Monday, December 6, 2010
I can't help it: the first thing I think about when I think of Ron Santo is how he deserved to be in the Hall of Fame but never got that call. Every Cubs fan knows how much it meant to him, and baseball fans all over the country recognize how deserving he was. (I made my case last year.)
But that's just the first thing that comes to mind. When I heard that Santo had died last Friday, a number of other thoughts flooded my mind. Like his sense of humor. Was there a broadcast in his 21-year radio career in which he did not have a good, hearty laugh about something? Whether it was with regard to a play on the field, a story from his storied past, or just Pat Hughes's choice of sweater for the day, Santo was always ready to be amused and able to make his listeners laugh.
His upbeat attitude was more notable when you consider that he suffered from diabetes, had both legs amputated below the knee, and battled various health issues virtually his entire life. When he was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 18, he was given a life expectancy of 25 years. He died at the age of 70.
But he rarely talked about his struggle. When he did, it was usually to make a joke at his own expense, or during one of the many fundraisers he organized and attended to raise money for diabetes research.
I also thought about how humble Santo was. While Santo clearly wanted to be elected to the Hall of Fame, he let others make his case for him. Unlike so many other color commentators who are former players, he wasn't constantly trying to find a way to squeeze in some personal success story or some example of his greatness, even though he had countless stories of success and embodied greatness on the baseball diamond. Those who knew him say that he was a very grounded, normal person, far from the typical ex-professional athlete. Ron Santo was different. He was much more concerned with being known as a good person than a good athlete.
I thought about the beauty of listening to Pat and Ron on the radio during a long drive, or out in the backyard. An objective analysis of Ron's announcing skills wouldn't be pretty (often fails to utilize cough button properly; frequently inquires as to what just happened in the game; tends to talk over the action; struggles with players' names), but a subjective analysis? Awesome. Heartfelt. Hilarious. Passionate. Ron was a necessary cog in the Cubs machine. I can't imagine tuning in to WGN next season and hearing Pat alongside somebody else. He wasn't a "good" announcer in the truest sense, but he was a great announcer nevertheless.
Perhaps more than anyone else in history, Ron Santo embodied the Cubs. He was a member of some of the most beloved Cubs teams of all time. He was one of the organization's most successful players of all time (Bleed Cubbie Blue has him 7th on the all-time list, behind only Banks, Cap Anson, Sosa, Sandberg, Williams and Hartnett). His jersey number flies from the left field foul pole. And he had been a fixture in the radio booth since 1990.
His name is on the short list one would use to describe the Cubs. As in, what do the Cubs mean to me? In no particular order: Bleachers, Harry Caray, Santo, Sandberg, ivy on the wall, Wrigley Field, Cubs-Cardinals rivalry, loyalty ... He's in there. Santo's a part of that answer for every Cubs fan. He was the Cubs. And even now that he's gone, he still is.
My overriding thought when it comes to Ron Santo is this: he was one of a kind. He put up Hall of Fame-caliber stats despite battling diabetes. He was one of the most colorful color commentators out there. He was happy, kind and humble whereas many people in his position wouldn't have been. He loved life, and fittingly brought joy to so many others' lives throughout his playing and broadcasting career. He was a Cubs legend and a baseball legend, and he was a legend in life. We will miss you, Ron.
Here is a tribute video courtesy of the Tribune:
While Santo would never get down for long, a bad play or a tough loss would definitely frustrate him. But that's what made his ebullience when the Cubs did well so much more real. There was nothing better than hearing the pure joy in his voice when something unexpected or exciting would happen on the field. Here is just one of those many moments: