Sunday, December 5, 2010

Ron Santo: A Picture of Courage

Pictured: Ron Santo (on the left) at Nationals Park, August 2010.

What can someone who never saw Ron Santo play third base actually say about his playing? The truth is I can't speak true justice of the man's time spent around the horn of Wrigley Field and America's other Major League ballparks. What I can shed some light on is the effect Santo had on Chicago, Cubs fans, the Cubs, and Major League Baseball.

When Santo's passing was announced on Friday morning it came as a shock to all. Santo, of course, has not been in the best of health over the past few years (this past year especially) due to complications with bladder cancer and diabetes. But here's the thing about Ron Santo -- he might have been sick but nothing ever stood in between him and his beloved Cubbies.

Wrigley Field die-hards know that stand-fan Ronnie Woo-Woo may make a run for the number one spot on the Cubs Fan list but Santo was different. Santo saw the Cubs from all possible angles. Santo was and still is the ultimate Cubs fan.

The last broadcast I ever heard Santo make was Lou Pinella's final game as Cubs manager against Bobby Cox and the Atlanta Braves at Wrigley Field on August 21, 2010. My family friends shared their tickets with me for that day but I was forced to leave after the seventh inning (against my will ... I have never left a Cubs game early before then and never will again ... that's just something Cubs fans do not do ... we do NOT leave baseball games early whether our team is winning, losing, or playing ... that's just a fact). Since I left early in order to take the 1.5 hour trip to Michigan City, In. to visit my grandpa, my mom and I turned on WGN Radio in the car.

The Cubs went on to win the game (I think) and Ron Santo gave his usual commentary. At times it sounded as if he was losing hope, at other's he was as positive as ever. One thing was obvious -- his emotional ups and downs were defined by the Cubs play at any given moment.

The morning Santo passed away, floods of Twitter messages and memory-filled editorials consumed the online newspapers of Chicago and blog streams of Major League Baseball. Sports writers of every American quadrant shed a tear for baseball's loss. Why? Because Ron Santo was a unique character whose personality has yet to be matched by any player of the modern era.

Photo from Chicago Now

It's impossible to count how many articles since Santo's passing have referenced the infamous "heel click" that turned into the Cubs' "victory dance" that the Mets seemed to hate so much.

That heel click always reminded me of Bert Lahr's interpretation of the Cowardly Lion in the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz.

Ronnie had all the courage in the world even in the face of impending death and medical difficulties. The Cubs and baseball is what kept him alive all these years. His devotion was as undying and immortal as any incarnation of an all mighty religious god.

Friday night I found it necessary to commemorate this man's memory with drinks along side the only other Cubs fan of a friend I have in Washington, D.C. We sipped scotch in his honor all while talking about how Jim Hendry needs to go if the Cubs want to start at a shot for a World Series and how the Rickett's asking the Illinois government for money to "improve Wrigley" is a shameful act of greed.

[Side Note: Dear Rickett's family, If you can't pay for the work you want done then you shouldn't have bought the team in the first place. Maybe if you paid more attention to the product on the field as opposed to adding macaroni art to the streets of Chicago the people buying tickets might fill their seats instead of leaving them empty.]

There has been some talk of whether or not Santo should have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. While the fan inside me wants to say, "Send the man to the Hall," the baseball writer in me says:
"He's right where he belongs -- he's got a retired number by the Cubs at Wrigley Field and will always be remembered as the perfect combination of Harry Caray, Ernie Banks, and Ronnie Woo-Woo. He's got the announcer's spirit and antics like Caray, the player's devotion and understanding like Banks, and the fan's perspective like Woo-Woo. He doesn't need the Hall. He's already in a Hall class all his own."
Santo didn't want to be inducted into the Hall after passing away if he wasn't "good enough" to be inducted while he was alive. As weird as it sounds, I hope his wishes are held as sacred.

On a personal note, I was only ever in the same place as Ron Santo within a few feet of each other one time in my entire life (as far as I know). This past summer was my first on the Major League Baseball beat as the Nats writer for The Cubs came to town for a three-game series in August and Ron Santo was there with them.

I made it a point to be on the field for batting practice just to catch a glimpse of the Cubs legend in passing. The final game of the series he stood on the warning track during batting practice at Nationals Park chatting to buddies he's made throughout the years including the Cubs beat writers, Cubs players, Cubs players turned Nats players, and Nats coaching staff he knew from back in the day. He walked slowly atop his two prosthetic legs but what I saw was a man who never let himself be defeated. Instead, he defeated the odds by staying alive all these years.

So here's to the Chicago Cubs for keeping a legend's heart strong enough through the good and the bad because of a little unconditional love.

Rest in Peace, Ron Santo. May Cubs fans and players for decades to come know the passion you felt for this team and the wonderful feeling baseball can create in the hearts of the average person. Your courage is and always will be an inspiration.

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