Albert Pujols has a certain regal bearing, an air of authority that is so forceful, Hector Santiago was reluctant to approach him, even when they were Angels teammates. “He’s just hard-core,” Santiago said. “Albert has a presence about him, and you just have too much respect to bother him.”
So when he spotted a pair of Pujols-autographed spikes at a silent auction in 2014, Santiago jumped at the opportunity. He bid $650, which he considered a lot for someone on minimum salary, but didn’t come close to the eventual winning bid of $2,500.
That bid paid off, though. The next day, Santiago casually mentioned to his three-time MVP teammate that he had tried to buy his shoes, which Pujols found hilarious. “He said, ‘No, bro, just come on over and I’ll give you a pair,’ ” Santiago said. “‘All you have to do is ask.’ ”
It’s a lesson well learned, because asking isn’t a problem for the affable Twins lefthander anymore. Like the hordes of autograph seekers who surround every dugout in the majors, Santiago is admittedly a little star-struck by pro athletes, a little dazzled by superstars, a little passionate about collecting souvenirs. But he’s an absolute lunatic about displaying them.
The basement of Santiago’s home in the western suburbs of Phoenix looks like a sports bar on “Hoarders,” a densely packed Cooperstown starter kit. The length of one room is covered with bats, like a spine supporting the house. A row of football helmets crowns one room, and boxing gloves dangle from a series of hooks. There are baseballs, certainly, but also basketballs and footballs, soccer balls and volleyballs, even a couple of hockey pucks. Each one is autographed by a successful, famous, often championship athlete, most of them inscribed to Santiago personally.
And the jerseys. Oh, the jerseys. Splashy and vibrant and frequently pinstriped, the meticulously framed sportswear blanket the walls of four rooms. They snake down a hallway and up the stairway, and they evoke baseball history in a way that delights their owner. “A lot of people collect autographed baseballs, or baseball cards, and that’s cool. That’s how I started,” Santiago said. “But to me, the jerseys seem more personal. You can picture all these great players wearing them. And they’re really colorful.”
• • •
Santiago wasn’t much of a collector as a kid growing up in New Jersey, unless you count Pokemon cards (which he’s pretty sure his mom still has, somewhere). And it never occurred to him to document his rise through pro baseball with souvenirs, not as a 30th-round draft pick who seemed a long shot to reach the major leagues.
But when he arrived in Chicago in 2011, he reacted like any eager baseball fan would: Astonished by his big-league surroundings, he reveled in his access — as a peer! — to people and places and events he had only read, or dreamed, about. He wanted something to help him remember it all.
He started asking players — teammates at first, then a couple of opponents he knew from the minors, eventually such stars as Mariano Rivera and David Ortiz — to autograph baseballs. Then one day, someone asked White Sox teammate Paul Konerko to autograph a jersey, and Santiago was inspired.
“That just seemed way cooler. And I thought, ‘Why not have a room at home with all the guys I played with on the wall?’ ” Santiago said. So he asked teammates to sign jerseys to him, some with entertaining messages. “Jesse Crain wrote, ‘Keep crushing that sugar!’ I guess I ate a lot of candy,” Santiago said. “Pretty soon I had all of my buddies, and I started getting into it. I saved up my meal money and used it to buy other teams’ jerseys, and when guys would come to town, I’d run into them in the outfield and say, ‘Mind signing something for me?’ And everyone said, ‘Sure, just send it over to the clubhouse.’ ”
The result is a name-dropper’s dream. Mike Trout, Joe Mauer, Josh Hamilton, David Price, Derek Jeter. Miguel Cabrera, whose signature is spiked with “Triple Crown / MVP.” Andrew McCutchen, Buster Posey, Josh Donaldson — yes, if you’ve won an MVP, Santiago wants your jersey. Or even if you haven’t.
“I got a little obsessed with it pretty fast. Well, I wouldn’t say obsessed, but when you buy a house, you want a room to celebrate what you’ve accomplished,” Santiago said. “For a while there, I was getting two or three a day sometimes. I’d buy jerseys before every homestand of the teams coming in.”
