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.
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?”
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.