What Would Santo Do?

What Would Santo Do?

As all joyful events are shadowed today by the horrific killings of 12 innocent children and adults in Aurora, Colorado, I would like to take a moment to imagine what a man like Ron Santo, who is being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, NY this weekend,  would do in a case like this.

After all, he called the Cubs baseball games on WGN Radio 720 after the 9/11 tragedies. He urged a stunned Cubs nation back to life after the greatest tragedy we had known in our lifetime. That helped us get through.

Ronnie’s gift to the game of baseball, and to us, was his oversized heart and outsized passion for the game of baseball and for life itself. And for many of us who grew up in that Golden Age of baseball (mid-60’s to late 70’s), baseball was a pure form of joy. Before steroids, cocaine, and other game and life-altering drugs became known. Before TV contracts made everyone associated with Major League Baseball rich. After reading Ball Four by Jim Bouton, which revealed 70’s-era lifestyle choices and conduct unbecoming to America’s heroes, a more jaded, cynical fan was born.

Santo was a throwback to the Golden Age of baseball, when players were accessible to the fans. When it was truly a sport played for the love of the game.

When I became a sports broadcaster back in the 1990’s, it was my honor to share the Cubs Media Dining Room with him. Watching him digest his diabetes-friendly meal, I was fortunate to share some conversation with him. Off the field, I knew him to stop his car and roll down the window to sign one last autograph, greet one last fan, and have one last drink with a fan at Bernie’s Tap across the street from Wrigley. He was truly one of us. And one of the last who reached out across the collective barrier that separated us from the athletes.

It’s my belief that Ronnie, just as he did in the darkest of dark days after a national tragedy, would rally us together in a heartfelt display of grief, reaching out to the family and offering prayers in their time of need, and urging us all to look deeply into our hearts and help each other, not hurt each other.

Had he lived to see his induction this weekend, and heard the tragedy that has unfolded since the early morning hours, I could just hear him, in a public statement delivered on the vast expanse of lawn in front of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.  I can hear his rough-hewn voice crackle as he would have likely said the following: 

Before we start this celebration, my wife Vicki and I, and our family would like to send our prayers and thoughts to the families of all those affected by the tragedy in Colorado. I’d like to observe a moment of silence for those who lost their lives.”

He would have bowed his head, likely wiped a tear or two from his eyes, cleared his throat, and continued on.

Ron Santo had the biggest heart anywhere.  He was that kind of guy.

On my office desk, I keep one picture at eye-level at all times. It’s not a picture of my family, nor of Justin Timberlake, or even Michael Jordan.

It’s Ron Santo, #10 himself, aka “This Old Cub,” in the photo card that was given to fans when his number was retired in 2003.

Santo, the man at the hot corner for most of my unorthodox childhood, is my inspiration then, now, and always. 

I first became aware of Santo as part of a revered infield–Future Hall of Famer Ernie Banks at first, Paul Popovich at second, Don Kessinger at shortstop, and Randy Hundley as catcher.  Future Hall of Famers Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins rounded out that lineup. Even in this company, Santo is special.

No one else had to overcome the life-threatening, tricky disease called diabetes to play the game. As told in Wikipedia:

As part of the publicity surrounding “Ron Santo Day” at Wrigley Field on August 28, 1971, he revealed his struggle with diabetes. He was diagnosed with this disease at the age of 18, and was given a life expectancy of 25 years. Santo had both his legs amputated below the knee as a result of his diabetes: the right in 2001 and the left in 2002.

Known to one and all as Ronnie, I never would have known his daily battle until he announced it. That makes his overall statistics even more impressive. He was the first third baseman to hit 300 home runs.  Baseball reference.com lists him as #66 among all batters….right behind Jackie Robinson. He was nine times an All-Star. Five times a  Gold Glove Award winner. He also set National League records for career assists (4,532), total chances (6,777) and double plays (389) at third base, all of which were eventually broken by first ballot Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt.  Owner of the 1973 Lou Gehrig Memorial Award, which likely meant nearly as much to him as an MVP.

After he retired in 1974, he went to work raising funds for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), creating a popular walk that has raised millions of dollars to better understand and someday, eradicate this disease.   All Ronnie wanted was for others to have a better life.  Despite his own battle with the disease, Ronnie maintained an active existence and a vital sense of humor. Even losing his legs was no barrier to living his life and seeing the humor. As he pointed out in “This Old Cub,” the great documentary by his son, Jeff, he just moved along with his life, this time, wearing his “uniform” every day by  painted his #10 on prosthetics.  

He even handled his consistent rejection for the Hall of Fame  (1985-2010) with class. He admitted disappointment, but never berated the members of the class that voted against him. While he would have liked to get in, he took joy in what he did have when he was alive.

“This is MY Hall of Fame!” he said as his number was retired at Wrigley Field.

Santo died at 12:40 am on December 3, 2010 in a Scottsdale, Arizona, hospital due to complications from bladder cancer and diabetes. There wasn’t a dry eye in Chicago that day. Thousands of people viewed his casket and offered condolences as he lay in state at Holy Name Cathedral.

A year and two days later, on December 5, 2011, the 16-member Golden Era Committee composed of Hank Aaron, Pat Gillick, Al Kaline, Ralph Kiner, Tommy Lasorda, Juan Marichal, Brooks Robinson, Billy Williams, Paul Beeston, Bill DeWitt, Roland Hemond, Gene Michael, Al Rosen, Dick Kaegel, Jack O’Connell, and Dave Van Dyck voted Ron Santo into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 2012 (Sources: Wikipedia, Sports Illustrated.)

Santo received 15 out of 16 possible votes, and became just the fourth third baseman elected to the Hall.

Life is truly what you make it. I suggest that for every person who thinks that his or her life is surrounded by too many obstacles that make you angry, that provide you with too many mountains to climb, and that make you unable to see the humanity in this world, and while at the end of your rope, consider looking at the life of Ron Santo as inspiration that you can, and will beat the odds. Better yet, instead of harm, do good unto others. Volunteer to walk in October’s JDRF Walk. Or just lead your life so as to rise above those circumstances. Do no harm. Just believe and have patience.

Ron Santo, thank you for being you. It made a difference to all of us. See you in the Hall.

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