As most sports fans have heard by now, Ron Santo passed away on Friday. I didn't write anything about it at the time because... well, honestly, I didn't want to.
Part of the reason was that I'd written a couple of column on Ron Santo previously, and they pretty much said what I thought of the good fellow and explained at length who he was and why he was a joy. No reason to repeat all that, you can see the most recent one here.
Part of the reason, too, was that I spent five hours listening to WGN Radio, which had turned over their broadcasting day to a Ron Santo tribute.
Another part of the reason is that I'm getting pissed off writing obituaries this week.
But none of those reasons and others are enough to not write about Ron Santo's passing. Because we were lucky enough to have Ron Santo pass our way.
The all-day tribute on WGN, where Santo spent the last 21 years as the joyously goofy and endearing color analyst of the Chicago Cubs -- after a 14-year career as a legendary Chicago Cub third baseman -- started somberly. But after a while when people get together to tell Ron Santo stories, it can't help but turn into a lovefest. And thanks to the invention of audio tape, listening to clip after clip of Ron Santo being Ron Santo can't help but get you laughing.
His longtime broadcast partner Pat Hughes, with whom Santo had one of the more amazing relationships among sportscasting teams, showed up in the studio and spent hours, rather than just calling in for a few minutes, as is common. He knew that Ronnie deserved more. It was clearly difficult for him at first, but after a while the uproarious laughter and deep warmth took over. And caller after caller phoned in, from the famous to everyday listeners.
Pat Hughes and Ron Santo didn't call a baseball game, they put on a vaudeville act that happened to take place during a baseball game. They would go off on tangents, usually started by Ron, that were otherworldly ethereal -- discussing cloud formations, the best pillows to take on road trips, how to eat soup and sandwiches, tipping, clothes, whether Cracker Jacks are better in boxes or bags, which of his toupees Ron was wearing ("I've got the Gamer on today"), and on and on -- all the while Pat Hughes would remarkably continue doing the play-by-play of the baseball game in progress.
It's important to do more than just describe Ron Santo, and his relationship with Pat Hughes. It doesn't do it justice. You have to hear it. And a few mere clips can't do it justice either. But at least it will put you in the universe to understand. Here's a brief montage of what Cubs fans had the pleasure of hearing -- all the time. Keep in mind: there's a baseball game going on during all of these excerpts (Their discussion of "favorite cake" is worth the price of admission alone.) And hearing Pat Hughes's warmth and decency and never once cutting Santo off during any of his ramblings shows the closeness of their relationship. On the tribute broadcast, Pat Hughes told a story about Santo's most famous call -- but it wasn't about the call itself, but the little known aftermath. This aftermath explains as good as anything the intense passion and love for the Chicago Cubs that Ron Santo overflowed with.
The call itself came when the Cubs were fighting for the pennant with the Houston Astros. They had the lead in the ninth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers, who had loaded the bases with two outs. A fly ball was lofted to the outfield, but Brant Brown dropped it. Radio listeners were treated to the overwrought banshee moan of Ron Santo crying out, "OH, NOOO! OH, NOOOOOOOO!!!" And the Brewers went on to win the game.
What Pat Hughes explained was that after the play, when he finally had a chance to turn away from the field, he looked over and saw Santo motionless, slumped over with "his head looking like it was nailed to the desk. I really couldn't tell if Ronnie had died on the spot. I actually had to poke him with my finger to make sure he was alive." (Santo's blood pressure agonies at close Cubs games were legendary. When the great Cub pitcher Kerry Wood, who was very close to Santo, wrote a piece in Sports Illustrated explaining why Santo should be in the Hall of Fame, he acknowledged that the team had likely put Santo into the hospital several times.)
But that wasn't the end of the aftermath. Hughes went on to say that after he finished the post-game show, he went down to the locker room. Now, the game had been over for at least 15 minutes, yet there was Ron Santo sitting around among the players, still in misery, and moaning, "How could someone drop the ball in that situation?? How could a person drop that ball??! I don't get it???" And Hughes said that he then saw something he'd never seen before and doubted that anyone has -- the Cubs manager, Jim Riggleman, came over to Santo, and tried to console him, the team's announcer. "That's okay, Ron. The game's over. We'll be going down to Houston and will get them there." (They did, and made the playoffs.)
As Hughes said, "Could you envision Mike Ditka consoling Wayne Larrivee, or Tommy Lasorda consoling Vin Scully?"
When people complain that Ron Santo had a terrible radio voice, that he was a ridiculously biased home announcer, that he wasn't an insightful analyst, they are all missing the point why Ron Santo was utterly beloved. It was because his passion was so profound that the team's manager had to console him after a loss.
It was because you could tell he was as honest as one could be, and when he said something you could absolutely trust him. It was because he had an indomitable spirit in a way that few humans could even imagine -- enduring diabetes, heart attacks, having both legs amputated, bladder cancer, failing eyesight and more -- and yet having the most upbeat, ingratiating, optimistic attitude about life. And never getting to see his beloved Cubs even in the World Series, let alone winning one. Never getting elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame despite statistics that were well-deserving.
But in the end, he had his number retired by the Cubs, an honor he always said was his Hall of Fame. And given the passion with which he engulfed himself with those beloved Cubs, it's impossible to not believe him about that. After all, what came out of Ron Santo's unfiltered mouth, was honesty.
He also put his money where that unfiltered mouth was. Literally. His annual Juvenile Diabetes Walk raised over $60 million.
Caller after famous sports caller on the WGN tribute said that in all their careers and lives, they never knew of a former athlete who was as passionate about his team as Ron Santo was about the Cubs. Let alone for as long, 50 years.
Ultimately, that's why Cubs fans were as passionate about Ronnie.