Cubs legend Ron Santo dies at age 70

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Cubs legend Ron Santo dies at age 70

Friday, Dec. 3, 2010
Posted: 6:08 a.m. Updated 6:04 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com
Ron Santo considered it therapy. That's why he kept coming back each day, each year, even as his body betrayed him.

A beloved player who became an iconic broadcaster, Santo would stop the golf cart that took him up the ramps to the Wrigley Field press box to sign autographs and chat with fans. His legs were amputated years ago, the consequences of his fight with diabetes, but this gave him energy.

To generations of fans, Santo was the soundtrack for Cubs baseball. That unique voice was silenced as the 70-year-old Santo drifted into a coma on Wednesday and died overnight Thursday in an Arizona hospital from complications with bladder cancer.

"There is no star player in any sport that loved his former team the way Ron Santo loved the Cubs," said Pat Hughes, Santo's radio partner on WGN-AM 720. "He loved being at Wrigley. He loved being around people. He loved the fans."

Santo's legacy goes beyond baseball -- he helped raise more than 40 million for diabetes research -- and he played the game under extraordinary circumstances, without insulin pumps or devices to measure his blood sugar levels.

"On the field, Ronnie was one of the greatest competitors I've ever seen," teammate Ernie Banks said in a statement. "Off the field, he was as generous as anyone you would want to know.

"Ronnie was always there for you, and through his struggles, he was always upbeat, positive and caring."

Nine All-Star selections, five Gold Glove awards and 342 home runs didn't get Santo into the Hall of Fame. But he found his own Cooperstown once his retired No. 10 flew from the left-field flagpole.

Hours after his death the marquee at Wrigley Field read: "RONALD EDWARD SANTO 1940-2010." Flowers and Cubs hats were placed outside the entrance to Gate G. And into the night, beneath a black sky, they took pictures of his name in lights.

"The heart and soul"

Like so many others across Chicago, Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts and his family first felt like they knew Santo listening to him from the broadcast booth.

"We knew him for his passion, his loyalty, his great personal courage and his tremendous sense of humor," Ricketts said in a statement. "Ronnie will forever be the heart and soul of Cubs fans. (We) share with fans across the globe in mourning the loss of our team's No. 1 fan and one of the greatest third basemen to ever play the game."

As Santo hobbled through the dugout on his way to a pregame interview with Lou Piniella -- "the fine manager of the Chicago Cubs!" -- it was easy to forget how athletic he once was.

But the numbers are sturdy and show that he performed at an elite level. Between 1960 and 1974, only four players had 2,000 hits, 300 home runs and 1,300 RBI: Hank Aaron; Frank Robinson; Billy Williams; and Santo.

That resume didn't convince the Baseball Writers Association of America, which never gave Santo more than 43.1 percent of the Hall of Fame vote, or the Veterans Committee. Santo will next be eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2012, though the new "Golden Era" ballot (1947-1972) hasn't been compiled yet and won't be revealed until next fall.

The snub lingered as a tremendous disappointment, but Santo's second act was unforgettable. For 21 seasons he was a color commentator in every sense of the word. Who else has a toupee catch on fire?

"Oh, no!"

In an age where announcers try to be slick or prove they're the smartest guys in the room, Santo simply couldn't hide the fact that he was rooting for the Cubs. It was the organization that signed him as a teenager out of Seattle. It was an unapologetic, improvisational style that couldn't be copied.

"I can't plan what I do," Santo said last summer, on a night where the Cubs celebrated the 50th anniversary of his big-league debut. "I get embarrassed sometimes when I hear what I said: "Oh, no! What's going on?" It's an emotion and it's being a Cub fan. I didn't realize it to be honest with you."

The bonds with the audience grew strong enough that Graham Warning, a Lakeview resident running errands Friday morning, felt compelled to stop and light a candle where Santo's name is engraved on the Addison Street sidewalk.

"He was the greatest," said Warning, a tear streaming down his face. "There's not a lot of stars that we can look up to anymore."

The baseball schedule can be absolutely brutal, even when you're traveling on charter flights and staying in luxury hotels.

Santo was hospitalized on Memorial Day after working a game in Pittsburgh and left the team the next week in Milwaukee. He had cut back on road games, but there was a sense that he would be behind the microphone next season.

