I saw Ron Santo play.
Granted, I was too young and ignorant about the ways of baseball to be truly subjective. Some may argue that is still the case. Some can bite me.
I was five in 1969, which means I was all of nine when he was traded to the Sox. It would be foolish for me to come out here now and try to convince you about whether or not he played his position with more skill than you might think. I was not old enough to appreciate his ability to hit with runners in scoring position, and even if I was more aware of my surroundings than I was, Santo himself saw fit not to disclose his diabetes until the end of his career, so nobody knew. Now, I watched every game I could. My social schedule was pretty open in those days. But I do not recall Ron Santo Day, when he finally admitted the misery that would not only cut his career short, but would ultimately end his life. I do not recall his clicking his heels. I don't remember how emotional he was, the stink that ensued when he hung rookie CF Don Young out to dry as the 1969 season ran out, nor did I notice his tempetuous relationship with manager Leo Durocher. I barely recall, though, that it didn't feel right when he went across town, and I do remember how bad he played on the South Side.
Why do I remember the trade? Was it because I had the Topps "TRADED" card with him looking idiotic in red pinstripes? I did, but it wasn't that. In fact, by the time he was trade to the South Side, I had become somewhat numb with the feeling of loss.
You see, my most precious feeling about Ron Santo was shared with all the regulars of that era Cubs team. From the time I was five years old, starting kindergarten and (full disclosure) basically beginning my life as a human being because I was NOT a regular toddler (where I sat on "The Spectrum" depends on who you talk to); to my early adolescence in 1973, there was one constant in my life:
At 1:20, Don Kessinger played short and batted first. Glenn Becker played second and batted second. Billy Williams played left and batted third. Ron Santo played third and batted fourth. Ernie Banks played first and batted fifth. Jim Hickman played right and batted sixth. Then some jamoke dujour played center (because we traded Lou Brock in 1964). Then Randy Hundley caught and hit eighth. Hundley caught more games in 1968-1970 than any other catcher ever in a three year span. Then Fergie Jenkins, Bill Hands, or Ken Holtzman would pitch.
The point is, day after day for five years straight, that lineup never changed. Actually, it was six years, the core started in 1968 together, but think about that again. In this day, where guys jump at the highest bidder and the biggest topic most years for most teams is the Trade Deadline, young fans like myself could count on Kessinger-Becker-Williams-Santo-Banks-Hundley every day, every single day, for several years! We always say young children need routine to feel safe and secure. How comforting, how familiar, how dependable, how safe and secure a whole generation of Cub fans felt during that six year period of time? In a world where a young child with mild social issues constantly felt intimidated by tying shoes, two-wheel bikes, school bullies and psychotic teachers and nuns who swung yardsticks with equal impact and venom, the "69 Cubs", as this group would forever be known as, were the safe harbor in an uncertain life.
Well, eventually, the safe harbor would crumble. Banks retired in '71 after his knees went out and his ass started to grow to its current uncontrollable shape and size. Hundley finally fell apart after a half-decade of neglect. Beckert went to San Diego; Williams to Oakland; Jenkins to Texas; and finally, Ronnie went to the Sox, of all places. See, I am not going to rehash the whole "they should have voted Ronnie into the Hall while he was alive" concept. I have gone over this before. Phil Rogers insinuated today that this was exactly what happened - that voters purposely neglected voting for him until his death magnified once and for all the injustice of his exclusion. One of the most referenced gripes by critics of his candidacy was that "the 1969 Cubs already had three Hall of Famers, and they never won anything!" Thus, the argument went, a line HAS to be drawn, and they chose to draw it right in front of Ron Santo.
Then he died, and that sad occurrence finally illustrated how cynical and miserable that argument seemed, and he got in. And I am glad the ceremony went well this weekend. Hall of Famers Banks, Williams, Jenkins, Ryno were all there, as was other key members of the core such as Hundley and Beckert. Ron's wife Vicki gave a very sentimental and appreciative speech, and although it really, truly sucks that The World's Biggest Cub Fan was not on hand himself to enjoy his last great affirmation, it appears the honor and the glory and the joy was in the end as great as it could have been.
For here's the problem with the argument that there can't be four "69 Cubs" in the Hall of Fame: the so-called Golden Age of Baseball featured many teams, most better than the '69 Cubs, who maintained a core of stars for several years, but not to the extent of the '69 Cubs. In 1970, I believe, this team landed every position player except one on the All-Star team. The tandem of Santo and Williams played more games together as teammates than any other two men in the history of the game. That is a record, even more than DiMaggio's record and right alongside Cy Young's, that will never be broken. Journalists all over baseball still wonder to this day why THAT team still gets love everywhere, even though they won exactly 0 division titles?
It's because the worth of that team goes far beyond mere Wins and Losses. In the end? Perhaps we'd settle for less continuity, and more divisional titles. But that's not what happened. Instead of World Championships, Ron Santo and his Cubs provided something else. To me, it was comfort. Perhaps to others, living life in that turbulent time of war, demonstrations and the transition of America from the Baby Boom Prosperity Age to something more uncertain and in many ways less wholesome, the Cubs came at the right time in the right place. Just as they did for me. That team was Special; and Ron Santo was at its core.
That's why Ronnie is in the Hall.