Andres Reiner, a scout for the Houston Astros, watched the 15-year-old play in a tournament in Venezuela. Reiner liked the way he scooted smoothly around center field, and he really liked his powerful arm. Reiner studied him for three games, enough to realize he had found an exceptional player.
Soon after, Reiner asked the Astros for $400 so he could travel from Valencia to the player's hometown, Tovar, about a 12-hour trip in a remote part of southwestern Venezuela, to invite him to the organization's baseball academy. But since major-league players were on strike in 1994, the Astros would not give Reiner the modest sum. "I was told we were frozen," Reiner said. "We couldn't spend a penny."
If Reiner, who is 72 and now works as a special assistant for the Tampa Bay Rays, accepted that initial response, there might not be giddiness in Flushing, N.Y. these days. The special player Reiner was pursuing was Johan Santana.
If Santana passes a physical examination and agrees on what will be a mammoth contract by today, he will leave the Minnesota Twins and become the Mets' new ace. If Reiner listened to the Astros instead of his instincts, there is no certainty Santana's career would have begun or unfolded the way it has.
"My nickname with the Astros was 'Bulldog,'" Reiner said. "They knew when I wanted to do something, I would fight for it."
Reiner fought for Santana. After Houston's first rejection, Reiner waited two weeks and asked Dan O'Brien, the scouting director, about visiting Santana. The answer was no. He waited two weeks and asked again. The answer was the same. At that point, Reiner was granted permission to speak with Bob Watson, the general manager.
"Forget it," Watson told Reiner. "There's no money."
Two weeks later, Reiner called Watson again. Watson listened to Reiner's pitch, listened to him speak passionately about an athletic player with a tremendous arm. This time, Watson acquiesced, agreeing to give Reiner money from his personal expense account. "He knew that if he had said no, I would keep calling," Reiner said.
Watson added: "I trusted him. If he was willing to call me back, I knew he saw something."
Once the Astros financed Reiner's journey, he drove through the Andes to Tovar. He spent 90 minutes searching for Santana's house and wondered if his marathon drive would end up being a waste of time. But a firefighter who lived on the same street as Santana assisted Reiner by escorting him to Santana's doorstep.
Santana's parents agreed to let him attend Houston's academy in Valencia. When O'Brien called Reiner and asked if he had signed Santana to a contract, Reiner reported that he was still deciding if Santana was a better prospect as an outfielder or a pitcher. After six weeks of training, Santana was told he was going to pitch.
"At first, he wasn't happy," Reiner said. "Slowly, he got it. The rest is history."
What made Reiner shift Santana, a left-hander who had hardly pitched, to the mound? Arm speed. Reiner said Santana's best fastball was 82 mph, but his arm speed was a hint of the velocity he could eventually generate. Santana finished his stint at the academy, had a bad experience at a tryout with the Rockies and signed with the Astros in July of 1995 for about $15,000. He was 16.
Still, Santana, who is perhaps the best pitcher in the game, was not dominating as a 17-, 18- and 19-year-old in the minor leagues. He went 19-21 with a 4.77 ERA while averaging almost a strikeout an inning in his first three seasons.
The Astros were not as sure as Reiner about Santana's potential, so they did not protect him on their 40-man roster in 1999. The Florida Marlins selected Santana in the Rule 5 draft. In a prearranged deal, the Marlins traded Santana for Jared Camp, a pitcher the Twins chose for them.
Gerry Hunsicker, who was Houston's general manager that year, called failing to protect Santana "one of the more regrettable decisions" he made with the Astros. Hunsicker said Santana, who had not pitched above Single A, "hadn't separated himself" from several other pitchers.
Reiner said: "I fought so much to get him on the roster that you wouldn't believe it. But I was one voice among so many."
It took Santana a few years to make sure Reiner's voice sounded like the smartest in the room. In 2002, in his third season with the Twins, Santana went 8-6 with a 2.99 ERA and 137 strikeouts in 108 innings. By then, he was using the devastating fastball-changeup combination that baffles hitters. He became a starter in the middle of 2003 and won Cy Young awards in 2004 and 2006.
Although Reiner called his association with Santana "an old story," he was proud of their connection. It is impossible to know what would have happened to Santana if Reiner did not pester the Astros for $400. But Reiner did.
"Johan wasn't in one of the more populated areas in Venezuela," Watson said. "He was off the beaten path. If it wasn't for Andres, it's very, very likely Johan might not have been seen."