February 25, 2009

A Gruff, Baritone, Dying Cat: Ron Santo

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This is Part I of a two-part column. Part II will run tomorrow.
My mind is generally so preoccupied with thoughts about what others think of me that I doubt I could ever find time for the requisite male thought about sex every seven seconds, or two minutes, or whatever it is. I even recently got called a narcissist when I was got caught looking at my reflection in a store window. I honestly do that, though, because I am so concerned that people are about to laugh at me for something.
I guess the bullet point presentation of this opening is that I just want to be liked.
Being a journalist is not the way to go about doing this, unfortunately. I should clarify.
Technically, writers and broadcasters are both considered journalists. In reality, however, there seems to be one big difference. Broadcasters are people’s friends. They’re the soundtracks of our lives, even a parental figure at times. They’re respected and well -iked by the people they cover. Writers? They’re the faceless, pestering name on an email, caller ID, or byline. They’re only witty and personable, full of bravado and confidence, on paper, not in person. Writers are frumpy and frazzled and frequently prefer confined, dark spaces, bitter remarks and isolationism.
I seem to be a writer — go figure.
When I think back on my relationship with sports journalism growing up, my fondest memories are of broadcast journalists. The eternal in-the-moment optimism of the TV and radio sports announcers I grew up with always won out over the cold reality of the beat writers in the morning sports section that I read religiously.
Sports announcers represent the enthusiasm and infinite possibilities you have during a night out. Writers are the ones there the next morning to show you the dumb things you did the night before.
I remember lying in my bed on lazy summer afternoons, the kinds when the sun cuts through the blinds and lulls you to sleep with its warm horizontal bars. My bedmates, so to speak, were always Pat Hughes and Ron Santo, the radio announcers for the Chicago Cubs games. I would drift in and out of comfortable sleep while Hughes’ professional and classically trained voice bantered with Santo’s stuttering, rambling, bumbling, senile idiocy.
I loved them. They were there to celebrate with me; they were there to console me. Hell, they even gave my mom and me something to talk about when we traded Pat and Ron stories.
Hughes is your traditional radioman, cut in the mold of a Vin Scully and sounding like a speech coach at times. He has the kind of voice that would have narrated newsreels shown in movie theaters during World War II.
Santo is the face of the Cubs’ general ineptitude for almost the past half century. As a fixture at third base for the team from 1960-73 and a broadcaster since 1990, he has become one of the most beloved people in Chicago. He is gruff, quick to laugh and wears outdated floral buttondown shirts, gold chains and ugly wool sweaters (Ironically, he loves making fun of Hughes’ wardrobe). He has an obvious hairpiece that once caught on fire in the broadcasting booth at Shea Stadium in New York. Santo laughs about it. He’s proud, but relatable.
“People like me as an announcer,” he said. “Because I’m like they are.”
Santo is so loved that the Illinois House of Representatives once adopted a resolution urging the Veterans Committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame to elect him to the Baseball Hall of Fame. His failure to get into the Hall of Fame, despite the statistical wherewithal to merit induction in many people’s eyes, has only further associated him as a Cub — a loveable loser.
When I was in high school, we had to fill out a form for our college counselor so they could suggest colleges to apply to (I think Cornell was suggested as a “reach” school for me — take that Mrs. Kovaks). I put Santo as the answer to “Name a person that inspires you.” I was only half-joking.
I first got to know Santo as the befuddled announcer who would trail off mid-sentence, unabashedly cheer or groan over his play-by-play partner whose color commentary might include, “Pat, he went to the curve there because, oh wait, no … well, I’m not sure but … well I think that was a fast ball …”
Late in the 1998 season, with a playoff spot in the balance, the Cubs were trying to finish off the Milwaukee Brewers in the ninth inning.
Hughes: “Two down, the Brewers have the bases loaded, and a 2-2 count on the hitter. Here’s the pitch. Swung on. Fly ball to left field. Brant Brown going back. Brant Brown …”
Santo: “Oh, nooooooooo!”
Hughes: “He dropped the ball! Brant Brown dropped the ball!”
Santo: “Nooooooooo!”
Hughes: “Three runs will score, and the Brewers have beaten the Cubs.”
Santo was wailing, apoplectic. He sounded like a gruff, baritone, dying cat.
In a strange way, that was enough for me to love him.
“I saw something that probably has not been ever seen before in a big league clubhouse,” Hughes said later. “I saw the manager trying to cheer up the broadcaster after the game.”
As I got to know more about Santo’s life, he did inspire me to do more than laugh at his goofiness.
Santo was a feisty and determined baseball player in his day, perhaps to the point of seeming arrogant to some opponents. Perhaps he was just worried about losing his job. Perhaps he was worried about people thinking that his Type I diabetes was affecting his play.
Yes, when Santo was 18, he was diagnosed with diabetes.
“I had already signed a professional contract,” Santo once said. “And then I went to my doctor and found out I was a diabetic and the first thing I asked him was ‘Can I play baseball?’ He said, ‘I have no idea.’ So I made my mind up then that I was going to play.”
He told the Cubs organization and his teammates, but kept it a secret from the media. It was a secret he would keep for over a decade.
“And they all looked at me and said, ‘What?’ You know, they all thought, ‘Well, do you eat too much candy?’”
No one knew much about Santo’s condition, not even his doctors. Santo, just out of high school, was told he wouldn’t live past 25.