Ron Santo was my favorite Chicago sports figure, a personal hero and a friend. I am greatly saddened that he has died at the too-young age of 70.
Everybody who took the time to know Ron even a little couldn't help but be inspired by his upbeat attitude in the face of tremendous adversity. He suffered from so many physical ailments - including the loss of both legs due to complications from diabetes - that sometimes I wondered how he convinced himself to get out of bed each morning.
Not only did Ron rise, however, he shined. He helped raise millions of dollars in the fight against juvenile diabetes. He seemed genuinely happy to see every fan who would shake his hand or ask for his autograph. He laughed easily and often.
Indeed, during my 16 years as a Chicago sportswriter, one of the best things about going to Wrigley Field was seeing Ron Santo in his favorite place on earth.
I often would stand to the side while he'd conduct his dugout interview of the "fine Cubs manager" before every game. Whether the Cubs were in first place or last or whether they won big the day before or suffered a crushing defeat, Ron would be so full of optimism and passion as he'd talk to Lou Piniella or Dusty Baker or Don Baylor or Jim Riggleman (or even Mike Quade or Bruce Kimm).
After the interview, I'd listen to Ron and the manager du jour as they would chat off-the-record about all that was going on in Cubbieland. Such sessions became a big part of my education as a columnist.
My wife Roberta wasn't a huge Cubs fan but she used to love listening to Ron and Pat Hughes calling games on WGN. Like most listeners, she got a kick out of the way Ron would mangle the English language and the way Pat and Ron would needle each other.
While covering spring training in 2007, Roberta visited me in Arizona for a long weekend and we ended up going out to dinner one night with Ron and his wife, Vicki. It was a fun and relaxing evening, and I'm glad Roberta (and I) got to experience it.
Ron, of course, did have his down moments. The first time the veteran's committee didn't vote him to the Hall of Fame, he was all but inconsolable. I hurt for him. A day or two later, however, he was back at the Cubs' spring training complex with a smile and a good word for everybody.
Then there were his many, many, many anguished wails on WGN when his beloved Cubbies would mess up royally. Most famous was his "Nooooo! Oh nooooo!" when Brant Brown dropped a routine fly in a crucial late-1998 game in Milwaukee, but that was just one of thousands.
Nobody loved the Cubs more than Ron Santo did. Nobody! Long ago, he supplanted Ernie Banks as the true Mr. Cub. I'm no Cubbie fan, but just once it would have been cool to see the look on Ron's face in a champagne-soaked, post-championship clubhouse.
Ron was ill and wasn't able to broadcast the 2003 postseason run. When the Cubs beat the Braves in Game 5 of the 2003 playoffs for their first postseason-series victory in 95 years, the team called Ron from the clubhouse so he could be part of it. His giddy speakerphone conversation with Kerry Wood, who almost singlehandedly won that series, is something I'll never forget.
I know I'm leaving out so many wonderful memories, so I'll just conclude by saying this:
Ron Santo was a Chicago icon, a great baseball ambassador, a heroic do-gooder, one of the toughest men on the planet and a testimony to the power of positive thinking. I am proud to have been able to call him my friend.