Offering a brief break from reality

NEWTOWN, Conn. -- St. Rose of Lima Church and U.S. Cellular Field are separated by four states and 850 miles. One sits on a winding road in the type of quaint New England town where a bake sale typically qualifies as news. The other rests in a section of Chicago that was gritty enough to be immortalized in a Jim Croce song.

On a bitterly cold and blindingly sunny day in Newtown, Conn., the two venues are tethered by human suffering, the challenge of moving beyond tragedy through compassion, and the efforts of a young big league pitcher to bridge the gap between the two.

At one end of the chain, 360 schoolchildren from kindergarten through eighth grade celebrate their regular weekday mass at St. Rose before learning that a treat is in store: Monsignor Robert Weiss, more commonly known as "Father Bob,'' tells them that a major league baseball player is coming to tell his story and share lessons about his life struggles and persistence in pursuing his dream.

At the other end, Chicago White Sox relief pitcher Hector Santiago feels the magnetic pull of Newtown from his offseason home in Newark, N.J. He was up past midnight playing hoops with close friend Trevor Reckling and some other buddies. But he awakes early, dons a natty gray sweater and blue-gray slacks, and ventures up the Garden State Parkway, across the Tappan Zee Bridge and up Interstate 84 toward the Newtown-Sandy Hook exit. His father, Hector Sr., and fiancée, Esther Gomez, are along for the ride.

The two police cruisers in the church parking lot are a testament to the seismic changes here over the past five weeks. The students of St. Rose were spared the first-hand horror of Dec. 14, when a gunman named Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six adults at the nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School. But they are still burdened with the fallout from the second-deadliest school shooting in American history.

The kids of St. Rose Church and its adjoining school were friends of the slain children, soccer and baseball teammates and students at the same religious preschool. A few of the St. Rose teenagers had been babysitters for the deceased children of Sandy Hook.

St. Rose of Lima has been the site of eight funerals since the Newtown shootings, and Santiago's visit comes on the one-month anniversary of the first memorial service, for 6-year-old James Mattioli. According to Father Bob, some of the St. Rose kids have lost weight and are having trouble sleeping. Long after the TV cameras packed up and left town, the children continue to undergo grief counseling in an effort to find a balance between respecting the dead and embracing the promise of life.

Hector Santiago is going to see them because his internal compass tells him it's the right thing to do, but he does have one selfish motive: He wants to be successful enough in the majors to start his own foundation and build an indoor athletic facility in his hometown of Newark one day. Maybe enough random acts of kindness can help create some momentum toward that goal.

"Once you're at this level, you have young kids and families and the whole community looking up to you,'' Santiago says. "You're on TV, and they're watching. I remember going to ballgames when I was a kid, and it was the best thing ever. If kids have a chance to meet you off the field in person and interact with you, it can brighten a day. You can help them fight and push them and make them better.''

At 9:45 a.m., he enters the church to an introduction from Monsignor Weiss and a long, impromptu burst of cheering and applause from the kids. Then, the little ones file out for class while the older kids remain.

"Say goodbye to Jesus and say goodbye to Hector,'' Father Bob says as they leave the church building.

In the month since the tragedy, numerous professional athletes have reached out to the victims of Sandy Hook. Mia Hamm, Landon Donovan and about 40 other MLS stars showed up for a "Soccer Night in Newtown'' event that attracted 1,500 people. New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz visited the home of 6-year-old Jack Pinto, who was buried in a Cruz No. 80 replica jersey. Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson inscribed the names of the Newtown victims on his cleats; the New England Patriots wore ceremonial helmet stickers with the Newtown city seal and a black ribbon; countless other athletes and teams referenced the victims in public thoughts, prayers and social-media outlets.

Santiago's initiative was more of a mom-and-pop operation. Several weeks ago his agent, Brian McCafferty, called to see whether a visit might be appropriate. But unlike other professional athletes, Santiago reached out to Newtown kids from schools beyond Sandy Hook. His New Jersey roots and affiliation with an unfamiliar team made an instant impression upon Monsignor Weiss and Mary Maloney, the school principal at St. Rose.

