This marks 40 years of my conscious memories as a Cubs fan. I remember Ron Santo clicking his heels after they won games in 1969. I remember the collapse. I remember the crushing feeling of associating myself with such a loser of a team, naively thinking, along with Jack Brickhouse, "wait 'til next year". Right. The Cubs suck. They should just take a wrecking ball to Wrigley Field and sell the club and move it to someplace in Iowa if they lose to the Dodgers after compiling the best record in baseball in the 2008 season. Regardless of what happens, optimism does have its benefits. I would like to have faith enough in myself to live through what he has had to live through, though the days now are becoming fairly interesting. Maybe the lesson of being a Cubs fan is to not to fear loss so much, because when they do come, they make you appreciate all the more what it is that you do have in your life and what is important. The other lesson is not to get so attached to loser teams.
I'll say it again: it's a form of Stockholm Syndrome to be a Cubs fan. Being a Cubs fan has been like having been taken hostage by a kindly terrorist who plies your mind with notions of glory year after miserable year and robs you of your will to resist even glimmers of hope. It was the one thing that both a kid and an adult could call real anticipation, no matter how difficult life seemed, as well as the notion of possibility, regardless of the potential for those very things to be cruelly and viciously crushed. It didn't matter: next year was always there as bait. We came to love the feeling in the spring that is always, consistently, eternally hopeful. I can hear the voices of my buddies "the Cubs will shine in '69". Right. What do I do? Start to root for the Mets because my grandfather Ike Diamond lived in the Bronx and then Manhattan? It's a possibility. I have to see how hopeless they are. I can't knowingly get involved with another team that is as hopeless as the Cubs. Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I'm free at last.
In Cubs’ Luckless Lore, the Story of a Baseball Life
CHICAGO — The feet that he famously clicked together are gone now, and his Cubs are on the verge of completing a century without a World Series victory.
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But Ron Santo still feels that he’s closing in on everything he wants. He can imagine a cure for the diabetes that forced his lower right leg to be amputated in 2001, and the lower left one in 2002. He can picture the championship that has eluded the Cubs since 1908. And he can hear the call that tells him, finally, that he is going to the Hall of Fame.
Nobody epitomizes the plight and the wait-till-next-year optimism of the Cubs like Santo, 68. He was a nine-time All-Star as a third baseman for the team from 1960 to 1973, and has spent the past 19 seasons as an emotionally charged color commentator for the team’s radio broadcasts. He has been both witness and participant in the team’s luckless history.
It was Santo, for example, who was in the on-deck circle at Shea Stadium in 1969 when a black cat strolled past. It came to signal the collapse for the talented Cubs and the rise of the Miracle Mets. It is Santo who still calls the Cubs “we” and has been known to moan “noooo” when things do not go well.
“If you say Chicago Cubs, you say Ron Santo,” said Billy Williams, the team’s Hall of Fame outfielder from 1959 to 1974.
And here were Santo and the Cubs on a cool and hopeful night in October. Fans filled the bleachers for Game 2 of the division series with the Dodgers, the train rattled up the Red Line, and the setting sun cast the Wrigleyville neighborhood in an orange glow. Santo was in his usual seat in the booth behind home plate. Waiting.
“I’m hoping this will be it,” Santo said. “This would be a perfect world for me. World Series, No. 1. Well, actually, No. 1 is to find a cure for diabetes. That’s my No. 1 hope. But then the World Series, and the Hall of Fame.”
His optimism, again, was about to be severely tested. The team fell behind the Dodgers quickly and lost, 10-3. The Cubs had the best record in the National League but trail the Dodgers 0-2 in the best-of-five series, which has moved to Los Angeles.
Before the game, Santo was buoyant. “I feel like this team is going to get there this year,” he said. “I really do.”
By the middle of the sixth inning, with the Cubs losing, 6-0, he was trying to keep a brave face and a firm voice.
“I’m a little upset,” Santo said off the air. “I didn’t expect this. I really didn’t expect this. I felt so good about this game.”
His stomach was in a knot, and Wrigley Field was a deflated balloon.
“I let this bother me too much,” Santo said. Once again, he was speaking as a fan, for the fans. “And I can’t help it.”
It is part of what has endeared Santo to Cubs fans for a couple of generations. He hit .277 for his career, with 342 home runs and 1,331 runs batted in in 14 years with the Cubs and a final season with the White Sox. He also won a Gold Glove five times.
What fans did not know until a decade into his career was that Santo was found to have juvenile diabetes at age 18. He did not tell the club until he made his first All-Star Game. Fans learned years later. Santo did not want it to affect how he was perceived.
He always kept a candy bar and orange juice or Coke in the dugout. And he remembers a game in 1966, standing in the on-deck circle as Williams drew a walk to load the bases. The big green scoreboard in center field was in triplicate.
“Bill Singer was the pitcher for the Dodgers and there were three of him — one, two, three,” Santo said. “I’ll never forget this. I just said to myself, I’m swinging at everything, just to get out of there and get some sugar in me. First pitch I hit a grand slam home run. And I’m going around the bases, and Billy Williams is slowing down, and I said, ‘Billy, go, go!’ ”
Sunday will mark the 30th Ron Santo Walk to Cure Diabetes, which raised $5.8 million last year for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
Santo has had several operations on his eyes. He had quadruple bypass surgery in 1999. Circulation problems led to the amputation of his legs, about 8 inches below the knees. He wears prosthetics and walks with little trouble. He brings a cane to games.
“Until adversity hits you, and I had open heart surgery and lost both my legs, you think I can’t get through it,” Santo said. “But really, you do what you have to do. I say that to everybody. You only have one way to go, and that’s a positive way.”
His baseball statistics made Santo a borderline Hall of Famer. His next chance for induction comes in the next few months, when the veterans committee holds its biannual vote for players long overlooked. Last time, Santo led the 27 hopefuls with 57 votes, but he needed 72. He was eight votes short two years before.
“I’m getting older, and I don’t have that time, and with diabetes — I mean, I’m not worried about it, but, you know, I want to be here when it happens, if it does,” he said.
A 17-year career in business (pizza, then oil) bridged his playing and broadcasting careers. The Cubs asked him about becoming a commentator in the late 1980s, and he pursued it after he threw out a pitch during a 1989 night game.
“I thought, God, I’d love to be here when they win it,” Santo said.
He does not sound like other analysts. His longtime play-by-play partner, Pat Hughes, says Santo remains the Cubs’ biggest fan, and Santo sees that as a good thing.
“I think I’ve personally become more popular as a broadcaster, because I’m like they are,” Santo said of Cubs fans. “They love it when I let how I feel out, with the emotions. I sometimes don’t even realize what I did.”
The same thing happened in 1969, when the Cubs were rolling toward a pennant. After a victory at Wrigley, Santo jumped and clicked his heels. Santo said he did not remember doing it the first time. But Manager Leo Durocher liked it.
“He said, ‘Ron, you think you can do that again? With the bleacher bums and all that, why don’t we make that the victory kick at home?’ ” Santo said.
He did, until the team collapsed and it did not feel right any more.
Santo is nearly 40 years older now, but more of a Cub than ever. He does not know what he would say if the Cubs won a championship (“It has to happen,” he said), but he knows just what to do.
“If we win the World Series, I would go out on the field and click my heels,” he said. “And probably fall on my fanny.”