Monday, December 6, 2010

Ron Santo, 1940 - 2010

     Ron Santo, who passed away early Friday morning at the age of 70, was unique in Chicago sports history. No other person was so prominent as a player and so beloved as a broadcaster for such a long time.
     Santo the player was easily the best National League third baseman of his day and one of the best of all time. He was a nine-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glover, and four times finished in the top ten in MVP balloting.
     For the period of 1964 through 1969, Santo had the highest WAR (wins above replacement player) in the major leagues—better than Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, or anyone else. His figure of 45.7 means that the Cubs won that many more games with Santo in the lineup than they would have won with an average player in his place. By that measure, Santo was the most valuable player in the major leagues over the six-year period.
     Unfortunately, the Cubs never won any championships during Santo's career, and (as has been well documented) his considerable accomplishments did not land him in the Hall of Fame—at least during his lifetime. That was a bitter pill, but Santo swallowed it with the same forebearance that carried him through his long and harrowing struggle with diabetes.

     Santo the broadcaster is better known than Santo the player, at least to fans under the age of 45 or 50. He spent two decades in the Cubs' radio booth, teamed first with Thom Brennaman and Bob Brenly, and then, for the past 15 years, with Pat Hughes.
     As a broadcaster, Santo was a mirror for the feelings of his listeners in good times and bad. No one was more delighted than Santo when the Cubs won, and no one was more disappointed when they lost. Few fans will forget Santo's anguished cry of "Oh, nooooooooo!" when left fielder Brant Brown dropped a fly ball in 1998 that cost the Cubs a late-season game and almost cost them the wild-card playoff berth they eventually won.
     It was easy to criticize Santo for being too much of a cheerleader, for not doing his homework, etc., but most of his listeners didn't care. They knew that he was genuinely invested, as they were, in the fortunes of the Cubs. And Hughes was a very generous partner. He cleverly found a way to make their broadcasts work not in spite of Santo's limitations, but because of them. One of my favorite exchanges between the two went something like this:
     Hughes: "Ruben Quevedo now coming on to pitch for the Brewers."
     Santo: "Who is it?"
     Hughes: "Ruben Quevedo."
     Santo: "He hasn’t missed too many meals."
     Hughes: "You could say that, Ronnie."
     Santo: "He reminds me of someone we had not too long ago."
     Hughes: "Who might that be, Ron?"
     Santo: "Hmmm."
     Hughes: "Should I give you a hint?"
     Santo: "It's on the tip of my tongue, Patrick."
     Hughes: "Might it be Ruben Quevedo?"
     Santo: "Oh gosh, I’m not sure."

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