How Chicago White Sox pitcher Hector Santiago helped a Newcastle family get back on track

After seeing the damage from the May 19-20 tornadoes on TV, Hector Santiago wanted to help. That desire would connect him to the Pack family, who were 812 miles away in Newcastle.

BY RHIANNON WALKER, Staff Writer, rwalker@opubco.com Modified: July 6, 2013 at 7:46 pm •  Published: July 6, 2013
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Hector Santiago was consumed by the images of destroyed homes and displaced families.

The Chicago White Sox pitcher saw the news about the May 19-20 tornadoes as he sat in the clubhouse, and it settled deep in his thoughts.

Years earlier as a 13-year-old in Luis Munoz Marin Middle School, Santiago sat helplessly in his eighth-grade classroom as he watched the World Trade Center Towers crumble. He could only sit there as his teacher broke into a panic seeing the building her son worked in collapse from the Newark, N.J., school.

That was the moment that changed Hector Santiago: He told himself he would never feel that powerless ever again.

So even though the 25-year-old pitcher didn't know anyone affected by the tornadoes, he still knew he had to do something.

That desire would connect him to a family 812 miles away in Newcastle, whose son was at South Dakota State playing college baseball and whose daughter was one week away from moving to Stillwater for college.

“Just being able to help out, I mean, I just had goose bumps right now; you feel good about yourself,” Santiago said. “You feel happier: You're able to actually do something, whether it's something small or even something big … that makes your day. ‘OK I did something good, and I just wanted to help out and I'm happy about it.'”

The May 19-20 tornadoes killed 24 people, injured more than 375 and damaged or demolished 12,000 homes in central Oklahoma.

Santiago called his agent and told him to find a family that needed assistance. Brian McCafferty called numerous churches before he finally spoke with Susan Orquiz, the secretary of St. James The Greater Catholic Church and School.

She put him in contact with a woman whose family had just lost its home, clothes and her daughter's college supplies — clothes, notebooks, bedding, laptop, etc.

Kelly Pack was in disbelief after getting off the phone with McCafferty: He had just told her that Santiago would buy her daughter Bailey's school materials and send her money, so she could still move to Stillwater for the start of her job.

“It's just amazing to me, because I'm the kind of ‘glass is half-empty' type of person,” Kelly said. “I feel like I've raised my kids to be pretty prideful, and it's been really hard for (Bailey) to accept anything. There's a reason this young man does it. … But for a complete stranger to reach out to someone and for it to just happen to be (my daughter) is awesome.

“(Hector) must've had wonderful parents. I mean someone brought him up right; someone brought him up correctly.”

That person was Santiago's father.

Like father, like son

Hector Santiago Sr. spent the majority of his days at his job on his hands and knees cutting tiles and carpets. But he also served as a role model for his five children. When he wasn't at work, Hector Sr. was umpiring Roberto Clemente or Rick Cerone Little League games in Newark for free or helping to keep the fields maintained at the North Ward Center.

Hector Jr. made himself a promise: If he made it to the big leagues one day, he was going to help people. On July 6, 2011, Santiago's dream finally came true when he was called up by the White Sox to pitch against the Kansas City Royals.

In 21 games this season, the left-hander has gone 3-5 in 10 starts with a 3.50 ERA in 74 2/3 innings with 79 strikeouts.

On Wednesday, Santiago tied his season high in strikeouts by sitting down nine of the 27 Baltimore Orioles he faced in a 4-2 loss.

“(My father) always found a way to be able to help out or to give back,” Santiago said. “But just watching him … do that in his career and job — that he was making just enough to get by — and still be able to help out in any way he could was a huge influence.

“And if he can do that in his situation … that's definitely something I can do. … I think it kind of just came with me; it just automatically carried on with me, and I've been (helping people) ever since I've had the ability.”

‘I started praying'

Kelly Pack's daughter and husband watched as a small tornado developed a few miles away from their house. Bailey and Gary Pack started to relax, though, because the tornado was moving in the opposite direction.

Then it bounced off Highway 37, hit a pond 7½ acres east of their house, and they watched it turn a daunting shade of gray and reverse direction.

Bailey and Gary haphazardly cleared out a coat closet, so they along with Bailey's younger sister, Kassidy, and their two dogs could take shelter.

Adrenaline fueled Gary as he placed himself between his daughters and the storm and held the door closed. Bailey and Kassidy huddled together and listened as the storm engulfed their house.

What lasted for seconds felt like minutes; Kassidy started to cry, so Bailey pulled her closer and began to pray.

