Nelson Santovenia was one of the good guys in when I knew him from my days as an Montreal Expos’ beat writer.
Kind, unassuming, polite were just a few words to describe him.
He hasn’t changed.
Santovenia was one of those prospect-type players the Expos discovered out of two post-high school institutions. He’s a trivia item of sorts: he may have been the only player drafted twice by the Expos. It isn’t often a player is drafted twice by the same team.
Santovenia had first caught the eye of the Expos when he was a catcher at Miami-Dade College. So what did they do? They selected him in the third round of the 1981 draft but he didn’t sign.
“I guess I wanted to play another year of college. I had a scholarship to the University of Miami,’’ Santovenia was saying the other day about not signing with the Expos the first time.
So a year later after he had switched to the U of M, he was selected a second time by the Expos in the first round of the draft’s secondary phase. This time, Santovenia signed with the Expos and received a $30,000 US signing bonus, not bad considering that Larry Walker received a mere $1,500 when he signed in 1984.
It took a few years before Santovenia really opened up the eyes of the Expos’ brass. From 1982-86, Santovenia even admits that his pro career had become sluggish with middling results and he noticed that other catching prospects were bypassing him. Then the winter of 1986-1987 rolled around.
“Actually, I went into that off season thinking that was going to be the year where I pretty much said to myself that if I keep struggling and not having success, that I was really planning to give it up,’’ Santovenia said. “It was my sixth year with the organization and a coupla players had kinda passed me. I was not an everyday catcher and I had to wait my turn. I had to prove myself at a higher level or that was going to be it. It paid off. They gave me a chance.’’
That chance was with the Jacksonville Expos, a talent-stacked team of future Expos in Double-A. They were nicknamed the Jaxspos. Walker played on that team. So did Randy Johnson, Rangers’ castoff George Wright, John Dopson, Rex Hudler, Brian Holman and the list goes on.
Santovenia’s contribution was pretty heady: .279 BA, 19 homers, 63 RBI in only 117 games. To cap that wonderful season off, Santovenia got The Call in September.
“I have goosebumps on my body telling the story,’’ Santovenia said. “ManagerTommy Thompson called me in and gave me the news. The Expos had purchased my contract and I was being called up to the big leagues. It was one of the most exciting moments of my career.’’
Santovenia could never live up to those Jacksonville days in his short tenure with the Expos, although he did hit eight homers in 1988. He spent time with the Expos from 1988-1991 with sporadic success. He was released by the Expos at the winter meetings in 1991 and subsequently had cups of tea with the White Sox and Kansas City before packing it in at age 32 in 1993. Knee problems didn’t help.
Subsequently in order to help his wife Nancy pay bills and raise their two sons Nelson Jr. and Anthony, Santovenia elected to go and work for his brother-in-law in the not-so glamorous underground construction business, something he did for 13 years from 1996-2009. In 2008, he was hurt by the economic crisis that affected the world but he was fortunate enough to keep the house he has had since 1990 by refinancing it with a loan modification.
“I’m one of those guys hanging in there. It’s an OK life. I still own a nice house and building equity,’’ he said.
For several years, Santovenia worked with former major-league pitcher Alex Fernandez at a baseball school in Miami and he helped out coaching a high school team.
“Four years ago, I got my foot back in the door. I’m living my dream again,’’ Santovenia was saying the other day, an off-day that he used to shoot a round of golf which he does a lot with his favourite Expos’ mate, Andres Galarraga.
Santovenia is the hitting coach for the Detroit Tigers’ Class-A team in Lakeland, Fla. And of course, he’s hoping to make it the majors with Detroit with the GM who brought him to Montreal, that being Dave Dombrowski. This is Santovenia’s fourth season in the Tigers’ organization, his first in Lakeland following Larry Herndon’s retirement as hitting coach.
Santovenia was born in Cuba and was fortunate to move at age five in 1966 to the U.S. following the Fidel Castro invasion to be with an uncle who was in the U.S. army based in Fullerton, Calif. He moved off the Caribbean island with his mother Caridad, father Antonio, sisters Mirta and Alyeda and brother Luis. Later, the family would spend time in the Boston area before moving to Miami.
That was all one nice stroke of luck to escape the communist regime.
So was getting drafted by the Expos.
So was the opportunity to be called up to the majors by the Expos.
So was the opportunity to get working with the Tigers.
Next opportunity, Santovenia hopes, a job in the majors as a hitting coach.
“That would be nice with Detroit or any club. I would love to be in the majors,’’ he said.