As I was growing up in Chicago, Ron Santo was a hero to me before he was a friend. Like many Little Leaguers in the early '60s, I latched onto Santo as “my guy.” In my mind, I knew I'd be the guy to replace him when his baseball career was over.
But things often don't turn out the way you envision. One thing stayed constant, though, Santo was always my guy. Especially after we became friends in the late '80s.
Ron Santo had the gift of making strangers feel like friends instantly. I watched him meet and greet thousands over the years, having the same impact on every person he met. Each person walked away feeling like they made a new friend.
I knew Ron Santo for over 30 years, and never once did I hear him complain about being sick or having diabetes or losing the bottom of both legs. Never once.
The Cubs were another matter. I'd often listen to him complain about players not showing enough heart or emotion.
Ronny always used to say, "They don't play the game like we did. They don't relate to the fans like we did, either." Of course, Santo was right.
After Cubs games in the '60s and '70s, Santo and his teammates were always a part of the scene in the restaurants and bars around Wrigley Field. The 1969 Cubs were always enjoying times with the fans in local establishments after victories.
This summer in early June, I saw the mortal side of Ron Santo for the first time. I was sitting with him in the dugout like I do probably 50 times a season when he said to me he lost some of his zest for the job. The week before, Santo spent three days in the hospital while the team was in Pittsburgh over the Memorial Day holiday. He said to me, "I just don't have the energy I used to."
A week later, he told me he was going to sign another three-year contract to broadcast Cubs baseball, but that was the resiliency of Ron Santo.
He told me his plan for 2011 was to back off the East Coast trips, play it by ear on the other road games, while continuing to do all the home games.
Santo's spirit was also much improved in late 2010 when the Cubs started to play better under interim manager Mike Quade.
The games around Wrigley will continue, but they'll never be the same without the energetic and enthusiastic Santo around.
The 2011 season will be dedicated to Santo by the Cubs, one great ballplayer, one beautiful guy.