Surrounded by the steam that wafted through the sauna in Weston, Florida, Justin Zormelo pulled out his phone and searched Anthony Santander’s name. It was just those two, towels on, sweat dripping, an idea forming.

They had never met before that trip to the sauna in March 2022. But as the Orioles outfielder and the high-level basketball trainer began a conversation, they realized this chance meeting inside the House of Athlete gym could prove to be a fruitful partnership — one that could take Santander to the next level in baseball by reinforcing his foundation in a sport he gave up years ago as a teenager in Venezuela.

Zormelo found Santander’s analytics. He scrolled through Statcast information in the heat of the sauna, naming Santander’s strengths and weaknesses, or his tendencies when faced with a 1-2 count. Zormelo then pulled up a video of him training Kevin Durant, and the unlikely partnership was formed.

Santander would work with Zormelo to become a better baseball player.

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And he’d do it by returning to basketball.

“These guys get so programmed and conditioned to the same movement patterns,” Zormelo said. “When you get them in other scenarios and situations, and you teach them how to run, jump and move like other athletes, they get a competitive advantage in that other sport.”

Basketball was an easy sell to Santander. Growing up in Agua Blanca, Venezuela, he played basketball, baseball and volleyball seriously, but basketball was his favorite.

There was something about the physicality, and even though cardio workouts to this day aren’t Santander’s forte, adding a ball to chase up and down a court changed everything. So when Santander’s strength trainer, Troy Jones, sought a way for Santander to drop weight in the offseason, the connection to Zormelo made it all more palatable.

“I say, ‘Fuck that, I don’t like cardio. I don’t like bike. I love playing basketball,’” Santander said. “That’s the best cardio you can do. You have to move with agility and power at the same time. I lost weight fast.”

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Zormelo told him to run, so Santander ran. Zormelo rolled basketballs down the court to Santander, forcing him to charge it as if they were ground balls. Zormelo launched basketballs skyward, then Santander would catch them and overhand toss them down the length of the court, mimicking a fly ball.

The rebounding drills were especially productive, and as Zormelo watches Santander rob home runs more frequently than ever in his career, he thinks of those winter days in Florida they spent together in the gym, when Santander would leap with his left arm up — his glove hand — to improve his jumping and timing.

And then Santander played basketball as if he were a 6-foot-2 LeBron James or Draymond Green, battling with opponents in the paint and beating them off the dribble.

For so much of Santander’s last two offseasons, the most pivotal performance-enhancing workouts didn’t feature a baseball in sight. He did it all with a big orange ball on a hardwood court. But the cross-training with basketball has directly impacted Santander’s defense this season, making him a more athletic outfielder who could be on his way to a second career Gold Glove award.

The leaps, the sprints, the reactions — Santander’s not a baseball player anymore. He’s an athlete.

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Anthony Santander #25 of the Baltimore Orioles catches a ball hit by Julio Rodriguez #44 of the Seattle Mariners in the first inning during a baseball game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on June 25, 2023 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

***

At the edge of Anthony Santander’s crib hung a mini basketball hoop, and his father, Roger, handed his son a mini basketball over and over. He was a toddler, and yet already his passion for sports was showing through.

“He would get excited and celebrate and look at me like, ‘Look what I just did,’” Roger Santander said through team interpreter Brandon Quinones.

It never was just one sport for Anthony Santander. He clung to his dad during the 1997 World Series between the Cleveland Indians and Miami Marlins. But because his father participated in competitive basketball in Venezuela — playing alongside Houston Rockets forward Carl Herrera, the first Venezuelan to make the NBA — there was an early link between father and son to the outside concrete courts they frequented in Agua Blanca.

Santander’s early growth spurt also helped him become dominant on the basketball court. He’d nearly reached his current height by the time he was 12, towering over his competition during youth tournaments, and scouts found him in Venezuela for both baseball and basketball when he was 13.

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Deep down, Roger had his own dream for his son.