"It was genuine. It was heartfelt. It was his personal outreach. That's what made this different,'' Maloney says. "This wasn't the White Sox calling and saying, 'We're sending him.' He brought himself to the table, and that's where the connection came with the kids.''

Santiago's desire to make a difference off the field stems from a haunting image in his past and an authoritative voice in his ear. He was 14 years old and sitting in a classroom at the Luis Munoz Marin Middle School in Newark when he saw smoke pouring from the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001. More than a decade later, he was playing winter ball in Puerto Rico when he learned of the Newtown shootings. The news produced a sense of emptiness and despair that he hadn't experienced since 9/11.

The voice in Santiago's ear belongs to his father, who is 47 years old and has spent more than three decades in the flooring business. When Hector Sr. wasn't on his hands and knees for 15 hours a day installing carpets or laying linoleum, he was coaching youth teams, filling in as an umpire or getting up early to go line the field. Baseball and a healthy dose of parental guidance helped Hector Jr. and his four siblings steer clear of drugs, street crime and other temptations that ensnared so many of their friends.

"I have cousins and a lot of friends I grew up with who are in jail or still on the streets, doing stuff they shouldn't be doing,'' Santiago says. "Being active in sports definitely kept me out of trouble. I'm right in the heart of where a lot of bad stuff happens. You don't want to leave your car there for two seconds if it's running, because it probably won't be there when you get back.''

Santiago beat some long odds to earn the designation of "late bloomer.'' The White Sox selected him as a 30th-round pick in the 2006 draft and signed him for $85,000 the following spring out of Okaloosa-Walton Community College in Niceville, Fla. Santiago spent parts of three seasons kicking around the Class A Carolina League and was on the road to nowhere when former big leaguer Angel Miranda taught him a screwball and helped him refine his changeup in winter ball. The White Sox finally summoned him before the All-Star break in 2011, and he christened his debut with a swinging strikeout of Kansas City's Eric Hosmer.

"I definitely had to work at it,'' Santiago says. "I played a lot of year-round baseball and went through a few different arm slots.''

In his rookie year with the White Sox last season, Santiago went 4-1 with a 3.33 ERA and 79 strikeouts and 40 walks in 70 1/3 innings. His personal highlight came on June 28, when he pitched in Yankee Stadium in front of 300 friends and family members and struck out Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano before allowing a home run to Mark Teixeira. He also earned some online love with a bare-handed bullpen catch in Texas that won him a place on the list of ESPN's "coolest plays.''

Santiago's value to the White Sox lies in his willingness to embrace any role. In his rookie year, he pitched middle and long relief, made four starts and converted four saves in six chances, prompting manager Robin Ventura to label him a "chameleon.'' Santiago's biggest challenge is harnessing his control and channeling his boundless energy. At the urging of White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, he envisions a dime in the middle of the catcher's mitt and tries to wear it out with fastball strikes. Santiago recently had the word "Focus'' tattooed onto his right wrist so the message is drummed home every time he lifts his glove and stares in for the sign.

"He's got ants in his pants,'' Cooper says. "He wants to work, and you'll see him out there throwing every day before the game. It's our job to get him to pitch with more and more focus. You'd rather tame a tiger than push a mule.''

Santiago applies that same relentless drive to his off-field endeavors. Upon joining the White Sox, he told the team he was available for hospital visits, bowling tournaments and any cause related to children. He has a Facebook page called "Santiago's Soldiers,'' with an emphasis on kids. In November, the White Sox held a ceremony to honor inner-city ballplayers who had signed letters of intent to play Division I college ball. Santiago flew to Chicago from winter ball, took part in the news conference, then hopped a plane back to Puerto Rico the following day.

During the 2012 season, McCafferty kept a running tab and found that Santiago had given away almost $30,000 in tickets to various friends, relatives and youth groups. The ability to say no is not one of his strong points.

