Santorini values short time with Braves
First draft pick pitched in one game before moving on
ATLANTA -- Al Santorini was never supposed to be an Atlanta Brave.
With the 1966 draft approaching, the rumor was that the New Jersey boy would be headed across the Hudson River to the New York Mets organization.
And why not? The Mets had the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, and they were intrigued by the right-hander with a wicked curveball, a pitcher who had compiled a 50-1 record in junior high and high school ball.
And it seemed like a match made in Manhattan for the Union High School senior who had spent his life imitating the tendencies of New York's finest: running like Mickey Mantle, elbows flailing in the air; swinging like Joe DiMaggio, graceful and elegant -- even if he was going to be drafted by the "the other" Big Apple team.
But Casey Stengel's trip home changed all that.
The Mets manager returned to his hometown of Glendale, Calif., took in a high school baseball game and watched an 18-year-old catcher named Steve Chilcott hit three home runs.
The Mets went with Chilcott.
"That's why I wasn't probably drafted by them," Santorini said. And then he laughed. "But I've never really been a Met fan."
Santorini landed at No. 11 with Atlanta, becoming the franchise's first first-round draft pick.
But the high of receiving a Major League invitation didn't last long for Santorini.
There weren't any lessons for a 19-year-old on how to fit in a Minor League clubhouse. The other players weren't at all sympathetic, and Santorini feared that each day could feature another form of initiation.
"There was always this animosity with the players thinking they were better than you," reflected Santorini, now 58. "You're not their age, and they don't want to associate with you. They would want to rip up your clothes or would take your spikes and gloves and put them in the toilet."
So Santorini matured -- alone -- sitting in the front of the bus and searching for extracurricular activities that didn't involve alcohol and cigarettes.
After enduring a frustrating elbow injury in 1967, he joined the Double-A Shreveport Braves at the start of the '68 season. In his third start, he tossed a no-hitter in a game in which Bobby Cox played second base. And by the end of the season, Santorini was in Atlanta making his first Major League start.
But the four runs he surrendered in three innings on Sept. 10, 1968, would be Santorini's only statistics in a Braves uniform.
His departure from Atlanta was almost as surprising as his arrival, as the Braves left him unprotected in the first-time expansion draft. They hoped that no team would want to take a risk on a young pitcher with recent arm ailments and limited experience.
"[The Braves] had great players who were exposed to the draft, and they didn't think someone would take me," Santorini said. "They figured I would be safe."
But the Padres willingly took the gamble. They claimed the 20-year-old Santorini as the first Brave chosen in the expansion draft and ended his one-game career with the Braves, much to their chagrin.
He spent the next 2 1/2 seasons with the Padres, followed by a two-year stint pitching with the St. Louis Cardinals before retiring with a 17-38 career record.
His disappointing win-loss totals mask a six-year career that was better than the record suggests. A little more offensive support, or even some luck, might have added more to the win column
Santorini still refuses to make excuses, only saying: "You wouldn't have to explain and be at all embarrassed about your record."
He seemed to lose narrow 2-1 and 3-1 decisions at the rate Hank Aaron was knocking balls over the outfield fence. Twice, he had perfect games through 6 2/3 innings. He lost both games.
"Being with an expansion team was very difficult," he said. "I kind of grinded it out with every pitch, but it was hard because I never had a lot of runs scored for me."
After St. Louis traded Santorini four hours down Interstate 70 to Kansas City, he found himself back in the Minor Leagues.
It was time to quit. The pain in his arm had become unbearable. Imagine pitching with an arm that felt on fire, like a knife penetrating the pitching shoulder with each release.
The man once nicknamed "Iron Man" didn't have to imagine it as he endured the nightmare with every pitch he struggled to throw. And it finally reached the point, at 24 years old, where it just wasn't worth it.
"I was like a junkballer," Santorini said. "I would rather retire than have some pain and throw junk up to the plate and then duck. I just wasn't going to do that."
Santorini picked up a variety of odd jobs. He sold cars, sold real estate and painted parking lot stripes before making a career using his hands as a carpenter.
He's now retired, back home in New Jersey. He still has passion in his voice when he talks about his beloved Yankees and a faint snicker when he speaks of a Mets recent loss.
But he and his wife are planning on moving back down South. Back to tomahawk country, near the team that first gave him a chance to realize a childhood dream. Back near a city where he became its first draft pick only two years before he claimed the distinction as the city's first player lost to expansion.
And it's a team for which he still has the utmost respect.
"I did some nice things with the Braves," Santorini said, referring to his Minor League development in Atlanta's farm system. "The Braves organization was a great organization."
Jenifer Langosch is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.