This is a good day for Ron Santo and the Chicago Cubs. It’s a good day, too, for Santo’s family. And by family, I mean all his relatives, Cubs fans, Chicagoans and anyone who ever knew him, met him, saw him or heard him. That’s how you felt with Santo.
The day has finally come: Ron Santo has made it into the Hall of Fame.
He deserved it. But the thing is, he deserved it several years ago, too. You have to know how much this meant to him, how many years he waited for it, how much he suffered for it. Santo just wanted to make it before he died. He said that for years, while his health was failing and pieces of him were removed.
He died this time last year, not knowing if he’d ever get there. He was 70. So this is a day to celebrate, but also one to make you wonder why it couldn’t have come earlier. Better late than . . .
No, forget that. Shame on baseball for waiting until after Santo died to honor him. His career is the same now as it was two years ago, 10 years ago, 30 years ago. What was the problem? What was the delay?
Everyone knew for years that Santo was dying, and baseball fumbled around and couldn’t bring itself to honor one of its best players until after he was gone.
This is sick. It’s an insult. An honor and insult all in one.
“I’ve got tears in my eyes writing this: congrats to the Santo family on Ron’s election to the MLB Hall of Fame,’’ famed Cubs fan Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins wrote on Twitter. “A good day to be a Cub fan.’’
Yes, that’s the better way to look at it. A good day.
Santo belonged. A nine-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glover. He had 342 homers before the steroid era and countless clutch hits. He was the best third baseman of his generation in the National League. And then he spent two decades as a Cubs broadcaster. It was a lifetime contribution.
Technically, he was the worst broadcaster you’ve heard. He would have admitted that, too. But you had to hear him because he brought joy to the game. And pain and anguish. Santo was an open nerve-ending of what it is like to be a Cubs fan.
“Oh, nooooo.’’ Every Cubs fan already knows what that means. It was the way Santo responded on the radio when Brant Brown dropped that flyball in the 1998 pennant race.
Santo was on the 1969 team that had it won and was finally going to break the Cubs’ decades-long slump. Then the team fell apart while the Mets became Amazin’. Chicago fell in love with those Cubs and still cherishes that year’s team.
The truth is, Santo never really got over that year. When he came back years later as a color guy, he was there because he wanted to see the Cubs win it all just one time.
Santo was a mean S.O.B. as a player. I got to know him a little, and he once talked about waiting half a season for the chance to make Rusty Staub pay for spiking him. He didn’t trust pitchers, not even ones on his own team. Someday they might be pitching against him. So he didn’t want to divulge any weakness, or perceived weakness, including the fact he had diabetes.
But as an announcer, he was everyone’s favorite uncle, just waiting for the Cubs.
So he’s a symbol of the Cubs, really. Part of that 1969 team, he then spent the rest of his life waiting hopefully and hopelessly for the Cubs at the same time. That’s exactly what it is to be a Cub.
He spent Christmas 2001 in the hospital while his right leg was amputated. The next Christmas, the other leg was removed. In 2003, he nearly died during surgery for bladder cancer, but he made it back home for Christmas. He was so excited to spend the holidays with his grandkids. This is what he told me for the Chicago Sun-Times that year, about a week before Christmas:
"My family has been with me in the hospital the past few Christmases, but that’s not the same. I was starting to worry, but antibiotics did the job on my staph infection, and I just got so festive.
"My wife and I got this big, gorgeous tree that looks like snow. It was so big. I’ve got a big home, but I didn’t know if it would be too tall.
"And then we had to cut it down. The house is all full, front and back.
"I have an acre and a half back there and a pool, and it’s all lit up.
"And my grandson is over every day. He still believes in Santa Claus, but I keep telling him, ‘Grandpa is going to be Santa Claus this Christmas.’ "
Santo had gotten him a basketball hoop.
The Hall of Fame is an emotional thing. A few years in a row, I talked with Goose Gossage after he had been rejected. He was furious, embarrassed, disconsolate all at once. Finally he got in.
When Santo wouldn’t make it, he was panicky and so overwhelmingly, painfully disappointed. He just wanted to get in before he died.
The emotions are there for a fan, too. I grew up watching him, copying his trademark heel kick. Maybe that skews the emotions today, honestly.
But to watch Santo and to watch the Cubs for years and years is to see how bittersweet this day is.
Santo should have been rewarded with a World Series. That disappointment is part of being a symbol of the Cubs. He gave everything, his heart, his emotions, his body to the Cubs. We watched them remove pieces of him while he waited.
And they never came through. Are you listening, Theo Epstein?
The Hall of Fame finally did it, but too late. Santo surely would have wanted his family and all Cubs fans to count this as a happy day, though.