Mark Story: Benito Santiago Jr. chasing hoop dreams at Cumberlands

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJanuary 19, 2013 

The most famous name in Kentucky men's college hoops in 2012-13 is not Kentucky's Nerlens Noel, Louisville's Peyton Siva nor Murray State's Isaiah Canaan.

At the University of the Cumberlands, Benito Santiago Jr. — the son of the former Major League Baseball All-Star catcher — is one of the core players on a team that, until a recent three-game road losing streak, was ranked No. 1 in NAIA Division I.

A 6-foot-5, 215-pound senior power forward from Coama, Puerto Rico, Santiago Jr. is averaging 13.8 points and 6.8 rebounds in his second season playing for Coach Donnie Butcher's Patriots (15-4 going into Saturday's visit to Lindsey Wilson).

"His motor runs hot all the time," Butcher says of Santiago Jr. "Just a great competitor. And he's the fastest kid on our team. An unbelievable athlete."

In his baseball-playing days, Benito Santiago the elder was a rifle-armed catcher who also did damage with the bat. He played 20 seasons (1986-2005) with nine different teams in the big leagues, ending with a career .263 average with 217 home runs and 920 RBI.

Santiago Sr., a five-time All-Star, was the 1987 National League Rookie of the Year for the Padres and the 2002 NL Championship Series MVP for the Giants.

Here in the commonwealth, Santiago Jr. is used to fielding two questions over and over. One, why isn't he playing baseball? Two, how did a guy who grew up in Puerto Rico end up playing college hoops for an NAIA school in rural Kentucky?

Santiago says he likes baseball, but "my passion has always been basketball."

After high school, he played a year of hoops at Miami Dade Community College, then transferred for his sophomore season to Lon Morris College in Jacksonville, Texas.

At Lon Morris, Santiago Jr. combined both his preferred sport and the one associated with his family name. The school's hoops coach, Dale Dotson, gave him permission to go out for baseball, too.

In the 2010 season, Santiago Jr., a first baseman, hit .357 with five home runs, 23 RBI and — showing his speed — 26 stolen bases.

The Chicago Cubs were impressed enough to draft Santiago Jr. in the 31st round of the 2010 MLB Draft. "It's a great story," then-Lon Morris baseball coach Josh Stewart told MLB.com at the time. "(Santiago Jr.) is an unbelievable athlete."

Yet at a point when it seemed Santiago Jr. was going to have to choose between transferring to a four-year school to play hoops or giving minor-league baseball a shot, he did neither.

Instead, he went home to Puerto Rico and worked for his father at baseball academies the ex-catcher runs. "I'd had a daughter, I just thought I needed to go home and make a little money," Santiago Jr. said.

That decision played a direct role in, eventually, bringing Santiago Jr. to Williamsburg to play college hoops.

Butcher, the Cumberlands coach, had a long-standing recruiting tie with Lon Morris head man Dotson, so the latter tipped him off about Santiago Jr. When the player dropped out of college hoops and went back to Puerto Rico, Butcher instructed his assistant coach, Mark Vernon, to keep recruiting him.

That did not mean a mid-winter trip to Puerto Rico for Vernon. "You know small-college (recruiting) budgets," Butcher said. "All this was done on the phone."

Santiago Jr. had of course heard of Kentucky Wildcats basketball, but had not heard of Cumberlands until the school began recruiting him. Vernon's persistence eventually paid off.

"Me and my mom sat down and talked," Santiago Jr. says. "She really wanted me to go back to school."

So, last year, Santiago Jr. came to Kentucky. He was ineligible for basketball the first semester.

After he was cleared to play, he helped spark Cumberlands to a surprise run to the Mid-South Conference Tournament title. In a 60-54 championship game upset of Georgetown, he had nine points and five rebounds. "I don't think we make that run through that tournament without him," Butcher said.

This season, Santiago Jr. hopes to help Cumberlands return to the NAIA national tournament.

Once this year is over, his aspiration is to follow the footsteps of his dad and become a pro athlete — just in a different sport than the one that made his name famous.

"I want to play pro basketball, somewhere," he says of possibly playing professional hoops overseas. "That's my goal."

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230 Email: mstory@herald-leader.com Twitter: @markcstory Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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