"Merry Christmas, Johan," a reporter said and, even though it's only midway between Hallo-ween and Thanksgiving, Johan Alexander Santana gave an appreciative laugh. "Thank you," he said, for Thursday he had been given as good an individual baseball gift as any major-league pitcher could receive.
Santana, a left-handed starter for the Minnesota Twins, was unanimously chosen by baseball writers as the 2004 American League Cy Young award winner.
On a voting system that awarded five points for first place, three points for second and a single point for third, Santana had a perfect 140 points from the 28 voters. The voting was done before the postseason.
Santana, 25, was dominating in 2004, leading the American League in earned run average (2.61), strikeouts (265) and lowest opponents' batting average (.192) as he went 20-6. He was named the pitcher of the month in July, August and September. In those three months, he had a 14-2 record with a 1.39 ERA and was instrumental in his team's AL Central division championship.
Santana, who was first called up by the Twins in 2000, began the 2002 season in Triple A. After he was called up to the majors, he was used at first as a relief pitcher, but he had success as a starter late in the season. In the off-season, he had elbow surgery to remove bone chips, then went 12-3 for the Twins in 2003, and continued to blossom this season.
"I wanted to show people what I knew I could do," Santana said Thursday on a conference call from his native Caracas, Venezuela. "I told myself, `Just relax, and wait for your chance to get out of the bullpen.' And let them know they are making a big mistake not putting me in the starting rotation.
"I'm a little surprised that I was on top of the league" in so many categories, he added. "But I'm not surprised at the things I have done. This award is like a dream come true."
Curt Schilling of the Red Sox finished second in the voting. Since the vote was taken before the postseason, it did not take into account Schilling's performance in the playoffs, when he pitched with sutures securing a dislocated tendon in his right ankle. Cameras showed pictures of his bloodstained right sock while he won games in the American League Championship Series and the World Series.
Although Schilling led the major leagues in victories with a 21-6 record, his 3.26 ERA could not match Santana's.
It was the third time in four years that Schilling, who will turn 38 on Sunday, has come in second in the Cy Young voting - the first two for the National League award when he was with Arizona. He has never won it. Schilling was second on 27 ballots and third on another.
Schilling has tied Warren Spahn and Randy Johnson for most runner-up finishes.
The difference is that Spahn won one Cy Young Award and Johnson has won five.
"To beat Curt so handily, for me to be a unanimous choice, is a surprise to me," Santana said. "Curt is one of the best pitchers in the game. It was an honor to be in this race for the Cy Young with him. In the playoffs and World Series he showed how brave he is. To me, he was a hero."
Yankees closer Mariano Rivera finished third in the balloting, with one second-place vote and 24 third-place votes. The Red Sox' Pedro Martinez, the Twins' Joe Nathan and the Angels' Francisco Rodriguez each had one third-place vote.