CLEVELAND — Looking Cleveland summer chic, Carlos Santana strutted into the convention center’s massive ballroom fashionably late.
The first baseman’s delayed entrance came long after Mike Trout, Francisco Lindor, J.D. Martinez and all the other American League players went to their assigned media interview platforms.
Wearing stylish, dark sunglasses indoors, the Indians slugger had the relaxed appearance of a seasoned, multi-time All-Star.
Don’t be fooled.
He’s one of 36 All-Star rookies in this year’s event.
Santana’s selection as a starter is the latest chapter in his storybook homecoming to Cleveland, where he played eight seasons before signing as a free agent in 2017 with Philadelphia. But a trade in December returned him to the Indians, who can’t imagine where they’d be this season without him.
“He has carried us since Day One,” said Lindor, the Indians’ flashy, four-time All-Star shortstop. “We are playing the game the right way and he’s a big part of our success.”
The 33-year-old Santana is one of the more experienced players at this year’s event, which is giving fans a look at some of the game’s next wave of young stars. There are 19 players that are 25 or younger, and this collection of kids has range with sluggers, slingers and speedsters.
On the AL roster, there’s White Sox right-hander Lucas Giolito, whose name conjures images of an Italian soccer player but whose fastball has overwhelmed hitters all season. Or menacing Seattle slugger Daniel Vogelbach, who steps into the batter’s box intent on inflicting harm on the ball.
The NL also has its share of newbies, including New York’s Jeff McNeil, who perfected his swing playing Wiffle ball with his brother and now leads the majors with a .349 average. And don’t forget Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña Jr., the 21-year-old dynamo with a Rookie of The Year trophy on a mantle that could one day include an MVP — or two.
There are more, and it’s possible one of the members of this year’s first-timers’ club makes a signature play to help his team win. And while Santana and the other All-Star trainees are doing all they can not to show any nerves, players who have walked in their cleats know better.
When he made his first All-Star trip in 2007, Houston’s Justin Verlander was nothing like the intimidating, Cy Young winner he is today.
Back then, he was scared.
“In San Francisco, I stepped into the locker room with the guys I grew up with watching: Jeter, Big Papi, A-Rod, Ichiro, all these guys, and I kind of sat in my corner and took it all in,” said Verlander, who will start for the AL in Tuesday night’s game. “Felt like I didn’t belong.”
Santana doesn’t share that sentiment.
He earned his All-Star trip, and the cleanup spot in manager Alex Cora’s starting lineup, by being Cleveland’s most consistent player in the season’s first half. Santana’s batting .297 with 19 homers, 52 RBIs and he’s played better defensively than anyone could have imagined for a former catcher, who was moved to third and then over to first.
For Indians manager Terry Francona, watching Santana’s season unfold has been beyond satisfying.
“I need a good adjective: immensely,” Francona said. “We were sitting in the dugout yesterday and before the game and I think he was in a thoughtful mood, and he goes, ‘I love it here’ and it kind of hit me. I said, ‘We love having you here.’ And then I told him, ‘I want a favor. I want to get a picture with you tomorrow at the ballpark.’ We got one when we were on that tour of Japan and sentimentally it meant a lot.
“He has grown so much and it’s not just with me, it’s with everybody. But we are pretty close and I trust him a lot, and he’s earned that. He’s grown up right in front of our eyes, and when that happens, it feels good.”
Santana’s charmed season has extended off the field. He recently became a U.S. citizen, and even the moment he learned he was an All-Star seemed stolen from a Hollywood script.
The Indians were flying to Baltimore when TVs on their plane suddenly went blank just as the AL starters were about to be announced.
When catcher Roberto Perez finally got an internet connection, he passed along the news to Santana, who began crying while his teammates cheered.
“I was so happy for him,” Lindor said. “He has worked so hard year after year — signing somewhere else, getting traded here and making his first All-Star Game here in Cleveland — his home. This is his home and it’s special.”
Santana, who will also take part in the Home Run Derby, is savoring every second of his first All-Star nod.
On Monday, he handled wave upon wave of questions, answering in his native Spanish and English, which he has worked hard to improve. When pressed about what went wrong in Philadelphia, Santana turned on a negative inquiry almost as quickly as he jumps on a hanging slider.
“I had hard season and I learned a lot,” he said. “This year, I’m feeling more comfortable and I’m happy to come back to my sweet home. I’ve tried to enjoy every game, every moment.”
When his interview ended, Santana pulled down the large hanging panel that showed he was an All-Star for a souvenir.
Only then did he look like a rookie.