Ramon Santiago: Detroit Tigers' New Elder Statesman

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Ramon Santiago: Detroit Tigers' New Elder Statesman
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He is the most senior of Tigers, with the cashiering of Brandon Inge a couple weeks ago. He played for Luis Pujols and Alan Trammell. He experienced 43-119 as a starter and the World Series as a bench warmer.

He has, at times, enjoyed the same kind of popularity that the Lions’ backup quarterback has over the years—i.e. it’s sometimes better to be on the bench than in the game. You look more appealing to the fans that way.

He hits from both sides of the plate, as so many players like him do. But he doesn’t necessarily hit from either side terribly well, also keeping with his brethren.

He scores about 30 runs a year and drives in roughly the same amount. He hits a home run every full moon. Though he did once lead the league in…sacrifice hits.

He’s slick with the glove and let’s face it, that’s why he’s stayed in the big leagues every year since 2002.

Ramon Santiago is 32 years old—33 in August—and he’s your new elder statesman on the Tigers, now that Inge has found work in Oakland.

Going from Inge to Santiago in terms of Tigers seniority is like when ABC went from Howard Cosell to Fran Tarkenton in the Monday Night Football broadcast booth.

Everyone talked about Inge. Everyone had an opinion.

Ask a Tigers fan about Santiago and you’ll have your question answered with another question.

“Santiago? What about him?”

If Ramon Santiago were a country, he’d be Switzerland. If he were a jacket, he’d be a 40 regular. If he were a bandleader, he’d be Tommy Newsom.

Santiago’s act has played in Detroit since 2002, with only a two-year hiatus in Seattle (2004-05) in which he had a grand total of 47 at-bats for the Mariners. Speaking of Seattle, the Tigers made a whale of a trade when they dealt Santiago to the Mariners; they got Carlos Guillen in return. Even Santiago would tell you that was a steal.

The Mariners released him after the 2005 season and the Tigers snatched him up—kind of like when you find that old pair of shoes in the closet that you could have sworn you had gotten rid of—the comfy ones that you’re glad to again have in your possession.

Santiago never showed flashes of brilliance with the bat as Inge did. In fact, Santiago doesn’t really show flashes of anything except attendance in the dugout. A typical Santiago year is to dress for almost all of the 162 games, play in about two-thirds of them and actually bat in half of those.

His role is that of defensive replacement, and with the Tigers infield in recent years, that can mean a whole lot of replacing.

Santiago will start maybe once a week and it won’t be memorable with the bat. But, he’ll catch just about everything and make a few nifty plays in the field and all he’ll get is a pat on the rump and be told to stand by until he's needed again.

Such is the life of the big league benchwarmer.

When Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder or Austin Jackson arrive at the ballpark, they don’t even bother to look at the lineup card that’s taped on a wall near the Tigers locker room. Not only do they know they’re playing, they know where they’re batting.

It’s like the 1920s Yankees, who invented numbers on the backs of uniforms by virtue of where their players batted in the order, hence Babe Ruth being No. 3, Lou Gehrig No. 4.

Jackson bats leadoff, Cabrera third and Fielder fourth—every game.

When Santiago shuffles into the clubhouse, he could make a mint if he took wagers from fans, ushers and equipment kids on his way inside, as to whether he’s playing that night. But the odds would always be 1:3.

The most at-bats Santiago had in any given season was 2003’s atrocity, when he got into 141 games for the 43-119 Tigers, most of them starts at shortstop, and he registered 444 ABs. He still only scored 41 runs and drove in his 29 RBI, even with all the extra appearances. But he did lead the league with 18 sacrifice bunts.

For the next four years combined (2004-07), Santiago had a grand total of 194 at-bats. And it took him 102 games to get those.

Yet the next disgruntled word Santiago utters will be his first. He has shown as much emotion as he’s had playing time. I don’t know if he cusses, but I bet if he does, it’s the Spanish version of “Oh, darn.”

It has taken Santiago 10 years and over 1,800 at-bats to slug as many homers as Cabrera is likely to have by the end of August (25). But when “Santy,” as his teammates call him, knocks one out of the park, it’s a moment as rich with pleasant surprise as seeing a man win a fight with his wife.

If you’re a pitcher who’s surrendered a Ramon Santiago home run, it’s like being an adult duped out of a cookie by a toddler. Like the hare losing to the tortoise.

But it cannot be disputed that Santiago is the Tiger with the most seniority now. He’s the accidental elder statesman.

His teammates love him. They’ve gone on record. They rave about Santiago’s professionalism, his preparedness and his gentle, subtle mentoring of the younger Latin American players on the team.

At times in recent years, Santiago’s insertion into the lineup on a more regular basis has been suggested by a fan base frustrated with second base ever since the Tigers inexplicably let Placido Polanco walk away into free agency after the 2009 season.

As the team has tried the likes of Will Rhymes, Scott Sizemore, Danny Worth, Ryan Raburn and even Inge at second base, Santiago has been the backup and the fans have called for him—albeit in a “process of elimination” kind of way.

But the truth is that Ramon Santiago simply isn’t an everyday player. It wasn’t true when he was younger, and it certainly isn’t true as he approaches 33 years old. And there’s no crime in that.

This is Santiago’s 11th season in the big leagues and his ninth with the Tigers. He is the most senior baseball player in Detroit.

But I know what I’ll get if I ask you about No. 39.

“Santiago? What about him?”

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