Anyone who ever has invested a piece of his or her heart with the Chicago Cubs has a personal story about Ron Santo that brings a smile.
Maybe you have one of the thousands of autographs Santo graciously signed whenever and wherever he was asked. Maybe you saved candid cell phone shots of yourself with Santo at Wrigley Field or a posed photograph of Santo standing with your family and friends during a Ron Santo Walk to Cure Diabetes that has been held annually in the city and suburbs for decades.
You don't have to be a Cubs fan to find a reason to mourn Santo, who died late Thursday at age 70.
Santo's greatest gift wasn't a stellar baseball career that landed him heartbreakingly short of the 1969 World Series and the Hall of Fame, his courageous battle against the diabetes that took his legs and ravaged his body, the millions of dollars he raised to find a cure for juvenile diabetes, or his colorful career as the emotional sidekick on the WGN radio broadcast team. Nope, what Santo gave to sick children, long-suffering Cubs fans and people everywhere was the gift of hope.
When Santo boldly proclaimed, "This is the year!" every year, people knew he actually believed it. He believed in the Cubs the way religious leaders believe in God.
Cynics could mock, logical folks could build scientific arguments to show how misguided Santo's faith was, but it never defeated or even deterred the man. Santo had hope. And whether you're talking about the Cubs, diabetes or whatever burdens you face, hope is a wonderful thing to have.
The Cubs gave Hall-of-Fame broadcaster Harry Caray a statue, and Budweiser dubbed him "a Cubs fan and a Bud man." But Caray had careers with the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago White Sox, and his love for the Cubs seemed calculated to some of us Cubs fans. Santo was pure. Santo wore every emotion on his sleeve and couldn't stop his heart from pouring out through his mouth whether he was celebrating a game-winning homer or the latest in a long series of bone-headed blunders.
Those angst-filled wails that spilled onto the radio from Santo were as genuine and honest as the cheers.
Once, between innings during a game at Wrigley. I thought I was alone in the small press box men's room when someone emerged from the stall and washed his hands in the sink.
"Ohhhhhh nooooo!" came the anguished lament every Cub fan would recognize.
Ron Santo just let me know the paper towel rack was empty.
Another time, while trying to write a column about the Wilson A-2000 baseball mitt I craved as a kid, I wanted to talk with Ron Santo, who was a spokesman for that glove during his career. Longtime Cubs beat writer Bruce Miles, a friend of the old third baseman, gave me Santo's cell phone number, telling me that Santo gave out that number to so many people, he'd think I was one of them.
My call caught Santo in his kitchen in Arizona. Judging from the background noise, he was in the middle of eating or making a drink or snack. I apologized for bothering him, but Santo politely said he could give me a minute or two.
An hour later, after entertaining stories about his gloves, which he gave to neighborhood kids and hospitals at the end of each season, I was the one who had to beg out of the conversation so I had time to write my column.
When it came to the Cubs and baseball and fans and kids and reporters and good causes, Santo gave and gave and gave until he died.
As much as people will miss him, I am sure I speak for all true Cubs fans when I say that it is an extra shame that Santo had to die now, before the 2011 Cubs season. Because I really do believe this is the year when Santo would have been right about this being the year.