Friday, Dec. 10, 2010
By Patrick Mooney
If it is only a game, and just a baseball team, then why did Ron Santo believe it kept him alive all these years?
Santo meant more to people around Chicago than an All-Star third baseman or a radio announcer should. But there may never be a more unique match between athlete, city and team.
You noticed it with the small, spontaneous gestures around Wrigley Field, the We love you Ron messages at Gate G, the chalkboard outside a Clark Street bar that simply read 10 You will be missed.
You could see that on the weeping faces at Holy Name Cathedral, where one flower arrangement at the altar formed the Cubs logo. It was a kind of religion for Santo, an addictive mixture of faith, optimism and frustration that he shared with fans who never met him but still felt like they knew him.
Sun hit the stained-glass windows Friday as Santos extended family gathered beneath the arched ceilings of the big Catholic church on State Street. They celebrated the unbelievable life of Santo, who died last week at the age of 70 from complications with bladder cancer.
Monsignor Dan Mayall woke up that morning and injected himself with insulin. As a boy, he played catch with a Wilson 2170 glove that had Santos named inscribed on it.
The ballplayer became a hero when Mayall, at the age of 19, learned he had diabetes, and realized there was someone else showing you can live well with the disease.
If we miss him now, wait until we turn on the radio for that first pitch in Mesa in March, Mayall said. Ron Santo is the poster boy for joy. Ron Santo had an overdose of hope. Ron Santo lived on courage.
Santos old teammates Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins, Randy Hundley, Glenn Beckert served as pallbearers and helped wheel the casket down the aisle. Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts, baseball commissioner Bud Selig and WGN Radios Pat Hughes gave eulogies at a service carried live on television.
Ron was so in touch with the fan base that at times he can describe what was happening on the field without using actual words at all, Ricketts said. Every moan and groan, every shout for joy, we knew exactly, exactly what Ron was saying. Ron was truly the beating heart of Chicago Cubs fans.
An example to others
That pulse drew many Cubs employees to the funeral, from the stadium workers to general manager Jim Hendry to manager Mike Quade to team president Crane Kenney.
Current and former players were scattered throughout the pews: Ryne Sandberg; Gary Matthews Sr.; Ryan Dempster; Ted Lilly; Kerry Wood; Sean Marshall; Tom Gorzelanny; and Koyie Hill.
Broadcasters Len Kasper and Bob Brenly along with the radio and television crews that produce the games paid their respects. So did Sen. Richard Durbin and Jesse Jackson. But Santo wasnt defined by famous friends.
Hughes explained how Santo shrunk the distance from his audience. Santo, who lost both his legs, would meet amputees and give them the names and numbers for prosthetics professionals. He would read his fan mail before games and call complete strangers.
Ron Santo had time for everybody, Hughes said. Parents of diabetic kids would bring their children into the booth and Ronnie would just say, Hang in there, kid!
You got to watch your diet. You got to watch your blood sugars. Listen to your doctors. Youll be ok. Youll live a good life. I have so can you. And the kid would always walk away feeling a little bit better.
Hughes, a graceful, gifted storyteller with a smooth voice and an eye for details, breezed through an 18-minute eulogy that filled the room with laughter. At times, hanging with Santo must have felt like being in a Seinfeld episode.
It didnt matter if you heard it before Hughes was rolling with stories about his partner for 15 years. There was the time they stood up for the national anthem at Shea Stadium and Santos toupee caught on fire when it touched an overhead heater. So Hughes dumped water all over it.
There was the yogurt machine at a media dining room in Phoenix with specific instructions that Santo ignored: Do not turn on until game time. As the yogurt kept pouring out and would not stop, Hughes said, Ronnie did what any true seventh-grader would have done he ran away.
When the Cubs retired his No. 10 an honor he considered his own Hall of Fame induction the state of Illinois declared Sept. 28, 2003 to be Ron Santo Day. The proclamation came on a fancy piece of paper that resembled a college degree.
Santo had it up in the booth and proceeded to spill eggs and coffee all over it, before reaching to grab it as a napkin. There was a boyish quality to him even as he became a grandfather.
I would just like to ask you a favor, Hughes said. However you remember him, please do so with a big smile on your face. He would have liked that very much.
A voice that cannot be replaced
Santo could be as sweet as the candy bars the trainer used to keep on the bench whenever he needed a boost to fight the condition he kept secret. He succeeded in his post-playing career without the malice or cynicism often found in modern media.
The teams next radio analyst wont be able to get away with the same mistakes on air, and future Cubs managers wont have to console him after losses like Jim Riggleman and Lou Piniella once did.
Santo was a character with a style all his own. Wood remembers sitting down with him a few seasons ago for an interview before a game in Houston.
He started out: Im here with Chicago Cubs pitcher and he just got locked up, Wood recalled. It was early in the morning and he had a cocktail or two the night before. I (go): Ron, its been 10 years. So he starts over, gets the name right, and then he says, Here in Cincinnati...
But the connection to the players he rooted for so hard became so strong that after clinching a 2003 playoff series win in Atlanta, Wood made a point to call Santo from a hallway outside the clubhouse before he could begin popping champagne.
At once Santos legacy is both simple and complex. Some never saw the player who won five Gold Gloves and only heard him on the radio. Others argue that he should be in Cooperstown. Everyone can respect the more than 40 million he helped raise for diabetes research.
In the end, Santo approached everything with the determination Hughes described in this scene: To climb up the steps of the team's charter jet, Santo would grab the rail with his left hand, use the walking cane in his right and bounce up into the cabin.
John McDonough the Blackhawks president and former Cubs executive who helped make Santo a radio star read from the Bible a passage (2 Timothy 4:6-9) that captured a man seemingly without regrets. There will never be another Ron Santo.
The time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on, the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for His appearance.
Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.