How a third-base coach is shaping the Detroit Tigers' future

Evan Petzold
Detroit Free Press

Ramon Santiago waited three years to take this test. 

In recent weeks, he studied on the team bus by watching YouTube videos. Detroit Tigers team members and coaches enjoyed quizzing him about United States history in the dugout.

He's wanted to become a U.S. citizen since he gained permanent residency in 2012. Had it not been for the COVID-19 pandemic, he would have completed the test months ago.

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"I've been coming to the United States since I was 18 years old," Santiago, 41, said. "This country gave me so much over the years. I owe my career to this country. My kids and my wife, they were already citizens before me. They were born in the United States. So, for me, it was a very important step."

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Tigers designated hitter Miguel Cabrera fist-bumps third base coach Ramon Santiago during the first inning at Comerica Park on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020.

Santiago hails from the Dominican Republic and made his MLB debut for the Tigers as a 22-year-old in 2002. He played 10 of his 13 seasons in Detroit (2002-03, 2006-13) before joining the coaching staff in 2018. Tasked with molding the infield of the future, he sneaked out of Comerica Park on Sept. 9, hopped on a plane and flew to Miami to see his family and become a U.S. citizen.

The well-prepared Santiago passed the next day. His oath ceremony, which typically takes place a few months later, came 15 minutes after the completion the exam because of COVID-19 protocols. He became a U.S. citizen on the spot.

"They just want to get in, get out," Santiago said. "Not even taking pictures because people are gonna touch your phone and stuff like that. So, they pretty much do the ceremony and they say, 'See you later.'"

Get in and get out with no mistakes.

That's kind of been Santagio's mantra from the day he stepped foot in the majors. He played shortstop, second base and a little third base for three teams. Now, he's the Tigers' third base coach, defensive coordinator and a mentor to the rookies.

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"We got a really bright future," Santiago said. "For me, it's very exciting to come every day and work with these guys. I'm looking forward to making them better players and better on defense. That's my challenge."

Third base coach Ramon Santiago watches practice during Detroit Tigers spring training at TigerTown in Lakeland, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020.

Santiago wants them to get in and get out with no errors and smoothly working the shift as he directs them around the infield. He is the middle man between the analytics department and the product on the field — relaying information to players through an index card communication system.

Santiago has been greeted by three infield prospects, too: rookies Isaac Paredes and Sergio Alcantara and second-year shortstop Willi Castro, who only played 30 games in 2019. It's his job to turn them into major league defenders.

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"He helps me a lot," Castro said. "As I got to the organization, when I got traded, he was the first one to talk to me, 'Hey, anything you want, anything you need, I'm here for you (and) trying to make you better.'"

Santiago has been in their shoes, as well. He knows the challenges. 

'He was a treat'

His second opportunity with the Tigers came in 2006 and was guided by Placido Polanco and Carlos Guillen. Polanco played second base, Guillen handled shortstop and Santiago was their understudy.

But Jim Leyland, the manager from 2006-13, calls Santiago underrated.

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"I wouldn't say he had a bazooka, but he had an above-average arm and he had above average accuracy," Leyland told the Free Press last month. "For a utility guy, you want a defensive player. He was everything we could ask for. Plus, he got a big hit now and then for us. He was a treat. I'm happy to see his success."

Detroit Tigers Ramon Santiago snags a ground ball during the third inning of Game 4 of the ALDS Detroit Tigers vs. New York Yankees in Detroit on Tuesday, October 4,  2011.

One that comes to mind is June 13, 2011. The Tigers were tied against Tampa Bay Rays in the bottom of the 10th inning at Comerica Park when Santiago drove a triple to the deepest part of left-center field to score Victor Martinez from first base for a walk-off win. Another is when he crushed a walk-off homer two months later for a 2-1 win over the Kansas City Royals. 

Santiago is in the top 50 for all-time MLB fielding percentage at shortstop. There weren't many plays he didn't make.

"He was always a guy that you hoped that he would maybe have some interest in staying in the game because he was such a student of the game and very knowledgeable," Leyland said. "You were hoping he'd be one guy that would be willing to share that information with your players in your organization."

That's why the Cincinnati Reds picked him up for 75 games in 2014 to finish up his 13-year career. His last big-league at-bat was a walk-off grand slam in the 13th inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Cincinnati Reds shortstop Ramon Santiago (7) dives for a line drive off the bat of Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Travis Snider (23) during the first inning.

"I started thinking about (how) I wanted to give back to the game," Santiago said, "Give back to the young players the knowledge I got from the older guys and the experience I got playing."

Santiago tried to play in 2015 for the Toronto Blue Jays, but he was released 15 days after breaking his collarbone in spring training. He returned to the majors for the 2018 and 2019 seasons as a first base coach before going to third base this year.

'Such a fine individual'

In January 2004, then general manager Dave Dombrowski traded Santiago and a minor leaguer to the Seattle Mariners for Guillen. Two years later, Santiago signed back with the Tigers as a free agency and helped them make it to the World Series.

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"You knew that he was such a fine individual that if you ever had the opportunity to have him back, you'd be happy to do so," Dombrowski told the Free Press last month. "There's not many guys that are with his personality and so beloved by an organization."

Tigers shortstop Willi Castro is greeted by third base coach Ramon Santiago after his RBI triple Tuesday night.

When he's not controlling the shift, Santiago works closely to help Castro make defensive improvements. He is teaching Alcantara to adjust to third base after he was a mainstay at shortstop and second base in the minors. And he is making sure Paredes remembers that slumps must be left in the past.

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"What makes my job satisfying is when I see the player I work with become a better player," Santiago said. "Better on defense and better all-around. That's my main focus. For me, it's really exciting when I see a young player work on it."

The entire defense is based on what Santiago's eyes and the analytics tell him. The Tigers implement the shift 50.8% of the time; only the Los Angeles Dodgers use shifts more (55.1%). The organization plans to continue doing so at a high rate, which is why Santiago spent plenty of July's summer camp helping 2020 No. 1 overall pick Spencer Torkelson transition to third base.

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The Detroit Tigers held workouts at Comerica Park on Saturday, July 4, 2020. Coach Ramon Santiago talks with first-round draft pick Spencer Torkelson after fielding drills at third base.

The infield has changed a lot since Santiago was taking ground balls for Tigers. He listens to the analytical department and trains his players to execute those plans. 

"He's a people person, and he's going to get along with people," Leyland said. "When you do that, anytime you bring some more information in, people are more apt to listen to you because they respect you."

One thing is certain: Gardenhire trusts him to do the job.

"We got (reliever Gregory) Soto out there throwing 100 mph," Gardenhire said. "We're like, 'Santy, maybe we should get them back on this side,' and Santy disagrees with us. Then all of a sudden, the guy hits the ball right to our shortstop. He looks at us and says, 'Just leave me alone. I'm good.' 

"I can't argue with Santy."

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here's how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content