Ervin Santana — known then as Johan — was 17 when he pitched for the Angels in the fall instructional league in October 2000, one month after he signed for a $700,000 bonus.
Ervin Santana’s second start since his recall from Salt Lake wasn’t as dominant as his first last Friday at Boston, but then that was probably one of the more dominant starts of the year by any pitcher so he wasn’t likely to repeat it.
The question was whether Ervin would be able to maintain his composure and his focus against Toronto as well as he did before, and he did — for a while.
Santana retired the side in order in the 1st, striking out Lyle Overbay. In the 2nd, Frank Thomas got him for a single but Santana shut them down, striking out Troy Glaus. The Blue Jays went in order in the 3rd, with Reed Johnson striking out for the final out.
So far, so good.
Overbay walked to lead off the bottom of the 4th, and then with one out Vernon Wells doubled to center. Howie Kendrick made a hideous and ill-advised throw trying to stop Overbay from scoring, so Wells advanced to third.
I think that was the critical play, because after that Santana seemed to lose his focus.
Frank Thomas singled in Wells, then Santana recorded fly outs on the next two batters to end the inning, and still had a 3-2 lead.
In the 5th, Santana got a fly out and then a ground out, but with two away Reed Johnson singled and Lyle Overbay doubled him to third. Pitching coach Mike Butcher came to the mound, but Ervin then gave up a double to Matt Stairs that scored Johnson and Overbay. 4-3 Blue Jays. With Wells at the plate, Santana threw a wild pitch that advanced Stairs to third, and catcher Ryan Budde made a bad throw that sailed into left field to score stairs. 5-3 Blue Jays.
Ervin allowed only a single in the 6th, and struck out Ray Olmedo for his final out, but the damage had been done.
Most folks I’ve read have given Ervin mixed reviews. Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times summed it up with this observation:
Ervin Santana has had better starts, and as anyone who has watched the enigmatic right-hander this season knows, he has had worse starts. Far worse.
But Santana’s starts are only part of the story.
The other story, as far as the press is concerned, is the press.
As I wrote last Saturday, a feud has been building between Santana and the Angels beat writers. Apparently the stories they’ve written about his struggles have been affecting his confidence, and he refused to speak in English to the reporters after last Friday’s win.
A story by Times reporter Dylan Hernandez in Thursday’s edition revealed that Ervin believed the sportswriters were making up stories about him.
But if there is one part of Santana that still hasn’t been fixed, it’s his growing discomfort with the media.
"They’re all bad, they’re all bad, they’re all bad," he said. "I was happy in triple A. I was happy because nobody bothered me."
Santana said that when he has spoken to reporters, he has often seen them scribbling in their notebooks before he says anything.
"They write things I don’t say," Santana said.
He wouldn’t specify when or where he was misquoted.
Orange County Register beat writer Bill Plunkett wrote in his blog on Tuesday that the matter seems to be a cultural misunderstanding.
This goes beyond a player deciding that his problems were caused not by the fact that he stunk — but by the fact that we reported he stunk.
It’s no coincidence that the other Cold War this season was also between the beat writers and another Latin player, shortstop Orlando Cabrera. Cabrera wouldn’t speak to us for a few weeks in June.
In that case, language wasn’t the issue. Cabrera is an intelligent man who speaks English very well (better than some of the American players I’ve dealt with) and challenges himself to expand his vocabulary in his second language.
But there is also a cultural barrier that came into play in both situations. Bridging that divide can be every bit as difficult as the language barrier — and result in just as many misunderstandings. Santana is scheduled to pitch again Thursday. It will be interesting to see if he relies on Griffin (or Mota) again — or if he feels he made his point.
If he thinks using an interpreter will shield him from misinterpretation, he’s wrong. It only creates another layer where things can get misunderstood.
But the most astonishing reaction of all came in the blog written by Riverside Press-Enterprise beat writer Matt Hurst.
A disclaimer — Matt granted an interview for FutureAngels.com Radio last spring, and has positively mentioned FutureAngels.com several times in his blog, so we have some reciprocal admiration. I graduated from U.C. Riverside, and the P-E remains my favorite local paper. Riverside is like a home town for me. Those who’ve lived in Riverside have a certain special pride about the town, something you wouldn’t understand unless you’ve had a chance to appreciate all its quiet little treasures.
In short, when it comes to Matt and the P-E, I’m biased.
Nonetheless, I was shocked to read Matt’s diatribe in Thursday’s blog.
He called Ervin a "spoiled brat" for granting an interview to "a non-beat writer," as if Santana somehow owes the beat writers special privileges. He also wrote that Ervin "is rarely quoted even if he does well because he never says anything worthy of the space in the newspaper."
Ervin, here’s some advice, take responsibility for your actions. Don’t pawn off the blame on someone else. And if you have a problem with us beat writers tell us, don’t spout off to someone else unaware of the beef you have with the media.
Matt’s comments reminded me of another baseball player who had a cultural misunderstanding with beat writers.
As fictionally depicted in Billy Crystal’s HBO movie 61*, Maris was mercilessly savaged by the New York press as he raced Mickey Mantle to break Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record. Mantle was popular with the press because he was glib and colorful, and he was wildly popular with Yankees fans so articles about the Mick were guaranteed to sell papers. Maris was a quiet family man from Fargo, North Dakota who was totally out of his element in New York City. Not only was he chasing one Yankee legend in Ruth, but he was also threatening to steal the spotlight from Mantle. Heaven forbid that a shy man of small words be the story, because short and boring quotes don’t sell many papers.
So as Maris took the lead in the home run record derby, the New York media took on a pack mentality, hoping to pressure Roger into collapse so Mantle could break the record.
At least Maris had the advantage of growing up in the American culture where English was his native language and he got a decent education. Worst-case scenario, if his baseball career ended he went back to North Dakota and probably got a job as a plumber or truck driver or whatever.
Ervin’s background is far more humble.
When the Angels signed him for $700,000 in September 2000, he was known as Johan. He was thought to be 16 years old; Ervin had used a younger brother’s birth certificate and was actually eleven months older. But you do things like that when you’re dirt poor, lived half-starved for most of your young life and got no real education in a country with a corrupt government.
Which is probably why he distrusts our media. In his country, the government had a rich history under dictator Rafael Trujillo of controlling the press. Trujillo established a secret police force called the SIM (Military Intelligence Service) to control the press, bribe businessmen, and create a climate of fear among Dominicans. Although Trujillo was assassinated in 1961, a cursory Google search suggests that the government remains corrupt and the press heavily censored.
Now, if it were ingrained in you as a child not to trust the press lest you might be jailed (or worse), are you going to trust the Angels beat writers?
Which is probably why he granted an interview to Dylan Hernandez (who is presumably Hispanic). Ervin probably felt he could trust more someone of Latin heritage.
Dominican players carry a lot of pressure on their shoulders. That paycheck feeds a very large extended family, if not a neighborhood and maybe even a small town. If the player fails, he goes home and picks sugar cane for the rest of his life, which will probably be shorter than the typical American’s due to the absence of any decent health care.
Maybe if a beat writer spent a few days living in squalid conditions in a country where he can be imprisoned for saying the wrong thing to a "reporter" who’s actually with the government’s intelligence agency, he might think twice about calling a struggling naive player a "spoiled brat."