"He enjoyed every moment until the last day of his life," teammate Billy Williams said in a statement. "You never had to look at the scoreboard to know the score of the game. You could simply listen to the tone of his voice."

Not a problem in the world

Santo used his platform to become the booming voice and smiling face of a cause. This wasn't just lending a name or checkbook activism.

Patrick Reedy, the executive director of the Illinois chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, remembered a towering figure that stood on artificial limbs and disarmed volunteers with his warmth.

Santo's walks for charity generated millions in donations, and his presence screamed at those young children with diabetes. They too could dream about playing for the Cubs.

"He brought a massive amount of joy and urgency," Reedy said.

It seems Santo did everything that way, and he was certain that he'd be there to make the call when the Cubs finally won the World Series. He shared the same optimism and frustrations as his listeners. He had to come to work to see what might happen next.

"This has been my life for 50 years," Santo said last June. "I wouldn't be around (without it). All I went through -- the diabetes and the operations -- and every time I walk into Wrigley Field, (I) don't have a problem in the world, other than moaning and groaning a couple times when the Cubs aren't doing well.

"The fans, the organization -- you kept me alive. I believe that very strongly."

Stay tuned to Comcast SportsNet and CSNChicago.com for more on this developing story.
Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

“That’s what we’re supposed to look like,” Joe Maddon said Monday night after a 6-4 loss where the San Francisco Giants scored the first six runs and Wrigley Field got loudest for the David Ross “Dancing with the Stars” look-in on the big video board, at least until a late flurry from the Cubs.

But for a manager always looking for the silver linings, Maddon could replay Addison Russell’s diving stop to his right and strong throw from deep in the hole at shortstop to take a hit away from Christian Arroyo. Or Albert Almora’s spectacular flying catch near the warning track in center field. Or Anthony Rizzo stealing another hit from Brandon Belt with a diving backhanded play near the first-base line.

The highlight reel became a reminder of how the Cubs won 103 games and the World Series last year – and made you wonder why the 2017 team hasn’t played the same consistently excellent defense with largely the same group of personnel.

“Concentration?” Jason Heyward said, quickly dismissing the theory a defensive decline could boil down to focus or effort. “No shot. No shot. It is what it is when it comes to people asking questions about last year having effects, this and that. But this is a new season.

“The standard is still high. What’s our excuse? We played later than anybody? That may buy you some time, but then what?

“The goals stay the same. We just got to find new ways to do it when you have a different team.”

FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver’s statistical website, framed the question this way after the Cubs allowed the lowest batting average on balls in play ever last season, an analysis that goes all the way back to 1871: “Have the Cubs Forgotten How to Field?”

Even if the Cubs don’t set records and make history, they should still be better than 23rd in the majors in defensive efficiency, with 37 errors through 43 games. The Cubs have already allowed 28 unearned runs after giving up 45 all last season.

“We just got to stay on it and keep focusing and not let the miscues go to our head,” Ben Zobrist said. “We just have to keep working hard and staying focused in the field. A lot of that’s the rhythm of the game. I blame a lot of that on the early parts of the season and the weather and a lot of difficult things that we’ve been going through.

“If we’re not hitting the ball well, too, we’re a young team still, and you can carry that into the field. You don’t want to let that happen, but it’s part of the game. You got to learn to move beyond miscues and just focus on the next play.”

Heyward, a four-time Gold Glove winner, missed two weeks with a sprained right finger and has already started nine times in center field (after doing that 21 times all last season). Zobrist has morphed back into a super-utility guy, starting 16 games at second base and 15 in two different outfield spots.

[MORE CUBS: Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?]

Maddon has tried to drill the idea of making the routine play into Javier Baez’s head, so that the uber-talented second baseman can allow his natural athleticism and instincts to take over during those dazzling moments.

The Cubs are basically hoping Kyle Schwarber keeps the ball in front of him in left and setting the bar at: Don’t crash into your center fielder. Like Schwarber and Almora, catcher Willson Contreras hasn’t played a full season in The Show yet, and the Cubs are now hoping rookie Ian Happ can become a Zobrist-type defender all over the field.

