Shouldn’t be surprised really. The diabetes that dogged him through his playing career has been whittling away at him for years. He lost one leg, then another. The heart issues, the bladder cancer. The last few years, he’d miss more and more games in the radio booth, skip a few of the longer road trips. But he always came back, and when he did, he always sounded so . . . so what? Alive? Yeah, alive. And he made me feel alive, too. Whether it was the eighth inning of another ugly Cubs loss at the ass end of another soul-draining season or a thrilling romp in one of the few pennant races that the boys in blue have managed, he was completely in the moment, never trying to hide behind that hepcat veneer of solipsistic irony that’s the new de rigueur persona for every sportscaster looking to parlay their local gig into their own ESPN show. He was a fan, like I was a fan.
Younger folk around here don’t remember Ron Santo the baseball player. Maybe they remember Ernie Banks and the effortless grace he brought to the field and the plate. Or Billy Williams – Sweet Swingin’ Billy – and his easy, natural stroke. That wasn’t Ron Santo. Ron was a dervish, a balls-to-the-wall player augmenting his limited physical gifts with flat-out effort. He was all diving stops, head-first slides, the dirtiest uniform on the field. In the end, 342 home runs, better than 1,300 RBIs, always among the league leaders in walks, a mess of Gold Gloves, and one of the great clutch hitters in Cubs history. And always, always a gentleman.
He never made the Hall of Fame. Should have, of course. If you look at the statistics, there are worse third basemen in there. Some say he wanted it too much. Some say it’s because the Cubs never won it all, or even won much during his career. But every year, we’d have the increasingly poignant story of Ronny waiting by the phone for that call that never came, of a man who’s time was running out hoping for the one thing left that he wanted.
Maybe the call will come now.
They’ll get somebody else for the radio booth, of course. And they new guy will be smoother. Be a better broadcaster than Ronny was by any objective standard. And through every articulate description, every rehearsed home run call, every dulcet intonation, I’ll be wishing for one of Ronny’s visceral AH GEEZES or YES BABIES!
Because in my heart I’ll know that the new guy is just another media mercenary. Ronny was a fan.