COMMENTARY | Ron Santo ruined my wife's birthday. I woke up on Friday, Dec. 3, 2010, and turned on the TV to catch the late scores from the previous night. My wife was asking me a question when the crawl at the bottom of the screen caught my eye -- she didn't get a response.
A bit perturbed that I was paying more attention to "SportsCenter" than her, my wife walked into the room and followed my slack-jawed gaze to the TV. "Oh no," she muttered before coming over to give me a hug. Though she was oblivious to her Brant Brown reference, her words couldn't have been more fitting.
I never got the chance to see Ron Santo play, but I was weaned on the nostalgia of better days, as most all Chicago Cubs fans are. So I knew who he was when he joined the WGN Radio broadcast team in 1990. And while he was a Hall of Fame-caliber third baseman, it was his two decades on the air for the Cubs that truly cemented his legacy.
Ronnie didn't follow the rule of not cheering from the press box, and that's what endeared him to the fans who listened to his radio broadcasts. No disrespect to the rotating WGN-TV duo, but I know a lot of folks who would mute the television and tune in 720 AM to hear Ron Santo and Pat Hughes call games.
Here was this elite player who was also the Cubs' biggest fan, cheering their success and bemoaning their failures. And while some might think that being around the Cubs all the time would shorten your lifespan, Santo regularly credited his work with the team for extending his battles with diabetes and cancer.
He didn't have a golden voice, a broad vocabulary, or a full head of hair (all of which were frequent topics of friendly ridicule), but Ronnie did have passion. Diabetes was not able to stop him from playing the game he loved, but it eventually took both of his legs. But Santo hardly let that slow him down, taking a page out of Lieutenant Dan's book by getting magic legs of his own.
Now, I mentioned earlier that I never got the chance to see Ron Santo play, but I do have a memory of him on the field at Wrigley that I'll never forget. It was Sunday, Aug. 28, 2005, and the Cubs were playing the Miami Marlins (then playing under their maiden name of Florida).
The fact that Ryne Sandberg's jersey was being retired that day might have factored into my attendance. Whatever the case, those were the days of sellouts at Wrigley and I was forced to buy tickets on the secondary market. As we headed to the game, my brother and I made the decision to upgrade the tickets with a broker when we got there.
Correctly assuming that Sandberg's jersey would be raised on the right field foul pole, we were able to get seats in the corner, right on the wall. From there, we stood right above Andre Dawson, Bobby Dernier, and Gary Matthews as they raised the #23 flag. But what does this all have to do with Ron Santo?
Well, the area around home plate was set up for the jersey presentation ceremony and members of the Cubs' brass were all assembled. Dale Petroskey of the Baseball Hall of Fame stepped up to the mic and began to name the Cubs' Hall of Famers in attendance. After hearing the names of Ernie Banks, Fergie Jenkins, and Billy Williams, a sound started to rise from the assembled crowd.
The chant quickly grew in volume, drowning out Petroskey's voice as he tried to continue with his presentation.
It probably lasted only 30 seconds or so, but it felt like much longer. A woman near me was actually crying as she cheered. An uninformed observer might have thought I was getting a little misty, too, but it was just some grit that had blown into my eye.
The above recollection is of a shared celebration of Ron's time with the Cubs, and I'm sure there are similar tales from the day his #10 was retired. But there are many more personal stories of Santo's generosity as well. One such story comes from Paul Johnson, a Chicago-area sportswriter, who was kind enough to share with me his favorite memory of the Cubs legend.
In 1998, I took a magazine writing class at North Central College and I approached my teacher with an ambitious project. We were instructed to put together an article and pitch it to a magazine. My aim was to write an article about Santo not reaching the Hall of Fame on the writers' ballot.
I had the chance to interview Harry Caray in a back hallway of the Hilton and Towers during the Cubs Convention with busboys buzzing around us. Sadly, a month later, Caray passed away. I figure it has to be one of the last interviews he granted.
My phone number was passed on to Santo by the Cubs and, to my surprise, I came home from class to an answering machine message in February of 1998 that started off: "Hey Paul, this is Ron Santo."
Not only did Santo grant hours of interviews, including the story of when he found out he wasn't voted in to the Hall in 1998, but he also provided the phone numbers for several of his teammates. I spoke with his old roommate, Glenn Beckert, along with Randy Hundley, Billy Williams and Mr. Cub himself, Ernie Banks.
Though the story was never picked up by a magazine, I did receive an A for the project and have been a professional sportswriter ever since. In the few times I had the chance to cover a game at Wrigley Field before Santo passed away, I was blown away by his support.
The moments in my career I will cherish the most are when Ron Santo pulled me aside in the Cubs' clubhouse and said, "How's it going, big boy?" He didn't need to know who I was, but he did anyway. My only wish is that he could have experienced his induction to the Hall of Fame.
Ron Santo might not be the greatest player to button up a Cubs jersey, but he's probably the most beloved. And on this day, we are reminded of how much he's missed. I'm just glad this isn't being written on ink and paper, as some of the final words might have been blotted. That darn grit got in my eye again.
Do you have any special memories of Ronnie as a player, broadcaster, or just as a person? Please share them in the comments.
Evan Altman is a freelance sportswriter with a wealth of trivial pop culture knowledge. He is a self-loathing Chicago Cubs apologist whose love for the team was cultivated by watching or listening to games on WGN every summer afternoon as a child.
Nothing better to do? You can follow Evan on Twitter: @DEvanAltman.
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