Anthony Santander beamed Sunday afternoon when his name was called out by thousands of fans at Camden Yards, a charming moment for a player whose performance should have Orioles fans embracing him the way the British scouts did in left field.
It was a familiar smile to Roger Santander and Yoleida Arrieche, who sat behind home plate and thought of all the times their son’s baseball career required him to smile in solitude, thousands of miles from home.
“They know all the things I had to go through, all the sacrifices I had to make,” Santander said through interpreter Ramón Alarcón. “I’m finally getting some results. They’re very happy for what’s going on here.”
“We feel so proud for him,” Roger Santander said. “It’s such a joy to see him play well, and do well, and be able to help his team. Anthony is someone who works really hard to achieve his goals, and we’re just happy to see that he’s doing well.”
This visit from Anthony Santander’s family came in a week when the 24-year-old Venezuelan outfielder continued to solidify himself as one of the early success stories of the Orioles’ rebuild. He entered Thursday’s day off batting .297 with nine home runs and an .840 OPS, all while learning center field on the fly and exhibiting offensive consistency only seen in these parts from Trey Mancini.
For Santander, it’s all long-owed dividends for a journey from the Venezuelan village of Agua Blanca, one that would have been trying under the best circumstances but was more so for him.
“Leaving your home at 14 years old is never easy,” Santander said. “I had to make that decision so I could prepare for professionalism, so I could have the opportunity to get signed. That’s always tough.
"And once you’re a professional and have the opportunity to move to the upper levels and come to the States and play in the minor leagues, that’s also a challenge. At the very beginning, I had some injuries, so I had to spend a lot of time here by myself, without having my family.”
Before he left, he was an avid athlete who was best at baseball but also played volleyball and liked basketball more than anything else. The major league comparisons for his career were always to be like Victor Martínez, but he idolized Miguel Cabrera — and “Su majestad,” Michael Jordan — more.
After he left, he became a well-regarded hitter when the Cleveland Indians signed him in July 2011, and his status as a promising piece of the organization was solidified when they jumped him straight to the domestic leagues in 2012. He hit .305 with an .874 OPS as a 17-year-old in the Rookie-level Arizona League, but elbow injuries kept him from replicating that success over the next two seasons at Low-A Lake County.
Minor league baseball injuries are often rehabilitated at a team’s spring training facility, which for a teenage Santander meant a lot of time in Goodyear, Ariz.
“He had to go through multiple surgeries to overcome that,” Arrieche said. “Spent a lot of time in the States without his family.”
By the time he hit .290 with an .862 OPS and 20 home runs for Lynchburg in the High-A Carolina League, he was already set to be eligible for the Rule 5 draft that winter. Even though he had surgery on his right shoulder that offseason, the Orioles took a chance anyway. He was slingshot to the majors, but that came with its own set of complications.
“I knew it was going to be difficult because when they picked me, I’d undergone surgery,” Santander said in a portion of the interview he conducted in English. “But I kept positive, and I worked that offseason to get ready for spring training and show them what kind of player I was at that moment. Thank God, I had a good spring. I showed them that I can play baseball and be aggressive. They decided to keep me.”
The decision to keep him in the spring of 2017 proved complicated. He only was a designated hitter that spring, and as camp wore on his long-standing elbow soreness reappeared.
He ended up rehabbing and finishing his shoulder recovery for several months at the team facility in Sarasota, Fla., before playing in rehab games in late July. Santander said his major league debut Aug. 18, 2017 — when the Orioles had to add him to the roster — was “one of the greatest moments of my life."
“I had a lot of tough moments,” he said.
Santander hit .267 in limited playing time that year as the Orioles collapsed down the stretch, but credited the mentorship of Adam Jones, Jonathan Schoop and Manny Machado for showing him how to approach life in the big leagues.
He came to 2018 spring training leaner after working with then-Orioles vice president Brady Anderson to change his body and began to fashion himself into a much more capable defender. The Rule 5 requirements meant he had to spend seven weeks on the Orioles’ roster at the beginning of 2018, and Colby Rasmus’ early injury meant he became the everyday right fielder early in the season.
The level overwhelmed him, though. He hit .198 with a .547 OPS before he was able to go to the minors. It didn’t go much better there, but he was at least back to an age-appropriate level and didn’t have the pressures of major league performance on his back.
He went back to play with Tigres de Aragua in the Venezuelan Winter League and finished strong after a slow start, which he believed set him up for the good impression he made this spring.
“That really helped me to compete once spring training started,” Santander said. “Once spring training started, I was already in good shape. I was ready to play, but I think I was also ready to compete, which was the difference.”
In Sarasota, he lived with fellow Venezuelan Renato Núñez. He learned Santander ate a lot, putting strain on their chef. And he learned his roommate had good perspective on what would have been disappointing for anyone else — he hit .333 with plenty of power in spring training, but was sent to minor league camp early, told to get some Triple-A experience.
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He accepted that challenge, homered in a one-game major league cameo May 1 at the Chicago White Sox, and returned June 7 after Dwight Smith Jr.'s concussion. He’s hit consistently in the two months since, and over the past month has done so more authoritatively.
Orioles manager Brandon Hyde and his staff have helped bring out the best in Santander, with a staff and roster that’s made him more comfortable in the majors and allowed him to show his personality. Hyde loved watching Santander interacting with the fans, with the outfielder whooping up the crowd and giving out baseballs with his grin visible from the dugout — and his parents’ seats behind home plate.
That’s not all Hyde has learned to love about his new everyday outfielder.
“I love his swing from both sides of the plate,” Hyde said. “I like the way he covers the plate, I like the way he can drive the ball out to all fields. I think he’s got a really balanced swing and balanced setup, and like there’s not a whole lot of movement. It’s a simple swing, stays through the ball really well.