Ron Santo wanted this day for so long, and now that it’s finally here, he isn’t. The Hall of Fame call, the one he waited for and agonized over pretty much his entire adult life, came on Monday, but he’s no longer with us to answer the phone and hear this: “Ronnie, welcome to the Hall of Fame.” And that’s not right.
He was asked once, on one of the many days a new group of inductees was announced and he wasn’t among them, if he’d be OK getting a spot in Cooperstown, even if it came after he died. And, in that style that endeared him to generations of Cubs fans, he said “I don’t want to go in post-humorously.” Of course, he meant posthumously, but then an E-5 on words was part of what made Ron Santo.
I spent seven years in Chicago, covering the Cubs and White Sox, and to this day say the most interesting person I’ve ever covered was Ozzie Guillen. The most impressive was Ron Santo. And for so many people, Ron Santo didn’t belong in the Hall because he was one of the best third basemen of his generation. They didn’t want him in because of his 342 homers, 1,331 RBIs and 2,254 hits. I mean, those were good enough reasons. But so many of them wanted him in because he was Ron Santo.
I know it’s not the best baseball argument, and that writers who serve as gatekeepers to Cooperstown shouldn’t vote with their hearts with something as important as entry into the Hall of Fame. But all those people that wanted Ron Santo in for being simply Ron Santo, I get it. So no, this isn’t a piece about the numbers and the on-field credentials.
I admit that when I first arrived in Chicago, I didn’t understand what Ron Santo meant to the city, to these people, to Cubs fans and to those suffering from diabetes. To me, he was a shrieking, name-mispronouncing homer cluttering up a radio broadcast. Before his health rapidly declined, Santo took a few days off from Cubs broadcasts. In his absence, I wrote a column for the small suburban newspaper for which I worked, a piece saying what a break it would be for his partner, the classy Pat Hughes, to have a few days off from Ronnie’s malapropisms, from the recaps of his between-innings trips to the bathroom, from his butchering of the English language. I recalled some of his classic mistakes. (Note: Let’s get something straight, I wrote this before the leg amputations, before the bladder cancer, before the suffering reached the unimaginable levels it would in the years to come. I mean, even I’m not heartless enough to pick on someone fighting debilitating illnesses). People wanted me fired. Or shot. Or fired, and then shot. And you know, they had a point. All these years later, I regret nothing more in my professional life than that column. I was young and stupid. Mostly, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
No, these aren’t baseball arguments, but if you spent time around Ron Santo, you quickly realize you don’t think with your mind, you think with your heart. You don’t think the radio broadcast going off the rails is ridiculous; you think it fits, it’s perfect. (Here’s a brief, but oh-so-perfect sampling).
Ron Santo was the crazy grandfather who overlooked your flaws; seriously, how else could someone love some of those awful Cubs teams the way Ronnie did. He was the voice of a fight, raising millions upon millions for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF). He was a stubborn patient, the one who wouldn’t let the disease -- actually, the diseases -- keep him from living his life. I saw no-hitters and 60-homer seasons in Chicago; I saw a team on the other side of town win a World Series. Yet, the achievement that stands above all else was watching Ron Santo, on two prostheses, work his way down that steep flight of stairs into the Cubs’ clubhouse, finally get to the bottom and smile. Not complain. Never complain. Smile. Walk through the clubhouse and say hello to reporters and players and clubhouse staff, asking “How you feeling today, big boy?”
Oh, I saw or heard about some funny ones, too. About the hairpiece catching on fire in the booth at Shea Stadium. The countless drinks he spilled on his notes or the fax machine in the broadcast booth. And, oh, the mess he made with words. OK, so the man could never remember my last name. And so, to see what kind of torture we could put him through, his partners handed him a piece of paper during a broadcast so he could wish me happy birthday on the air. He looked at the 15 letters and fought for 10 minutes -- live on radio -- that there’s no way that “Pietruszkiewicz” was a real last name. I still have the tape. Listening to everyone laughing in the background might be the best birthday wish I ever got.
In a city that loved people with one name -- Jordan Ditka Sweetness Ernie -- it’s not an exaggeration to say the name they loved the most was Ronnie.
And in his life, too short but incredibly well lived, he wanted two things more than anything -- a World Series title for his Cubs and to hear someone say, “Ronnie, welcome to the Hall of Fame.”
I wish we could all see him push himself out of his chair on that stage this summer, surrounded by Hall of Famers -- fellow Hall of Famers -- and fumble and mumble and shriek his way through a speech that wouldn’t leave a dry eye anywhere in Cooperstown.
Yes, this is a happy day. It’s a sad one, too.
Nick Pietruszkiewicz is an editor for ESPN.com Follow him on Twitter at npiet_ESPN.