A handshake, a smile and a conversation with my hero, Ron Santo

RIP, Ron Santo

September 1999. The Cubs are out of it.

But we — my best friend Mike and myself — are in it. “It” being our longtime destination of all time — Wrigley Field.

A throwaway late-season series between the Cubs and Cincinnati Reds was meaningless for much of the baseball world. Two teams going nowhere, even if Sammy Sosa was having another monster year after an MVP season in which he led the Cubs to the playoffs.

Looking back, the Cubs, with too many September roster expansion players who had no business on a Triple-A field, let alone in Wrigley (Ruben Quevedo, anyone?), treated the series for exactly what it was. After a towering Sosa three-run shot onto Waveland Avenue in the first game on Friday — Mike and I could trace the ball’s flight from 20th-row seats behind home plate for our very first Wrigley experience — the Cubs didn’t score again for the rest of the weekend. Our first trip to see our boyhood beloved Cubs, and they go the last 22 1/3 innings without touching home plate. We were swept out of our first Wrigley visit.

Honestly, that didn’t matter so much to us. We got to see the cathedral, the Church of Baseball, and despite the long faces that appear in a couple of postgame photos we had taken of us behind the Cubs’ dugout, Mike and I look back fondly on the trip.

And Ron Santo was a huge reason why.

Sunday’s game was an ESPN “Sunday Night Baseball” game, for reasons probably lost on the network itself. Ryne Sandberg sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the Seventh-Inning Stretch (Caps are necessary for this at Wrigley) and we had a great view of him leaning out of Harry’s window. Mike and I had seats along the third base side, low in the upper deck, between third and home. It was a beautiful Chicago night (if you don’t count the baseball), with a brilliant view of the North Side skyline beyond the ivy and bricks.

After the game, Mike and I lingered in our seats. We had to leave at 5 a.m. for the drive home the next morning, but wanted to soak as much of Wrigley in as we could. We were two of the last the leave.

Ronnie always said what we fans said -- only he had the microphone.

A great thing about Wrigley is that the stadium is so simple. Even the bathroom troughs have some charm. The concourse, especially at that time, was the only way for fans to get to the upper deck, or for the media to get to the pressbox. We watched Sandberg walk out after the 7th, in fact. And, if you are early enough to the ballpark, you might catch a player on his way into the clubhouse.

Finally, with the brightest lights dimmed, Mike and I left our seats and walked toward the breezeway. We make the first turn on the way down, and here comes Ronnie.

Santo is my biggest baseball hero. By far. Of course, he’s one of the greatest Cubs of all time. In fact, though Cooperstown is less of a shrine without him, he’s one of the game’s greatest third basemen. But that was before my time. I loved Ronnie for a lot of the reasons people my age loved Ronnie — he is a Cubs icon, as much for his playing days as for his radio broadcast career on WGN Radio. Ronnie can’t just be called a homer, which he was, because was the ultimate fan, only with a microphone in front of him. When Brant Brown missed the easy fly ball that would have put the Cubs into the playoffs a day earlier in 1998 (thank you Neifi Perez), Ronnie said what the rest of us said: “OH NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!”

But Ronnie was more than that to me. My mother fought juvenile diabetes for most of her life, as did Ronnie, in a time when few people, not to mention doctors, really understood the disease. When Santo played ball, he didn’t always treat his diabetes with insulin; many times he ate a candy bar and drank a coke. For six years, even his teammates didn’t know he played with the disease. Knowing all that, go back and look at his numbers again.

And so Santo’s unbelievable charity work for diabetes hit home with me. My mother went through two major heart surgeries, a kidney transplant in 1985 (she was her surgeon’s 50th transplant patient), numerous eye surgeries that still couldn’t save her sight in her left eye and intense pain in her extremeties. She eventually lost her fight four years ago, but along the way, Santo had his own heart trouble, had both legs amputated, and finally, on Dec. 3, 2010, lost his fight to bladder cancer.

Neither were ever known to complain about the illness. Ever.

But 11 years before this sad day, Ronnie was walking toward us, striding, I can still see through my teary eyes this morning, on his own legs. There’s no one around us. No one. It’s that late after a sold out baseball game. Somehow, we muster up the courage to say hello to Ronnie.

