McLean coach recognized by Little League World Series for inspiring community after cancer diagnosis

(Updated at 4:40 p.m.) Ramón Santiago’s journey to the Little League World Series (LLWS) was a complicated one, filled with struggle as well as joy.

Thanks to the efforts of some supportive parents, the McLean Little League coach’s continued dedication to his team while undergoing treatment for cancer earned him an honorable mention for the 2022 Little League Baseball Coach of the Year Award.

Though they didn’t attend in person, Santiago and the other honorable mentions for the award got shoutouts during a plaque ceremony at the Little League World Series Complex in South Williamsport, Florida, on Saturday (Aug. 20).

“We do it for the kids, but to know that people hold you in that high regard, it really touched my heart, and knowing that they had to put an effort in order to do this, I was over the moon,” Santiago told FFXnow by phone. “I was touched. I even got a little teary-eyed, to be quite honest, which I didn’t expect.”

“He knows these kids very well”

It didn’t take long for Santiago to get involved in McLean Little League (MLL) after moving to the area in 2020.

A Springfield resident as a kid and an alumus of Robert E. Lee High School (now renamed John R. Lewis High School), he was introduced to the league by his neighbor from across the street, Dana Yoo, who has served on the MLL board of directors for the past four to five years.

Santiago initially volunteered as an assistant coach for his son’s T-ball team “just to stay involved with my son,” a decision he has never regretted. But his friendliness, positivity and emphasis on ensuring the kids have fun in addition to learning baseball and life skills quickly endeared him to the other players and their parents.

“He knows these kids very well, each of them, and he encourages them…He makes the children feel good, confident about themselves, and he’s not that kind of strict person,” said Awa Zhu, one of several parents whose kids have stuck with Santiago as he and his son have moved from T-ball up to their current Double-A team, the Storm.

The diagnosis

With Santiago and his wife, Sharon, becoming reliable presences at MLL games, including ones not involving their son, it came as a shock when he shared in an summer 2021 email to families that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that spring.

He had never missed a game or practice, despite beginning chemotherapy and other treatments — a trend that continued in the fall of 2021 and spring 2022 seasons.

Though the disease and treatments have taken a toll, making some of the physical demands of coaching difficult, Santiago says the energy he gets from working with the players helps ease his discomfort.

“Whenever I was on that field with those kids, it felt like all my pain and everything went away,” he said. “I forgot about my condition. Those kids and just being with them just took it all away.”

MLL has adjusted to accommodate Santiago’s treatment schedule, and parents and other volunteers — including his cousin and assistant coach Jay Adorno — have stepped up to provide support, but for the most part, families have seen little change in the man they know affectionately as Coach Ramón, according to Zhu.

“He’s still doing his wonderful job, and the kids were still having fun,” she said.

Community rallies in support

Aware of the pain that comes with cancer after her mother died from the disease, Zhu was inspired to nominate Santiago for the Little League Coach of the Year Award, even though his tenure hasn’t reached the three-year qualification threshold yet.

“I was thinking, ‘Was there a way to acknowledge Coach Ramon’s efforts? Is there a way to make other people know, to share the story?'” Zhu said.

In her nomination letter, Zhu highlighted Santiago’s “positivity, humor, hard work, and strength” and recounted how a group of his college friends sponsored his MLL team with a fake company called Pots and Spoons Catering:

“Pots and Spoons” was the name of Coach Ramón’s college soccer club, and these people were his old college friends. They forged this company, with its logos, uniforms, and even a Google appearance and dozens of Google reviews, in order to sponsor Coach Ramón’s Little League baseball team because they knew how important it was to him.

The friends came clean about the true identity of the team’s sponsor with a surprise appearance at MLL’s annual “Bat-a-Thon” fundraising event on May 14.

According to Yoo, about 40 of Santiago’s friends had traveled to McLean from around the U.S. and even from other countries to surprise him and support the league “because they knew how special McLean Little League has been for him.”

“This is another example of how his reach goes well beyond just the 13 players that he coaches every single day,” Yoo said.

Coach of the Year

Bestowed annually by Little League and the snack company Lance, an official sponsor, the Coach of the Year Award honors individuals who inspire “kids to be the best they can be” both on and off the baseball diamond.

This year’s baseball and softball winners — respectively, Antonio Colón from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Joy Magnabousco from Manasquan, New Jersey — were chosen from over 3,300 submissions, according to Little League. In addition to being recognized at the LLWS, which is taking place from Aug. 17-28, their leagues each received $5,000 grants.

While “flattered” by the national acknowledgement, Santiago emphasized to FFXnow that he doesn’t coach for the recognition and doesn’t want his personal situation to overshadow the players’ work.

“As long as they’re out there having fun, giving it their all, enjoying themselves, both with baseball and with their teammates, I feel like I’ve done my job,” he said.