Going through my old baseball cards tucked away in my parents house, I stumbled across one for Luis de los Santos. Chances are you never heard of him, and don’t feel bad if that is the case.
But I believe this obscure player, a native of the Dominican Republic who grew up in New York and was drafted by the Royals a few picks ahead of Tom Glavine, is worth honoring for a few reasons. One of those reasons reflects what was truly unfair about the steroid era, but I will get to that later.
First of all, while he never made it as a big league hitter, he was a terrific AAA hitter. He became part of that mysterious and ultimately frustrating category of players too good to stay in the minors but can’t quite figure out major league pitching. For three straight seasons he was one of the leading hitters at AAA Omaha, winning the American Association MVP in 1988.
He had three cameos in the big leagues. He played briefly for the Royals in 1988 and 1989 and had a cameo with the Tigers in 1991. He didn’t exactly light the big leagues on fire and wound up playing in Independent Leagues and elsewhere.
He was partially affected by a log jam of good hitters in Kansas City. Remember in the late 1980s, the Royals still had the aura of being an elite team. Between 1976 and 1985, they made the post season 7 out of 10 seasons, winning the 1980 pennant and 1985 World Series.
And by 1988 they seemed ready to make another run at it. The team still had George Brett, Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza, Frank White, Willie Wilson and Bud Black from the World Champion squad. But they also had new stars like Kevin Seitzer, Danny Tartabull, Jeff Montgomery and of course Bo Jackson.
And to show how different baseball was then, they also had one of the highest payrolls in the game.
With that much talent on the big league roster, there wasn’t a lot of room for de los Santos to play. If he had been traded as a prospect to a less talented squad, he may have had the opportunity to play every day. But there was no moving George Brett off of first, who had another batting title in him.
So instead de los Santos stayed at Omaha for 4 straight seasons, piling up hits and driving in runs, waiting for a spot to open up on the big league club that never did.
He wound up in Detroit briefly in 1991 and missed the 1992 season. By 1993 he was in the Angels organization, still hitting well (he batted .311 at AAA that year) but he never got the call to come back to the show again.
After the 1993 season, he began a global odyssey playing baseball in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Italy. In 2002, as a 35 year old he played 50 games for AAA Rochester, but never got the call from the Orioles.
And as far as my limited research has gone, his playing career ended in 2002 with the Mexico City Reds.
So what does de los Santos have to do with steroids?
When people talk about what harm did the steroid era do and what difference does it make if they were getting a competitive edge, I can’t help but think of players like de los Santos.
Here was a guy who was obviously a good hitter but he also had unimpressive power numbers. He never hit more than 6 home runs for the season in AAA. His highest slugging percentage at AAA was .416. So while he got hit after hit (and drove in 87 runs in 1988 despite only hitting 6 homers) he didn’t have the eye popping stats that would prompt someone to keep him in the big leagues. And certainly not one to move a George Brett or Kevin Seitzer to the bench.
And he was doing this in the early 1990s, the infancy of the juiced era. It was also the post collusion period where baseball salaries were starting to skyrocket. Imagine the choices he could have made. Imagine the thoughts and temptations that could have gone through his head.
“I am a good hitter, but nobody is interested in a first baseman with no power. If I could just add some home runs to my game, I could stick around on a big league roster and become a millionaire many times over.”
Of course he could have thought that.
And I bet he was starting to see some teammates and other players starting to try stuff out. Remember we know Canseco was using the stuff in 1988 and no doubt people were asking in the work out rooms “What is Jose doing differently?”
Canseco was the AL MVP in 1988 the same year de los Santos was the American Association MVP. No doubt Luis would rather have Canseco’s trophy, and his respect around the league and his bank statement.
And yet his home run and power numbers stayed the same.
How many Luis de los Santos couldn’t find a big league job during the steroid era because they were playing with their natural gifts rather than enhancing them with hormones meant for cows? How many other good hitters never got past AAA while they saw players with a worse sense of the strike zone but bigger biceps get prolonged shots in the big leagues.
We’ll never know.
I am sure when de los Santos was globe trotting playing in leagues so obscure that I can’t find the stats for them he was watching the inflated bodies and pay checks of the players back in America. I wonder how many of them were teammates of his in the Royals and Tigers farm system.
One side note. In 2000, nine years after his last big league cameo, Luis de los Santos surfaced in the Mexican League as a member of the Saltillo Saraperos. While he never hit more than 6 homers nor slugged higher than .416 professionally in his 20s, he suddenly hit 25 homers and posted a .632 slugging percentage and an OPS of 1.050 as a 33 year old.
I am not saying anything. I am just listing the stats.
And I am still saluting you Luis.
You deserved a real shot in the big leagues.