No one more passionate than Ron Santo
Late Cubs icon inspired and touched many lives with love, selflessness and enthusiasm
When I came up through the Cubs' minor league system, it was no secret that I would get a major league shot somewhere along the line. I was a first-round pick and with that status came the expectation that I had skills that could make me a major leaguer one day. So I hoped.
But part of the equation for such a path involves your approach, your attitude, your heart for the game. Much of my criticism as a early professional ballplayer came in the form of my "nonchalance" or my laid-back attitude.
After my brush with Ryne Sandberg in A-ball during his rehab assignment, I found out first hand that you can barely say a word and bury your opponent. This was discovered after I had cut a deal with the Cubs' director of instruction. He challenged me to wear my heart on my sleeve for a while, just to see what happened and he promised that I would learn something in the process.
So when I struck out, I started throwing a helmet or two. Maybe scream and yell when a call didn't go my way. I clenched my fists, I threw my bat. I didn't really think it was working because I didn't feel any better, only that it was easier for my teammates and coaches to know what I was expressing. I guess that was worth something.
Nevertheless, I went back to the "me" I had always known. Passion on the inside, focused, laid back, and with Sandberg as evidence, I was sure I could make it to the top of the profession.
But then I came across Ron Santo, and I had to revisit my internal discussion about passion. He just seemed to embody passion. Being around him made you believe that passion can be defined, that there is a way to be passionate. Not the bat-throwing, emotional immaturity kind of passion, but one with purpose that brings everyone into the family.
There was no apology for his opinions, his feelings about a moment or a person. He just allowed everything to be out in the open, no holds barred, no guessing. I suppose that could be a tough approach as a neutral observer and commentator of the game, but he stayed true and let it be known that the Cubs were a big part of his heart.
As a Cubs player, I was all right with that. Even in the worst of times, we knew Ron Santo would wave that banner high about his head and make us feel like we were the greatest team on earth. Every conversation with Ron was like talking to a motivational speaker. You understood that stopping and giving up was not an option, that there was something bigger than your batting average or your free agent status. You were a Cub and blue was your color, end of story.
I remember hearing Mark DeRosa speak at an Athletes Against Drugs function over the holiday last year. He spoke passionately about being traded from Chicago, but more interestingly, he said that his biggest disappointment wasn't about losing the chance to bounce back from the 2008 first-round loss in the playoffs. He was saddened that he lost the chance to win as a Cub, because the first thing he would do after celebrating with his teammates was hug Ron Santo.
After playing the game for a long time, especially in the time period when I played, it was easy to get focused on your own agenda. The stakes were high, money was flowing in, and steroids were changing the realm of possibility. But when you saw Ron Santo, you had to check yourself about what really mattered when wearing the uniform. It was all about putting yourself aside and knowing why you were here in the first place, for reasons that were a lot bigger than self.
It was only fitting that Ron would battle to make every road trip even when his body was failing him. Diabetes ravaged his body to the point where he lost both legs, but this didn't stop him from getting in the booth, high above Wrigley Field, a trek that would tire the strongest of us. He had a medical support system for the road trips just in case something happened. But he was where he wanted to be. Around the game, around the Cubs.
Over the years, I have done a few seventh-inning stretches, and no one was more energized than Ron Santo. He was always enthusiastic about what I was doing with my life after the game. He promoted my dreams. He remembered old stories. And when he teamed with Pat Hughes to share a moment that was close to him, it was like two people who were in complete sync. They just had a music about them.
I had seen Ron a lot over the last few years. He always took the time to meet everyone, always asked how everyone else was doing. He didn't want you to worry about him because he was doing what he loved. He was cheering on his team, the team he wanted to celebrate at his Hall of Fame induction. He certainly has the numbers to get in the Hall and now with the steroid era looming large, we look back a little differently at what numbers can mean to a career.
But numbers don't tell the story of Ron Santo. It didn't take a lot to know that he was all about the love of the game, love of his organization, love of his city. Probably more than anything, he wanted to get into the Hall to share that love, not for himself, but for the game, his family of baseball.
I was traded from the Cubs on Dec. 23, 1997, to the Philadelphia Phillies and then, in late July 2003, the Cubs re-acquired me for a playoff push. In my time as a Chicago Cub, I learned so much about personal growth and being open to different ways of sharing, playing and loving the game of baseball, and I can say that I have not come across many people around the game that love it as much as Ron Santo loved it. And when you are on the same team as Ron, you cannot help but understand that having Ron as a supporter and a teammate was nothing short of a gift.
You had to be a better, more selfless version of yourself when you were around Ron, and once he touched you with that experience, you knew why you loved the game, all over again.
Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and the fundraising committee of Boundless Readers. His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released May 11. Click here to buy it on Amazon.com.
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