine himself anywhere else. 

“This year, I’m feeling more comfortable and I’m happy to come back to my sweet home,” Santana said. “I’ve tried to enjoy every game, every moment. ... It’s a special to be traded and come back. I’m happy, and that’s why I’m playing great.”

“It’s exciting. It’s emotional,” he added. "Especially since it’s here. It’s something special. After 10 years, I’m making my first All-Star team. I’m proud of that.”

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