"I always told him, 'If you're successful, make sure you give back,' '' Hector Sr. says. "He was brought up that way. When I heard he wanted to do this visit, it made me even more proud. It shows that he listened.''

At Sandy Hook Elementary, precisely a three-minute car ride and 1.26 miles from St. Lima, two sets of orange cones prevent curiosity seekers or anyone with ill intent from approaching the site of the massacre. Just in case people don't get the message, a security guard tells them that a police permit is required for entry.

At the St. Rose Church and school, the kids are still awaiting a return to normalcy. Amid a seemingly endless procession of wakes and funerals, the school's Christmas pageant and holiday parties were canceled. Once school resumed, it was with a heightened sense of alarm and the comforting presence of two police cruisers on the premises. The St. Rose students and teachers recently endured three security-related lockdowns on a single day, and were further rattled when rumors swirled that a "second shooter'' might be on the loose in Newtown.

The entire Newtown community, while appreciative of the general public's thoughts and prayers, has begun to suffer from compassion fatigue. After doing dozens of national TV interviews, Father Bob received so many Starbucks gift cards in the mail that he had to declare a moratorium. A man of the cloth can only drink so many venti caramel frappuccinos.

Hector Santiago does not come to Newtown with a speech or a profound, overarching message in mind. "I want it to be something real,'' he says before his trip. "It's coming from me. It's not written down from somebody else.'' But he is admittedly anxious that he might say or do the wrong thing.

"I was on the phone with him and he kept saying, 'What do you want me to say?''' Father Bob says. "I told him, 'Just tell a little bit of your story and encourage the kids that tough times will be part of life, and if you roll with the tough times, good times will follow.' He said, 'I can handle that.'''

As it turns out, Santiago's concerns are unfounded. The kids sit at rapt attention as he recalls his days at the ballfield as a young boy. He tells them of long bus rides, fast food restaurants and bad hotels in the minor leagues, and his desire to "push myself harder and harder'' in pursuit of his goal. The quest culminated in that July phone call two years ago, when he learned that the White Sox were summoning him from Double-A Birmingham.

Then Santiago opens the floor for questions, and boys in pressed white shirts and red-and-blue neckties and girls in plaid jumpers raise their hands amid a backdrop of sun streaming through stained glass. They ask him what his favorite NFL, NBA and NHL teams are. They want to know his favorite pie, dessert and movie, and which player is his closest friend on the White Sox.

Santiago's responses: the Dallas Cowboys, New York Knicks, New Jersey Devils, apple, cheesecake, "Step Brothers'' and reliever Nate Jones, in that order.

He has brought along a framed No. 53 White Sox uniform with "Santiago'' on the back, and holds it up to another round of applause. Then, he retires to a small table at the back of the church with a stack of color photos and a black Sharpie. The kids stand in line and wait their turn for a souvenir and a brief chance to bond with him.

"It's remarkable when they see somebody who's come from this place of working really hard to get where they need to be,'' Maloney says. "Obviously, he made it sound like it wasn't easy to get there. He wasn't staying in the Ritz-Carlton the whole time, and he was eating hamburgers on the road. It was hard work to get where he is. That's a great message and great ethic to send to these kids.''

In a quiet moment after the event, it strikes Weiss that an athlete with relatively little name recognition can have such a profound influence as a role model. Santiago has had an impact not because of the jersey that he wears, but through the good intentions in the heart that beats beneath it.

"There are three private schools in town, four public elementary schools and our school,'' Weiss says. "Those kids have been kind of forgotten, but they're feeling it as deeply as anybody else. When Hector's agent called me initially, I said, 'You know, I've never seen a kid in this town with a White Sox hat or jersey.' But the fact that he's a professional athlete and he wanted to be with our kids has left a mark. This is something they'll remember for the rest of their lives.''

For a brief interlude in January, Hector Santiago stays true to his father's message, and the kids of Newtown cease being mourners, victims or a national curiosity. He's a Chicago White Sox player and they're newfound White Sox fans, forging a friendship while sharing a winter day.