Saturday, December 4, 2010

Rest In Peace

The first time I can remember being affected by the death of an athlete -- in terms of having a strong emotional response to the news -- was when Fred Washington Jr. was killed in an automobile accident in his rookie season for the Bears in 1990. I had a football card of Washington in his TCU uniform that I hung up on my wall as a reminder that no one was immune to our mortality; that even the most gifted and successful among us are struck down in the prime of their lives without rhyme or reason.

Nearly a decade later, I was staggered by Walter Payton's passing, a player who had achieved iconic status in my eyes (and those of nearly everyone else in Chicago) through his works on and off the field in the Second City. As a child, I revered my Payton Kangaroos in the same way that kids a bit younger than me would eventually cherish their Air Jordans. I watched everything I could about Payton and fell in love with how he carried himself and conducted his affairs. If even the most supremely talented of us could manage to best all comers with good humor and humility, there was hope for all mankind.

The news that Ron Santo had passed away earlier today also rattled me. I am too young to have ever seen Santo play. Most of my knowledge of what made Santo a legend as a Cubs player comes from books and his baseball cards. Nevertheless, Santo is inseparable from the Cubs franchise for me.

I recently finished reading Harry Pearson's "The Far Corner," and the author's recounting of how his grandfather imbued him with a lifelong passion for Middlesborough was wholly unfamiliar to me. I became a Cubs fan by virtue of traveling from the western suburbs to Wrigley Field occasionally and watching WGN broadcasts of the team religiously. No other relatives were fans of the team and, as such, no person close to me introduced me to the rich (tragic) history of the club.

Santo filled that void, as he did for many others in Cub nation. Santo's stories about his playing days fascinated me. I bought books documenting his era and, subsequently, those of the players that preceded him just to get a more fulsome understanding of where his passion came from. One of the principal reasons we headed to Mesa was the fantasy I had harbored of being able to listen to Santo spin tales about the past at a local restaurant -- something that I had heard about from other Cubs fans who reveled in recalling their time spent as Santo's rapt audience. I settled for just meeting the man and holding myself together long enough to earnestly thank him for how much of himself he poured into his radio broadcasts.

When I broke the news to my wife over dinner, she immediately expressed her sorrow. She has generally tolerated my fascination with sports but going to games has failed to generate any abiding interest for her. Still, she reminded me tonight that she regularly listened to Cubs daytime broadcasts at work through the internet. She never really cared about whether the Cubs won or lost and could barely remember what had happened in any game she listened to on any given day, but she loved listening to Ron Santo and Pat Hughes. They could have been giving commentary on bass fishing or NASCAR for all she cared, she simply adored Santo.

The Cubs always travel well and over the last fifteen years I have been able to count myself amongst the number largely because of Santo. At every game we went to, regardless of the city or the circumstance, we would have to find the WGN radio booth and catch a glimpse of Pat and Ron. At almost every game, initiated because we were decked out in Cubs gear, someone would strike up a conversation about how they became fans of the North Siders and inevitably Harry Caray and Ron Santo would be central figures in the origin story.

In addition to all these things, Santo's work for WGN addressed a nagging concern that I think haunts all sports fans: that the players don't care about their teams as much as the fans do. This was never a question with Santo; he cared more about the Cubs than any fan, regardless of their ties with the team. Santo lived and died with the team in such a spectacular way that it made caring about the team seem to be not in the least bit absurd.

I never had any great affinity for Harry Caray. I thought, probably unfairly, that Harry's schtick was more about him than the team and I was not terribly interested in what he was selling. Ron Santo was all-Cub. His time in the booth never seemed like it was about Ron Santo. To me, it always seemed like what it would be like if fans were allowed to call games, except, in this case, the fan had formerly been one of the team's most storied players.

Whenever Santo's career is discussed, what he did not achieve figures into the narrative as much as his triumphs. That Santo played for a hopelessly tortured franchise that did not win a World Series during his long association with the club (and well before that association began) and that Santo was consistently and cruelly denied his rightful place in Cooperstown are seminal parts of what people know about him. But that is an unfortunate irritant. What Santo achieved is far, far more interesting and relevant.

Ron Santo is one of the greatest Cubs to have ever been part of the franchise. Improbably, his work with the team after retiring from playing ball will have as much long-lasting significance (if not more) as what he did on the field.

Thank you Ron. Our sincerest condolences to those you have left behind.

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