CHEERS AND TEARS FOR RON SANTO

In February of 1969, the phone rang at the home of the Dantona family. 12-year old John answered and the caller announced himself as Ron Santo. "Right," thought John, "and I’m Joe DiMaggio." Still he humored "Ron" even when he told him, "I’m calling for Jim Dantona. I wanted to invite him out to Scottsdale, Arizona this spring to work out with the Cubs." "This guy is good," thought John, "even knows the spring-training home for the Cubbies." He took his phone number and promised to forward it to Jim Dantona, Cub-fan extraordinaire.

In 1969, Jim was a svelte 165-pound second baseman with a fire in his belly for the game of baseball. At 5’9" many scouts admired his ability and his determination, but few were willing to gamble on his small frame. Jim had long admired Santo for his outstanding athletic gifts and empathized with his hot-tempered Italian-American confidence. And besides, he was a Cub. That already made him larger than life in the eyes of Jim. So he took a chance and had written Santo asking for his advice. Santo did him one better, asking and receiving permission from Leo Durocher to invite him to come and try-out with the Cubs. While Jim’s cup of coffee with the big club was short, the Santo saga continues to this day.

In 15 big league seasons, all but one with the Chicago Cubs, Santo was a 9-time All-Star. He clubbed 342 home runs, hitting 30 or more in 4 straight seasons, and finishing among the top ten 7 times. He hit .300 or better three times, led the league in on-base percentage and games-played twice, even led the league in triples once. And back in the days when batters worked to get a base on balls, he led the league 4 times while finishing in the top ten in 10 different seasons. But what made Santo the complete player was his fielding finesse. With 5 straight Gold Gloves at third base from 1964-68, he was the National League’s answer to Brooks Robinson. In fact, only Robinson, Mike Schmidt and Buddy Bell have captured more Gold Gloves while playing the hot corner.

He played side-by-side with, and often in the shadow of, future Hall-of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Fergie Jenkins, and for the relentless Leo Durocher. When the Cubs excelled, Santo clicked his heels to the delight of the Wrigley Field faithful. When they faltered during the infamous collapse of 1969, he carried the weight on his own shoulders, suffering ridicule and even death threats. But the biggest challenge that Santo faced was not living down the Cubs bridesmaid finishes in the late ‘60s and early 70s. As the sun bore down on him each day at Wrigley, his monumental challenge was much more personal.

Ron Santo signed with the Chicago Cubs in 1958, at only 18 years of age. Just prior to reporting to the Cubs, he learned he had diabetes. A chance of a lifetime was now on hold because of a life-threatening disease. Santo did what he learned to do so well in his playing career, planting himself in the hot corner, facing his worst fears, and establishing himself as a model for others. He kept his disease hidden from the Cubs for years so that neither he nor anyone else could use it as an excuse for failed expectations. And yet, Ron Santo exceeded expectations in his career, and by doing so he became a consummate role model for so many whom suffered but dared to succeed.

When Jim Dantona’s second son, Robert was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at the innocent age of 14, Santo was the first person to call the young man and offer support and inspiration. Robert was scared and Jim was both frightened and saddened. But once again that voice on the phone saying, "this is Ron Santo" offered strength and hope. Another clutch hit. Another All-Star performance.

Ultimately, the cruelty of diabetes caught up with Santo at 61 years of age. Learning that the great Cub third baseman had his leg amputated as the result of this lifelong battle, a solemn quiet fell upon the Dantona household. Jim is not ashamed to admit that tears have fallen for the man who was his childhood hero, his spring training mentor, and his son’s personal guide. For the moment, he was more than baseball legend. He was family.

We have never forgotten the greatness or the kindness of Ron Santo. When young John made his Confirmation at the age of 13, he was confirmed under the name, Santo. When Jim managed his Rotisserie Baseball team to its one and only championship season, they triumphed as Santos Sluggers and when the Veterans Committee votes each year for Hall of Fame consideration, he will be lobbying hard to see the great third sacker elected among the ranks of the greatest. Finally, when Ron Santo returns to the Chicago Cub broadcast booth he loves so much, and where he has been since 1989, there will be more tears and a standing ovation…in Wrigley Field, Chicago and also in Simi Valley, CA.

 
BASEBALLERS AGAINST DRUGS
P.O. Box 1438 Simi Valley, CA 93062 | 805-583-1439 | homerun@bad.org