Saturday, December 4, 2010

Ron Santo: A Wonderful Life

Rest in peace, Ron Santo.With Cubs legend Ron Santo passing away during the Christmas season, I can't help but notice a parallel between his extraordinary life and my favorite Christmas movie, It's A Wonderful Life.

In the immortal holiday classic, George Bailey is a man with lofty goals whose life is not going according to his plans. He wants nothing more than to leave the small town of his birth, attend college, travel the world and plan big cities. None of that ever happens, but divine intervention eventually leads George Bailey to realize the enormous impact his existence has had on the lives of those around him. He didn’t need the recognition, wealth and fame he so craved to make a lasting impression on the world.

It’s A Wonderful Life might as well be subtitled The Ron Santo Story. Ronnie had dreams of winning a World Series as a player, of being recognized for his outstanding career by being inducted into Cooperstown and of watching his beloved Chicago Cubs win the World Series from his post in the broadcast booth. None of that ever happened, but Santo didn’t need a visit from Clarence the angel to embrace his wonderful life. He knew how blessed he was and that he could use his talents and fame to positively impact the world around him.

And did he ever.

As I alternately laughed uproariously and choked back tears today listening to interviews with Santo’s colleagues intermingled with highlights from his Cubs broadcasting career, I realized anew the impression he made on my life. Usually when a notable athlete/celebrity/dignitary passes away, I feel a sense of detached sadness, but this is the first time that such a passing has filled me with a true sense of grief. I will add my sentiments to the throngs of people who never met Ronnie in person, but feel as if they’ve lost a dear friend.

Many people have already said that Ron Santo was the consummate Chicago Cubs fan and that is certainly true. I spent many a summer day sharing the heart-pounding experience of a Cubs game with Santo and play-by-play man Pat Hughes. While Pat stuck to the script and gave a gripping account of the action on the field, Ronnie could be counted on to deliver the exact rollercoaster of emotional responses that every other Cubs fan was feeling. He was the unapologetic, loud-mouthed, die-hard Cubs fan in the booth and that is exactly what we wanted him to be. Anyone who complained about his lack of skill as a color commentator or listened to the Pat and Ron Show expecting to hear great insight from Ron Santo was completely missing the point and quite simply barking up the wrong tree.

Santo embodied the often bipolar nature of the Cub fan. His blood pressure would rise and fall with the tenor of the baseball season. He would exult in a come-from-behind victory, howl during a horrible inning and mope after a tough loss. But win or lose, he was always back the next day and he was always expecting victory. At a very young age, Santo hitched his wagon to a team that frequently serves lemons to its fans. Thankfully, he quickly developed a winning recipe for lemonade.

Beyond the baseball diamond, Santo saved himself some lemonade, too. He faced adversity with a smile, even when it forced a dramatic altering of his goals and plans. His battle with diabetes has been well-documented and cost him a longer playing career and eventually both of his legs. Anyone who doubts the depth or authenticity of his eternal optimism need only watch This Old Cub, the excellent and inspirational 2004 documentary that shows the rigorous routine of his daily life. Better yet, you can read about it in his own words.

Cubs baseball will never be the same again. The Pat and Ron Show has had its series finale (sadly wasted on one of the most forgettable Cubs seasons in recent history) and the team has lost its greatest booster.

But for once, at least the posthumous canonization of an athlete is well deserved. Santo’s life was an inspiration. I’m sure he would want his death to be a wakeup call for all of us: No matter what you’re going through, it can still be a wonderful life.

Thanks, Ronnie. Rest in peace.

[Originally posted to my Cubs blog, Nearly Next Year]

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