Tony Gwynn and Ron Santo: Losing Legends

Tony Gwynn and Ron Santo: Losing Legends
Tony Gwynn stroked a run-scoring double for the San Diego Padres against the Chicago Cubs in 1994. Credit Frank Polich/Associated Press


As usual, I heard the news of Tony Gwynn's death via Twitter. Yes, the social media platform I once reviled for its trendiness and brevity has become my go-to source for news, particularly of the sporting variety. I've grown to embrace the medium, now understanding that Billy Shakespeare himself would have found it the soul of wit.

So often, I'll glance over an obscure stat or a snarky comment, occasionally re-tweeting or adding my own sarcastic commentary, (right, @WilcoMeThat?) but yesterday was different. The thing about Twitter, though, is that you don't usually get the whole story. It's like the very tip of an object buried in the ground; you have to dig around to reveal the rest of the story.

Sadly, there was no Paul Harvey-esque ending to my search yesterday. Cancer has no conscience, no sense of propriety, and it took a great man before his time yesterday. As I scrolled through my timeline, I continued to see reports of the death of a legend, a man they called Mr. Padre. We tend to venerate people in death, sometimes undeservedly; we clean up the truth a little.

But eulogizing Tony Gwynn with praise and superlatives didn't require anyone to dust off their jersey or knock the caked mud from their cleats. And it had nothing to do with the career .338 average or 3,141 hits, or even with the superior athleticism (he stole 319 bases, 56 in 1987 alone) so many overlooked due to a body that grew a bit more rotund as Tony's career progressed.

For as much as the eye-popping numbers came to the forefront, right there with them were stories of Tony as a man: father, teammate, teacher, friend. And as great as his legacy on the diamond is, the stories of Tony Gwynn and the way he carried himself and treated others may be what lasts longest.

Perhaps that's why so many who never had the opportunity to meet him still felt the loss yesterday. For me, it was sort of a numbness, almost as though a part of me I hadn't even known existed was suddenly missing, but that I was somehow diminished by its loss nonetheless.

As Cubs fans, we're used to losses, one of the most painful of which was delivered by the incomparable Mr. Gwynn. No stranger to loss himself, Ron Santo is another baseball great who I regret never having the chance to meet. But like so many others, I felt like I knew him just the same.

Late last year, on the 3rd anniversary of his passing, I shared some memories about Ronnie in an article that was published via the Yahoo Contributor Network. You can read the whole thing here, but I've excerpted much of it below:

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.

"SAN-TO, SAN-TO"

The chant quickly grew in volume, drowning out Petroskey's voice as he tried to continue with his presentation.

"SAN-TO, SAN-TO"

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.

I won't cop to feeling exactly the same way about Tony Gwynn; that wouldn't be fair to his memory. But the loss I felt at his passing was real nonetheless. I think that's because we, or maybe just I, tend to place athletes and other larger-than-life figures in this separate little box, thinking that they aren't oppressed by the same slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that tend to afflict the rest of us.

Even a man who batted over .350 in 7 separate seasons, including 5 straight ('93-'97), and who struck out only 434 times in over 10,000 plate appearances (Mike Olt might get to that total this year alone!) is still a man. Tony Gwynn was a great hitter but he was an even better person.

Godspeed, Mr. Padre. I even forgive you for '84.

Follow me on Twitter: @DEvanAltman

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