I awoke early this morning and turned on the radio and heard them talking about Ron Santo. I wondered why, and then it hit me, "Oh my God, he must have died."
He died from complications of bladder cancer. He went through so much fighting his life-long battle with diabetes and the other maladies it brought on and finally succumbed early this morning. He was 70 years old.
Let's take a trip back to happier times. I was a youngster growing up a Cub fan and enjoying the magical 1969 season. I remember Ronnie clicking his heels after every Cub victory that year as he ran to the clubhouse in the left field corner.
I looked forward to that heel clicking because it meant my beloved Cubs were that much closer to making the playoffs and winning that elusive World Series. I had already waited so long, thirteen years in fact.
As we all know, the Cubs didn't win it that year. Little did I know how long it would be, 102 years and counting, and, as a Cub fan, all I can do is wait.
Unfortunately the wait is over for Ron Santo, both for the Cubs to win it all and for his entrance into the Hall of Fame, something that should have happened many years ago.
Bill James, the man who put the stat in statistician, bemoaned the fact that Santo had never made the 'Hall,' saying that his exclusion was the biggest injustice of all of those still waiting to get in.
Perhaps that '69 season was to blame for that. A lot of players on opposing teams, Santo's peers, thought he was a hot dog. They didn't like the heel clicking and thought he was rubbing it in.
That was also the year where Santo berated center fielder Don Young when he dropped a couple of balls late in the season as the New York Mets were closing in on the team. He took abuse for that for a long time and never really lived it down.
But the Ron Santo I remember was a great ballplayer and a guy who never turned down a fan.
He used to sell a product called Ron Santo's Pro's Pizza. Back in I believe 1968, my mother had an issue with something related to the product and walked down by the field and asked Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, who was sitting on the bullpen bench before the game to get Santo for her.
Ernie obliged and Ron ended up giving my mother an autographed team ball for me. I still have it.
My next run-in with Santo was in 2004, the first year I had access to the Cubs via a media pass. I approached him and asked if he would mind doing an interview with me. He obliged on the spot.
I couldn't believe that I was sitting in the Cubs radio booth overlooking Wrigley Field before the game asking questions to one of my childhood heroes.
It was my first interview for The Heckler and I'll never forget it. He was very candid with me, talking about everything from why the Cubs never won when he played, comparing today's players to yesteryear, and his thoughts about the Hall of Fame.
I have had many interviews since then, but I never forgot that one and how could I? Nobody was like Ron Santo.
In 1990, he started working for the Cubs in the radio booth as the color man. His radio skills weren't as accomplished as his skills on the field, but he was real.
He was the average fan sitting at home and reacting to the play the same way we were.
Who can forget his most famous call when young Cub outfielder Brant Brown dropped a fly ball that would have ended the game late in the 1998 season as the Cubs were making a playoff push?
"Oh no!" he screamed. That soundbite has played over and over throughout the years, and came to exemplify the passion that he had for his beloved Cubs.
He wore his heart on his sleeve. After that game, he had to be consoled by then manager Jim Riggleman because of how hard he took the loss. That was Ron Santo.
There wasn't a bigger Cub fan anywhere.
He persevered for all of these years despite losing his legs and other hardships due to diabetes. He was holding on, hoping the Cubs would accomplish what he couldn't accomplish during his playing days: winning the World Series.
He was also hoping to get that bronzed plaque in Cooperstown signifying that he was one of the greatest players to ever put on a uniform.
In a 15-year career, he slugged 342 homers and drove in 1,331 runs and finished with a .277 batting average. He was a nine-time All-Star and won the Gold Glove award five times.
He was one of the best hitting and fielding third basemen of all time and his numbers compared favorably with Brooks Robinson, who was a first ballot Hall of Famer.
Perhaps that 1969 season came back to haunt him. The Cubs have three members from that team enshrined, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins. The thought of a fourth member of a losing team being elected might have swayed the voters.
And then there were those players that perhaps held grudges for their view of Santo during his playing days.
The Veterans Committee decided each time his name came up that he was not worthy of joining them. These were the living Hall of Famers, many of whom he played against.
He got his hopes up so high every time his name came up. He was so happy when the vote went to the players, thinking those that played with him knew he belonged amongst the best to ever play the game.
But the vote never came in. He had the most ballots cast for him, but not enough to fulfill his dream.
Two dreams shattered for a man who brought great memories to so many. A man who gave of himself to others and dedicated himself to helping to find a cure for the disease that eventually led to his death.
He never wanted to be voted in posthumously, but now that he has passed, sentiment might make that happen.
He'll live on for me every time my phone rings.
Maybe now that's he's gone, he'll have a little pull and help his other dream come true, that of the Cubs winning the World Series.
Those are my memories of him. I'd love to hear yours.
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