“I’m seeing our guys playing in a lot of different places,” Heyward said. “It’s not just been penciling in every day who’s going to center field or right field or left field. We did shake things up some last year, but we did it kind of later in the season. We had guys settle in, playing every day. This year, I feel like we’re having guys in different spots.

“It’s May whatever, (but) it seems like we haven’t really had a chance to settle in yet. Not that we’re procrastinating by any means, but it’s just been a lot of moving pieces.”

The Giants won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 with a formula that incorporated lights-out pitching, airtight defense and just enough clutch hitting. The Cubs are now a 22-21 team trying to figure it out again.

“Defense comes and goes, just like pitching,” said Kris Bryant, the reigning National League MVP, in part, because of his defensive versatility. “I feel like if you look at last year, it’s kind of hard to compare, just because it was so good. We spoiled everybody last year. Now we’re a complete letdown this year.”

Bryant paused and said: “Just kidding. Different years, things regress, things progress, and that’s just how it goes sometimes.”

For Joe Maddon, Cubs winning World Series came down to Giant comeback in SF and avoiding Johnny Cueto in elimination game

For Joe Maddon, Cubs winning World Series came down to Giant comeback in SF and avoiding Johnny Cueto in elimination game

Jon Lester vs. Johnny Cueto at Wrigley Field – the playoff matchup the Cubs dreaded in an elimination game – will happen more than seven months later under far different circumstances.

The Cubs have a 2016 championship banner flying next to the iconic center-field scoreboard – the ultimate response to any questions about their slow start to this season. The San Francisco Giants can’t have Madison Bumgarner saunter out of the bullpen when he’s recovering from a dirt-bike accident, another reason why an odd-year team is much closer to last place than first in an improved National League West.

The Giants don’t have the same aura, because the Cubs staged an epic comeback to end a best-of-five division series last October, scoring four runs again five different relievers in the ninth inning at AT&T Park.

“I’m telling you, man, Game 4 pretty much won the World Series,” Joe Maddon said. “I did not want to see Mr. Cueto pitching back here again. I’ll get to see him (Tuesday night), but that’s OK, compared to whatever that day would’ve been.”

Maddon has admitted this already, but it is still telling from a manager who always tries to stay in the moment and ignore the negativity. It says something about a Giant franchise that had won 10 straight postseason elimination games and World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 – and a fan base that used to expect things to go wrong in Wrigleyville after more than a century of losing.

“That whole Game 4 in San Francisco, I did focus on that a lot,” Maddon said. “Just trying to understand Game 5 back at home – how this is going to play out – and do whatever we possibly can to win that game there that night in San Francisco.

“That was the game for me – out of the entire postseason. To have to play the Giants where they were battle-tested – Game 5, back here with (Cueto) pitching – I did not like that at all. I thought that pretty much the postseason hinged on that one game in San Francisco.”

Even though the Cubs still had to survive a 21-inning scoreless streak against the Los Angeles Dodgers before winning their first NL pennant in 71 years. And come back from a 3-1 deficit in the World Series and beat the Cleveland Indians on the road in a 10-inning Game 7 for the ages.

[RELATED: Cubs can't complete another miracle comeback against Giants bullpen]

“That’s what good teams do,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “They’re a very talented club, very solid all around. You don’t win the World Series unless you are.

“Look back at our success, how many times were we looking at elimination? No, you’re never surprised in the postseason. Anything those teams do, it’s because they’re there for a reason. They’re very good.”

Lester beat Cueto in a 1-0 instant classic when Javier Baez lifted a 3-2 quick pitch into the basket beneath the video ribbon in the left-field bleachers. Cueto kept the Cubs so off-balance in Game 1 that Baez actually walked up to home plate in the eighth inning thinking bunt.

The Giants reacted to that Game 4 meltdown by giving All-Star closer Mark Melancon a four-year, $62 million contract at the winter meetings, trying to fix a bullpen that led the majors with 30 blown saves last season.

“It was close,” Bochy said. “Three outs from taking it to Game 5 with a pretty good pitcher going. We can speculate all we want. There’s no point in that. It didn’t happen.

“But, sure, you look back. That’s how tight that series was. Unfortunately, we couldn’t hold on. Give them credit – great job coming back. We’re a team that plays very well under pressure, and we did there. Just couldn’t hold on to that ninth inning.”