“I really thought we were going to die in that, because I felt the tornado suck the air out of the closet,” Bailey said. “My ears were popping, and I thought we were done for at that point. I was just really scared, and I started praying.”

Kelly was at her job when she and Bailey last spoke. Her daughter was describing what was going on at their house, when the call dropped and Kelly was left to imagine what was happening to her family.

She tried to call the house again, but couldn't get an answer and raced to her house.

After 30 emotionally, mentally and physically exhausting minutes, Kelly said she learned her family was safe through her son Samuel's girlfriend.

Everything was destroyed. The home that Kelly and Gary had designed and completed in 1996 and shared countless memories in would soon have to be demolished.

“It's going to be hard when they demolish our house, but we're going to start over, and everything's going to be fine,” Kelly said. “The three things that I needed to come out of that house came out of that house.”

Money's not the motive

In the two years since Santiago was brought up to the majors, he and McCafferty have assisted two disaster efforts. After the Sandy Hook shootings on Dec. 14, Santiago reached out to McCafferty and asked him what they could do.

McCafferty, a full-time baseball agent since 2008 and the agent of a number of minor league players, called ahead to see if a visit would be possible. Because of Santiago's connections in New Jersey, McCafferty and Santiago were able to visit St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown, Conn.

There, Santiago spoke to children, signed autographs, took pictures and donated an autographed jersey to the church.

Other professional athletes paid tribute to the Sandy Hook victims, but Santiago was the only Major League Baseball player to visit Newtown.

Last season, Santiago made $480,000, and his salary for this year is $505,000, but the amount he has earned has never affected how much he donates.

“That hasn't been a problem with me being able to give back,” Santiago said. “I have no problem with that at all. I don't think money is the main thing; I don't think that at all, and I'm not worried about it. It's going to come and go; money's just going to come as easy as it gets here, (and) it's going to go. So it's not a big deal to me.”

The generosity effect

The first few times they spoke, Santiago told Bailey he just wanted to help her in any way possible. He didn't want or need anything from her, but he insisted he wanted to lend a hand.

Still, it wasn't easy for Bailey to accept his help. When he would ask what she needed, Bailey would often say, “I don't know.”

And while she didn't want to simply take Santiago's money or supplies, Bailey also said she didn't want to be rude to or offend him. When she finally accepted his help, she made a promise to herself that she wouldn't waste the second chance she was being given.

“I've always been goal-oriented, but this gives me a reason to be successful,” Bailey said.

Each member of the Pack family was affected differently by Santiago's generosity, however.

Kelly explained that her husband hadn't been to church consistently since he was in high school. A few days after Santiago had reached out, Gary said the family wouldn't be able to meet someone, because they would all be attending church.

“Whether you go all the time or you don't go all the time, stuff like this changes you,” Kelly said. “And when you're wondering why did this happen to me, and (Hector) does what he does, you might not understand it, but there's always a reason.”

Paying it forward

On Santiago's first day off, he and McCafferty got up at 8 a.m. so they could be at Target when it opened. He bought everything from a laptop to pencils and notebooks, and he also sent Bailey a check with enough money to buy anything else she needed.

But Santiago wasn't just offering Bailey financial assistance, he also consistently texted her to make sure she was all right, and Bailey would respond by wishing him luck before games.

“You never think it's going to happen to you,” Bailey said. “But when it does, I'm thankful that people do come together and help other people out. And I'm really thankful for everything (Hector is) doing and has done for me.”

Bailey plans to take a picture of everything she buys to frame and send it to Santiago.

Although she knows she won't ever be able to pay him back, Bailey is committed to paying it forward whenever the opportunity arises.

“For her to be able to say that and do that, it's showing you the kind of person she is,” Santiago said.

Santiago didn't want Bailey to pay him back. Her friendship, he said, is good enough for him. If Bailey would cheer Santiago on as a Sox fan when he's on the mound and wish him luck on game day, then that would be payment enough.

Said Bailey: “I figured if he's helping me out, and he's making going to NOC-OSU possible for me, I'm going to give him a real Pokes shirt, so he can remember me by that and remember what he's done and how thankful I am.”

The tornado that sacked Bailey's home took a lot from her: her home, her school supplies and other material objects. But as she said, that's all just stuff.

What it gave her, however, was more than she could have fathomed.

She learned people are full of surprises, she learned anything is possible, and most importantly, she learned good people do exist.

“It's not always the cover of the book, it's the person inside of it,” Bailey said. “If I would have looked at Hector on TV, I'd be like ‘He's got money, whatever.' But this definitely makes me look at the inside of people more than anything.”



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