My brother called me this morning with the sad news. Ron Santo had passed away last night. This is difficult to write, I am truly at a loss. Yes, I was a big fan of Ron, but I also considered him a friend. So, instead of doing a biographical blog of his life, I’m going to talk about the Ron I knew.
I didn’t meet or get to know the man as Ron Santo the Cubs third baseman but instead as Ron Santo, the Cubs loving broadcaster I met at Old Hohokam Park when he started announcing games for WGN in 1990. At Old Hohokam Park the press box was open air with one long metal counter top from one side to the other with no partitions. The press sat side by side and my seat as PA announcer was directly behind home plate. WGN radio would broadcast nearly all the spring games at Hohokam and Ron’s seat next to mine. So, as a young punk, for about four to five hours each broadcast day during spring training from 1990 to 1996, I had the honor and privilege of working next to Ron. For another half dozen games add WGN-TV to the mix with Harry Caray in the chair directly on my other side. Imagine Ron in one ear and Harry in the other. I was on the inside of Cubs baseball – live and in stereo and lovin every minute!
The best part of this was all the side commentary and joking around ‘off air’ with Ron and Thom Brennaman (Pat Hughes came on board in 1996) I quickly found out how much Ron loved the Cubs. Ron’s love for the Cubs was always front and center and he never apologized for it. As a third baseman Santo’s Cubs teams never played post season baseball but there seemed to be something deeper than wins and losses for him, a bond with teammates, a city, fans, and a team. When you’re around his kind of unwavering spirit and dedication it kind of rubs off on you, often without even knowing.
I’ll never forget the last game at Old Hohokam Park in 1996, it’s classic Ronnie. The stadium was going to the wrecking ball as soon as the game was finished, so we hoped for a win in the final game ever to be played at Old Hoho. It was a tight contest; I think it went 10 innings before Ozzie Timmons hit a HR in the bottom of the 10th to give the Cubs the win. Pat Hughes was in his first spring announcing with Ron and when Timmons hit that ball, Ron literally came right out of his chair, jumping and waving his arms…If you didn’t know him, looking at Ron’s excitement one might have thought the Cubs had just won a World Series game. It was a just another meaningless spring game to many, but Ronnie’s enthusiasm could not be contained.
When Ron had his second leg amputated from complications of diabetes in 2003 he vowed to be back walking by spring training. Ron’s fight and spirit are detailed in the film “This Old Cub”, a moving tribute produced by Ron’s son Jeff Santo. Sure enough, Ron walked out to the pitchers mound at Hohokam on opening day and tossed out the ceremonial pitch…It was my great honor to introduce him as he walked to the mound and accomplished his goal. His optimism and enthusiasm for life in spite of the physical issues that afflicted him was beyond amazing.
In 2009 we started spring training early because of the World Baseball Classic and for the first time ever, we played a game on Ron’s birthday. Robert Brinton, former Cactus League President and Big Ho of the Hohokam, surprised Ron before the game by leading all the fans in singing ‘Happy Birthday’. Looking over from my booth, I could see that it really touched Ron to hear all the fans singing collectively. When I had gone over earlier to say hello and wish him a happy birthday, Ron talked about how happy and excited he was for the games to start…Surprise, surprise.
I last saw Ron less than two months ago at Ron Santo Day in Mesa (My Oct. 10 blog) at Hohokam. He was, as you may have guessed, talking Cubs and helping get the word out about the upcoming Proposition 420 vote to help the Cubs build a new spring training complex here in Mesa. While there, Ron ended up doing what he did so often in recent years, graciously signing autographs. At one point an older disabled man asked if I could take his photo with Ron. I said sure. Ron had to get up on his prosthetic legs from being seated (takes a little doing) and walk off the stage over to the man for the photo; he did it with a smile. Ronnie was beloved by Cubs fans and that love was reciprocated. Before and after each spring game I would watch Ron sign literally hundreds of autographs until the very last person was gone.
As for his baseball career, the numbers show that Ron Santo has the credentials to be in the Hall of Fame, like most things Ron was open about his desire to enter baseballs shrine…He may get the votes now but the honor should have come years ago. Ron was an inspiration to me and so many others for so many reasons, including his love of life, his drive to overcome hardships, his charitable fund raising, and his unwavering optimism. Athletes are often put on a pedestal for better or worse and looked at as role models. Ron Santo deserves that place.