• • •
Virtually nobody turned him down, but there were some awkward moments. When the Yankees came to town, his Alex Rodriguez jersey hadn’t arrived, “so I was going to ask A-Rod for a bat. But I faced him the first day and I wound up hitting him,” Santiago said. “Oh, man. So the next day, I ran out on the field, and he was there, and I said, ‘Hey, I wasn’t trying to hit you, bro.’ And he said, ‘No, we’re good.’ So before he could walk away, I just said, ‘But I wanted to ask you if you’d sign a bat.’ That was probably a little weird.”
Rodriguez obliged, and was probably not surprised when Santiago had another request a couple of years later. He had a Yankees jersey by then but asked Rodriguez to sign a Rangers jersey as well. Except, he accidentally ordered a No. 7 jersey — Pudge Rodriguez, not Alex. “He said, ‘I can sign it,’ ” Santiago said with a laugh, “ ‘but it’s not mine.’ ”
Santiago’s baseball memorabilia collection grew, but the rocket fuel for his mini museum was provided by his trade to the Angels for the 2014 season. Southern California venues attract a stream of celebrities, and the team frequently asked them to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. But players are often reluctant to serve as catchers for them.
Not Santiago, who volunteered — as he has in Minnesota, too — to catch them every day, at least when he’s not pitching. That’s how he met football star Warren Moon, soccer star Landon Donovan, basketball star J.J. Redick and a virtual Hall of Fame of baseball players. Santiago collected signatures from them all.
Reggie Jackson wrote a motivational message in both numbers of his “44.” Sandy Koufax wanted to sign the front of his jersey, not the nameplate, because he liked that it said “Brooklyn.” Rollie Fingers signed a brown-and-gold Padres uniform. Wade Boggs, Barry Larkin, and even Paul Molitor on a Brewers No. 4.
Bo Jackson wouldn’t sign the first time Santiago asked, nor the second, but eventually he autographed an Auburn helmet. Santiago has Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. uniforms on hand, waiting for his path to cross with theirs. And his appointment to the All-Star Game in 2015 was a blast, but also a missed opportunity; he was named on the Sunday before Tuesday’s game, and had no time to stock up on jerseys to sign.
• • •
As his collection expanded, so did his eagerness to put it on display. He first turned his basement den into a museum, then the theater room he built, with the walls painted black “so the jerseys really pop.” There’s one wall, the “Hector wall,” featuring every uniform he’s ever worn in the major leagues, including throwback-day jerseys. (He’s making room for his Puerto Rico jersey from this month’s World Baseball Classic.)
A bedroom was next, then hallways. He removed doors from cabinets, turning them into display cases for the helmets and balls and boxing gloves he had collected. His wife, Esther, and stepdaughter Kamilah love his enthusiasm for his hobby — but limit him to the basement.
“She gets to decorate the rest of the house. For now,” he said. “I’ve got a few jerseys upstairs, but you can only see them from the stairs.”
In all, Santiago said he estimates there are 850 autographed items in his home, including roughly 300 baseball jerseys — so many that dozens hang on a rack in one room, like a sporting-goods warehouse. There are dozens of basketball and football jerseys — Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, LeBron James, Emmitt Smith, the list goes on — close to 100 bats, 50 pairs of shoes, and more. It’s all uncataloged, though his agent keeps suggesting he do an inventory. And no, he doesn’t know what it’s all worth, though he concedes, “jerseys are expensive, even with a [ballplayers’] discount.”
But space, not cost, is the real problem, he said. Which is why the floor is the future, Santiago believes: thick, transparent plexiglass from wall to wall, turning every inch of space underfoot into room for dozens, perhaps hundreds, more uniforms. “I’m thinking about it, but you want to make sure before you go digging up your basement,” Santiago said. “But it would look pretty great, wouldn’t it?”