Cubs fans lost a friend in Ron Santo

You either got him or you didn't. And those who did never passed judgment on Ron Santo.

Those who are feeling Santo's loss most keenly today remembered him as a player and took him into their hearts as only someone in love with his or her baseball team could do. And when he became one of the team's broadcasters, there was never any question that loyalty would continue.

Those who will miss Santo the most probably have a signed copy of "This Old Cub" and maybe even the "Ron and Pat Show" CD, with the bloopers that make them howl the way you would at old family movies or your uncle's stories.

They are the people who remember that they were sitting in the Target parking lot that night when Ronnie's piece caught on fire from the overhead heater at Shea Stadium during a broadcast in 2003. And when Santo would excuse himself from the booth to go to the bathroom, then come back and ask play-by-play man Pat Hughes, "What'd I miss?" -- on air, of course -- they'd smile to themselves, knowing Pat would fill him in.

"That's what made him so appealing to me," said longtime Cubs season-ticket holder Jerry Shapiro, 54. "He was the kind of guy who you know is kind of buffoonish. He doesn't get the pop culture things. He makes the wrong reference to an actor or he doesn't know that the person in the booth is appearing in something, and Pat has the perfect way to gloss over that. 'No, Ron, I didn't know that, either.'

"I got that. It was kind of like sitting in a room with my uncle, only the guy screaming and yelling doesn't know that a million people are listening to him."

Shapiro has that uncle, actually. Marv Lisit follows the Cubs religiously, as if there is any other way for a Cubs fan, and listened to Santo and Hughes almost daily.

"It was better than going to Zanies [Comedy Club]," said Lisit, 78. "Sometimes I was rolling on the floor laughing. It was just entertaining. He wasn't the typical sidekick announcer to a broadcast, with his moaning and groaning and cheering. But it was genuine, and that was the difference. It wasn't an act to get publicity; he was Ron Santo."

Those who got Santo loved him because he loved their Cubs, because he was a Cub, and what better person -- really -- with his offbeat, imperfect broadcasting style, to describe their offbeat, imperfect team.

When Santo was hired by WGN in 1990, then-Cubs executive John McDonough said, "The beauty was that he had never done it before. He was unvarnished.

"He went in with very little preparation. He would ask the play-by-play guy how a guy got on base or how they acquired a guy who was in his second year. But it humanized him. We wanted to get away from the homogenized, over-prepared broadcaster."

It became fashionable to mock Santo's "Oh no" yelp after Cubs outfielder Brant Brown dropped a fly ball with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth of a critical game in Milwaukee in the final week of the 1998 season. But what Cubs fan wasn't howling right along with him?

It wasn't the first time Santo was misinterpreted. When as a player he occasionally clicked his heels in fun after Cubs victories, it was taken as cockiness and later offered as a possible reason that he was not the fourth Cubs player from the same team inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Santo, it seemed, was never hip, certainly not in a radio booth over the past several years when intellectual and quasi-intellectual commentary became the goal.

"There's a cadence to baseball," Shapiro said. "It's such a long season. You can't be Vin Scully with a perfectly polished delivery all the time. You have to react. And they figured it out, like with Harry [Caray] that you need to put some guy in there who's an everyman, who you feel you can hang with. I feel like Ron Santo made me feel closer to the team through him."

When Santo's health issues became so serious as to become public, it brought him even closer to listeners.

"I think he taught everyone, diabetics and others, how to handle your physical situations later in life," Hughes said. "Everyone is going to have problems and everyone dies, but some handle that process better than others, and Ronnie handled it better than anyone. The battle that I witnessed him fight over the last 10 years was absolutely unbelievable, and I think he was a great leader and extremely inspirational in that regard."

And when he lost his train of thought or forgot a name, it was not an egregious offense to many of his listeners.

"In later years, when he forgot names and Pat had to remind him or cover for him in expressing his thoughts, I could appreciate that because those names don't pop into my head as fast as they used to," Lisit said. "Pat Hughes, bless him, made it sound like part of the routine and not like, 'My God, he can't do this anymore.' And with what the Cubs were usually doing on the field, a little levity was enjoyable."

Lisit heard Friday morning on TV about Santo's passing and, like so many of us, found it hard to believe, even though it was well-known that Santo was not in good health.

"I feel like I lost a friend," he said.

It feels like we all did.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.