Maybe it was born from playing with Herrera and then watching him achieve a professional career in the United States, or his own passion for basketball. Whichever it was, it left Roger hoping that Anthony Santander could find his way to an American university on a basketball scholarship, and then perhaps even reach the NBA.

“From the moment Anthony was born, I was a really big NBA fan,” Roger said.

But Roger was also realistic.

The jump shot and physicality? Santander had both. But when Santander met with doctors at a baseball academy in Valencia, Venezuela, an examination of the plate in his hand suggested that 6-foot-2 was about as tall as he would grow.

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It made him a potent player in his youth basketball leagues. Even in Venezuela, where Anthony Santander said many players only reach 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-6, his height might have sufficed. To go beyond, though — to chase the sport to America — would be even more difficult than it already was.

“Looking at the future outlook for him, we recognized that with baseball, there was a lot more opportunity,” Roger said. “Looking ahead, thinking about his well-being and what’s best for him, we knew he had a lot more potential to do something with baseball. Not to say that basketball, you can’t have a career in it here in Venezuela, but it’s a lot less likely.”

So Santander went to that baseball academy in Valencia and left basketball mostly behind, saving it for fun pickup games with friends. And three years later, at 16, the Indians — the same team Santander and his dad watched play in the 1997 World Series — signed Santander for $385,000.

“That was the right call,” said Santander, even though he admits that at the time he enjoyed basketball more than baseball. It started Santander down a path that led him to become an integral piece of the Orioles, a 28-year-old who suffered through a rebuild in Baltimore and now is on the other side.

“I always knew that whatever Anthony put his mind to, I had no doubt in my mind he would be successful doing it,” said his mother, Yoleida. “Whether that’s playing baseball, whether that’s playing basketball, I knew he would be successful. It was just a matter of supporting him.”

And all these years later, Santander has found a way to mix the two — basketball helping baseball, his two favorite sports elevating his career in one.

Baltimore Orioles outfielder Anthony Santander (25) waves to a fan as he heads to the locker room following a baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on Wednesday, April 19. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

***

Back on the court, Zormelo led Santander through his paces. They started with jump shots, and Santander — a switch-hitter — alternated his shot between his left hand and right hand. He took threes, then ran in transition, then rebounded.

“I treated him like an NBA player,” Zormelo said, “and he didn’t back down from the workouts.”

By the end, Santander was huffing and covered in sweat.

Through November and December, especially, basketball has become Santander’s primary form of offseason baseball training. He meets with Zormelo two or three times a week, on days he’s not put through his strength workouts with Jones. He starts solo, then plays 3-on-3 ball, and by December, Santander is playing full-court, 5-on-5 basketball.

“I didn’t dumb it down to say, ‘Oh, you’re a big jock,’” Zormelo said. “No, I demanded the same I would if it was Kevin Durant or anyone else. And he adapted accordingly.”

All the while, Zormelo works to show Santander how basketball correlates with baseball. Zormelo’s mother was born in the Dominican Republic, and he can relate to Santander’s choice at 13. Zormelo played both basketball and baseball growing up; when it was his time to decide which sport, he went the opposite way.

Both sports have the same mental aspects. As Santander sucks in air at the end of a workout, Zormelo has him shoot free throws. During those shots, Zormelo talks him through a situation — a 2-1 pitch incoming, it’s the ninth inning at the end of a grueling road trip. What is Santander’s approach?

As Zormelo watches Santander this season, he’s seen the fruits of his basketball drills take shape in the outfield. At the World Baseball Classic, Santander made a charging, lunging play to rob a hit with runners on base. He’s made a habit of robbing home runs, leaping with his left arm raised the same way he reached for a rebound, catching it at its highest point. He even hit a triple — his first since 2020 — showing off a speed cultivated on the hardwood.

For Santander, reaching this level in baseball has as much to do with basketball as anything else.

“At the end of the day, it was two guys in a sauna that liked sport, that were able to figure out stuff,” Zormelo said. “You can intersect as long as there’s passion. You can cross paths and make people better.”

andy.kostka@thebaltimorebanner.com