Programming note: Giants Insider Andrew Baggarly is in Arizona; check back for his coverage throughout spring training and watch SportsNet Central nightly at 6 and 10:30 p.m. for all the day’s MLB news.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – It takes a village to raise a family, unless you are the Casillas. When the head count stands at seven boys and five girls, your family is the village.
Giants right-hander Santiago Casilla falls at No. 7 out of 12 -- in the middle by birth order, but in a more significant sense, much further removed from his brothers and sisters. For eight months out of the year, he leaves Palenque, a seaside town in the Dominican Republic, and plays professional baseball in the U.S.
Santiago signed his first pro contract in 2001 when his kid brother, Jose, was 11 years old. He didn’t see Jose grow up, really. More like he’d return home and Jose would be 4 inches taller.
For Jose, there were times when Santiago – they call him “Willie” back home -- was more a concept than a brother.
“He was not there,” said Jose, who is nine years younger than Santiago. “But I was proud of my brother. He was a pro ballplayer.”
That is why this spring is such a gift for the two Casilla brothers. Baseball separated them. Baseball brought them together. And for the first time, they had lockers in the same clubhouse at Scottsdale Stadium.
They stay in the same hotel. They see movies together, go to dinner together. Sometimes Jose, a 24-year-old minor league pitcher, tries to pick up the check. He never succeeds, and no wonder. Santiago is the established one, with two World Series rings and the three-year, $15 million contract.
[BAGGARLY: Casilla one of 13 cuts]
“I have to make sure he has what he needs,” Santiago said.
Santiago has done that ever since signing (under the name of Jairo Garcia, to falsify his age) 13 years ago with the A’s. When he was growing up, Santiago didn’t have his own glove or spikes, or even enough nutrition to be able to maintain his energy when playing for scouts.
So when he’d return from a season in the A’s minor league system, he’d be laden down with all manner of equipment. He’d bring back boxes of protein shake mix. Jose drank them, and grew into the hand-me-downs.
Santiago tried to pass on as much wisdom as possible, too.
“How to act, how to be,” Santiago said. “He was an outfielder and shortstop. I told him some things about how to hit, too.”
No wonder Jose became a pitcher.
(If you’ve seen Casilla’s big league bail-out swings, with his heels edging the back line of the batter’s box, you understand completely.)
But here’s the funny thing. Jose doesn’t owe his place with the Giants to Santiago. It’s the other way around. If not for Jose, Santiago wouldn’t own those two sparkly rings, or that big contract.
It was Jose who signed with the Giants first, in 2006. Three years later, Santiago was a minor league free agent coming off a poor season with the A’s.
“Jose had a dream,” Santiago said. “He said, `I see you and me playing together in San Francisco.’ I said, `Really?’ When they wanted to sign me, I knew this was the place. Jose already told me so.”
Jose had the same mid-90s fastball and his sinker was one of the more devastating pitches in the system – he had a 1.16 ERA in 46 relief appearances at Low-A Augusta in 2010 -- before his elbow blew out and he needed Tommy John surgery. He returned last season, and while the stuff wasn’t quite the same, he managed to stay healthy and build arm strength while posting a 3.22 ERA in 43 appearances for Single-A San Jose.
Jose earned his first big league invitation this spring. He knew he wouldn’t be a candidate for the Opening Day roster – indeed, he was among the first names reassigned to minor league camp on Thursday – but for a few weeks, he finally joined his brother on the same field.
“It’s funny,” left-hander Javier Lopez said. “If you’re not paying attention, they’re the exact same. Same mannerisms, walking, talking, the way they wear the uniform – everything.
“I’m in the same work group with both of them on the back fields. And I don’t know if it’s a sibling rivalry or not, but they spend zero time talking. I haven’t seen them say a word to each other. I think Santiago is doing it on purpose in a sense. Let Jose do things on his own.”
Santiago is helping Jose work through a mechanical issue. He needs to throw over the top to get that good, hard movement back on his power sinker. But ever since surgery, he tends to let his arm drop.
“Two days ago, he was pitching and gave up a home run, and I feel it here,” said Santiago, tapping his chest. “He’s my family.
“He can play in the big leagues, I know it. I tell him things because I remember being in his position. They never tell you when you’re going to pitch and you want to impress everybody. You know this game is hard all the time, especially when you are going up and down.
“But his focus, his discipline … I love how he is prepared and he is ready. He’s not scared for nothing.”
The Casilla brothers cherish this time together. But Jose is quick to point out that this is not his dream. He envisioned China Basin, not cacti.
“The dream is to be in the big leagues together,” Jose said.