Many of the kids from Newark’s North Ward Center Little League program who traveled to Yankee Stadium Friday night wore their Yankee shirts and hats and cheered loudly for their favorite players – Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriquez and Derek Jeter.
But there was one player on the visiting Chicago White Sox who would have received the loudest cheer if he had taken the mound.
The two bus loads of kids had come to Yankee Stadium for one reason: to show their support for Hector Santiago, a relief pitcher for the Sox who not only grew up in Newark’s North Ward, but played for the same Little League program where the kids are currently honing their baseball skills.
“All of Yankee Stadium would have known we were in the house if the Sox brought Santiago in to pitch,” said Rashard Casey, the director of The North Ward Center’s Youth Development and Recreation program. “The kids were thrilled to see him throwing in the bullpen in the greatest baseball stadium in Major League Baseball.”
In the four-game series between the Yanks and Sox, Santiago was called to pitch during Thursday’s game, where he picked up a win after striking out Yankee sluggers Rodriquez and Cano.
After Saturday’s day game, Santiago came to The North Ward Center’s recreational complex at St. Lucy’s, where he was welcomed as a hometown hero by his family and friends as well as former coaches and kids from The North Ward Center’s Little League.
Santiago’s father, Hector Sr., beamed proudly as his son walked around the crowded gym at St. Lucy’s, posing for pictures and signing autographs. Hector Sr., who has seen his son play before at other MLB stadiums, said seeing his son play at Yankee Stadium Thursday night made it all a reality.
“I’ve gone everywhere since he made the majors,” Santiago said. “But when I went to see him at Yankee Stadium, I suddenly realized that, wow, my son is at Yankee Stadium on the mound. I had goose bumps.”
Santiago, who was drafted by the Sox in the 30th round in 2006, was playing for the Birmingham Barons, the Sox farm team, when he received the call up to the Majors one year ago. His younger brother, Anthony, was recently picked up by the Sox and is currently playing for their advance rookie team in Bristol, Virginia.
Louis Vadi, who coached Santiago’s 11-12-year-old All Star Team fielded by The North Ward Center, said Santiago was not the best player on the field, but what separated him from the other kids was his work ethic.
“We had kids with more talent, but nobody was as hard working as he was,” Vadi said. “As a coach, I never had to ask him to do anything. Hector and his brother, Anthony, just did the extra work. They are both good kids.”
Santiago said he knew he wanted to be a professional baseball player from the time he was 10 years old. But to get there, he also knew he had to stay in school, stay out of trouble, and focus on getting better.
“If you are going to take it seriously, you have to put your heart and everything into it,” Santiago said. “Other people that played told me to work hard and be positive. I knew I had to run, go to the gym, I had to throw. I played 24-7. I seriously slept baseball. I woke up in the morning and had a ball in my hand. I would toss it up to the ceiling to see if I could get it straight, get it to rotate backwards.”
Owen Santiago, 13, who plays baseball in The North Ward Center’s Little League and attends the Ridge Street School, said it was an honor to meet Santiago.
“I look up to him,” said Santiago, who is not related. “I would love to be like him.”
Stephen N. Adubato, the founder of The North Ward Center, said he never dreamed when he started the Youth Development and Recreation program in the 1970s that it would produce a Major League Baseball player.
“Our goal was to give Newark kids an opportunity to participate in a healthy activity, where they could learn about the importance of teamwork and dedication,” Adubato said. “Having Hector in Major League Baseball is a bonus. He is an example for all kids in Newark. It shows that if they work hard, they can achieve anything.”
Adrianne Davis, the executive director of The North Ward Center, said she is proud of Hector’s athletic accomplishments, but even prouder of him for remembering his roots.
“Hector really is the Pride of the North Ward,” Davis said.