For three days, I have struggled to figure out how to write this blog post. This is what I finally came up with.
It wasn’t a surprise when I woke up to the texts on Friday morning. Ron Santo, the face — or at least the soul — of the Cubs organization had died overnight. With all his health issues, we all knew this day would come eventually. In fact, there was some sense of relief that the Cubs weren’t directly responsible as a result of their on-field ineptitude. Still, the death of Santo was every bit as depressing as losing someone you know. Then again, I was fortunate to meet Ron several times in my life, so there was no lack of legitimacy to that feeling.
My first time meeting with Ron probably was probably no different than it was for most Cub fans. I was in high school, and still found it important enough to get to the ballpark early for batting practice. On his way back upstairs to the broadcast booth after conducting his pre-game interview — he still had both legs back then — Ron walked by where I was standing.
“Mr. Santo, can you sign this?” I said, shoving a program and pen in his face.
Given my marvelous lack of tact it was clearly an imposition, but he clearly didn’t mind.
The next time we crossed paths was when I was fortunate enough to have an internship where I got to regularly work at Wrigley Field covering the Cubs in 2002. On quite a few of those occasions I got to eat lunch at the same table as Ron and Pat Hughes, and it was simply enjoyable listening to them continue their on-air repartee in the media dining room. During one such conversation, I also got the chance to let Ron know he was my great-grandmother’s all-time favorite player, a fact that meant a lot considering that she had pretty much seen every Cub since the days of Rogers Hornsby and Hack Wilson up to Mark Grace and Sammy Sosa. He clearly got a kick of hearing about her admiration. A small moment, but meaningful no less.
However, my favorite Ron Santo story took place at his least favorite place on earth, Shea Stadium.
It was the summer of 2005, and my friend Two Beers and I ventured up to Cooperstown to see Ryne Sandberg inducted into the Hall of Fame. The Cubs also happened to be playing the Mets that week, so my buddy got us the hook-up through a guy he knew for sweet tickets that allowed us access into the Shea “Diamond Club” after the game.
As was the case for many Cub games in ’05, the game itself was a nightmare. Rookie pitcher Rich Hill got rocked as he showed the form that would define his promising yet ultimately disappointing career (7 runs in 1 2/3 innings) and we were pretty much in a bad mood the whole time.
Luckily, when we went up to the Diamond Club to find our connection who gave us the tickets and was driving us out of Queens, I ran into someone who was just as pissed — Ron Santo.
Ron was sitting by himself at a table for two, looking glum and drinking a Coors Light — something I didn’t even know he was supposed to be doing as a diabetic with two prosthetic legs, but after watching that game, who really gave a shit?
When Ron saw me, you could see the recognition of “I know I’ve seen this guy before, but who the hell is he?” come across his face. More importantly, though, you could tell he was just happy to see someone wearing a Cubs t-shirt as he found himself surrounded by a horde of vile Mets fans. (Let’s not forget that there were death threats against Santo when the Cubs played at Shea in 1970. He was pretty much Public Enemy No. 1 for Mets fans those days, and the feeling was mutual).
I got a drink and sat down with Ronnie, who was clearly in need of someone to vent to.
“Boy, that was brutal,” I said, or something to that effect. “What’s going on with this team?”
“I tell ya,” Ronnie responded. “We’re playing horseshit baseball.”
He definitely couldn’t say that on the air.
Shortly thereafter — I don’t recall whether I had to fetch him or not — Two Beers joined us with the look of a kid on Christmas morning. I can honestly say that I have never seen anyone as excited as he was when I introduced him to Ron. If anyone ever wanted to know what Ron Santo meant to Cub fans, I would have frozen that moment in time for everyone to see. We did get a photo a couple minutes later that gives some indication of the excitement, but few events will remain etched in my mind as that exact moment he got to meet Ron Santo. Even when Ernie Banks joined our suddenly burgeoning group shortly thereafter, it didn’t match the reaction of meeting Ron. (Our ticket guy, who grew up a Yankee fan in the late ’60s, was more floored by meeting Mr. Cub since to him Santo was merely a player rather than a broadcaster. But both of them were on cloud nine).
One other thing I clearly remember about the meeting was explaining to Ron the whole reason behind our trip, which was built around Ryno’s induction to the Hall of Fame.
“When they induct you, we’ll be there too,” I promised.
Sadly, Cooperstown has yet to let its doors open to Ronnie. At least heaven had more sense.