And Santo stops cold. “Hey guys, where ya from?”

One of us: “North Carolina.”

Santo: “Really? That’s great. You came all the way here from North Carolina?”

Me: “We even drove it.”

Mike: “Yeah, we were here for the whole series.”

Santo: “No kidding? Wow. Sorry we couldn’t have played better for you boys.”

Mike: “That’s OK. It’s nothing new.”

Santo: “Well, you got that right.”

Me: “Thanks, Ron. Thanks so much.”

He shakes both of our hands. “You guys be safe going home, OK?”

“Yes, sir.”

If only Ronnie had some clue as to what I meant in saying thanks. If only I had the time or the nerve to tell him why I had to say thanks.

But hell, I could barely breathe.

Mike and I still talk about that moment, and we laughed and cried with Santo for the next several years thanks to the beauty of MLB broadcasts on XM Radio. (“Hey, did you hear Santo when we couldn’t move the runner over in the fifth?” “Yeah, he was still groaning about it and saying, ‘Geez!’ in the 11th.”)

Today, though, we’re mostly crying.

I’m so glad I had the opportunity to shake my hero’s hand. I didn’t need a picture. I didn’t need an autograph.

I had a moment with the man. And, on his way home, he was kind, generous, engaging and actually interested in what my best friend and I had to say.

Just because we were good fans.

Ron Santo, I will miss hearing your voice when the days are warm.

But I will never forget what it sounded like.



I'll miss you, Ronnie.

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7 Comments

Filed under Alex Podlogar, Chicago Cubs, Designated Hitter, Major League Baseball, Ron Santo, Sports columns

7 responses to “A handshake, a smile and a conversation with my hero, Ron Santo

  1. chicagoburke

    Thanks! This was great.

  2. John Hardman

    Thank you for posting your article about Ron Santo today. It was fantastic and straight from the heart.

  3. Dave

    We’ll all miss Ronny. My condolences on your mother and her struggles.

  4. Chris

    Thank you so much for your article. This is a very sad day for all real baseball fans. The world would be a lot better place with more people like Ron Santo.

  5. pete

    Thank you for sharing this. Summertime in Chicago (and elsewhere) will never be the same.

  6. layla999

    I had the honor of shaking Mr. Santo’s hand when I was 13…and he had just retired as a player. I had a bigger honor of seeing him play better than anyone that has played 3rd base in Chicago….before or since…and listening to him as an announcer. Most think Harry Carey was the voice of Chicago, but he was not. Jack Brickhouse, Lou Boudreau, and, now, Ron Santo were the announcers who were there to love the game…and the Cubs.
    He will be missed.
    I can only hope that Mr. Selig and the Veterans committee right this egregious wrong and elect Ron Santo into the Baseball Hall of Fame as a Player…because for so many reasons, he deserves the honor!

  7. Mike

    Perfectly said, as usual.
    I still remember that day proudly. What a great ending to a great trip, even though the actual baseball was horrible. Santo was suc an excellent guy, how cool of him to take the time to talk to two dorks from NC after a long night of bad baseball.
    I consider myself lucky to have been at Wrigley that night. I consider myself just as fortunate to have been at Wrigley in September of 03 when #10 went up on the left field foulpole. My wife agreed to go to Wrigley as part of our Honeymoon and , that day, the day after we clinched the division, Santo’s jersey was retired at Wrigley. I will never forget what Tracey said to me as we stood during the ceremony, “You didn’t cry at the wedding yesterday, you’re not allowed to get emotional today during this.” I guess that was the first time of more than one that I didn’t follow direction in the marriage. :)
    It hurts like crazy today to think about him being gone but I don’t even want to imagine the first time I turn on the XM in April in my office for a day game. That is going to be really rough.
    The lady in the Starbucks drive-thru this morning is still probably wondering why the 35 year old guy in her line had tears streaming down his face this morning. I couldn’t help it, was listening to Mike and Mike on the radio and heard the news. Talk about a punch in the gut first thing in the AM.
    I will miss you Ron Santo, thank you for being great and thank you most of all for being you.

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