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updated: 12/3/2010 5:23 PM

This old Cub was the real thing

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  • Barry Rozner remembers Cubs legend and broadcaster Ron Santo as a friend who was as "genuine" as you could find.

       Barry Rozner remembers Cubs legend and broadcaster Ron Santo as a friend who was as "genuine" as you could find.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

 
 

It is said that as time goes on, it becomes more difficult to discover the genuine in life, to separate it from that which is forged.

That is especially true when it comes to friendship.

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It is hard to define and even harder to find.

Unless Ron Santo was your friend.

On this account there was nothing vague. He either was or he wasn't, and if he was you knew it. But you had to be all in, because everything about Ron Santo was all in.

"Genuine'' is probably a word tossed about disingenuously when someone dies, as if canonization adds a measure of comfort.

But the truth is there are no degrees of it.

Ron Santo died at the age of 70 Thursday night surrounded by his family. He was the real thing. He was exactly as he appeared to be. He was genuine.

"He didn't tell anyone he was sick again,'' his wife, Vicki, said from their home in Arizona early Friday morning. "He didn't want to bother anyone. He didn't want to put everyone through it again.''

While cancer had returned and caused him a new set of problems, attacking them was normal for a man who had survived so many medical maladies and several dozen surgeries in the last 10 years. He was, by all accounts, a medical miracle, and there's no doubt he expected to survive again. But treatments took their toll and his heart gave out, an appropriate conclusion for Ron Santo, who lived his life with more heart, and more love for life, than most will ever dream.

He overcame much more than his considerable physical difficulties, including a troubled childhood in which his drunken father abused his mother and abandoned the family when Ron was only 6.

His mother and stepfather died in a car accident while driving to see Ron in spring training in 1972.

He fought his own demons and never complained. The more difficult the situation, the more he battled back.

I don't know many people that would have begun the fight he began again in October, but he did. There was no quit in him.

It's how he lived, and it's how he died.

"He wasn't going to give up,'' Vicki said through tears on Friday. "You know him. He expected to beat it. He was going to go through it all over again.''

Exhaustion finally won, and if you only knew how damaging some of these conflicts were, you'd be awe-struck that he lived as long as did.

But that was Santo. All heart.

It's why his eyes lit up when a friend walked into his radio booth.

It's why that giant smile consumed his face when he spoke of his children and especially his grandson.

It's why he cheered so loud when the Cubs played well, and why he sounded so miserable when they didn't.

That was all genuine emotion and he knew no other way to broadcast a game.

He wasn't a professional analyst taught the rights and wrongs of radio. He was first to admit that he didn't sound like the brightest man in the room, but he got most of his education on the streets of Garlic Gulch in Seattle.

A smart businessman who found wealth away from the game, when he was on the radio he was just whom he was, a rabid Cub fan who succumbed to the many lows and occasional highs of a suffering fan.

He never claimed to be anything else. Understandably, that style didn't work for some, but to most fans he was a part of their baseball day.

He was one of you, and I suspect most Cub fans will miss him dearly.

I thought, upon hearing the news, of so many stories, of so many moments from the early days we traveled together, of the nights out with Thom Brennaman and Bob Brenly, of the drives from Philly to Atlantic City.

I thought of the hundreds of dinners together, and how he paid every single time.

I thought of so many conversations with Ron in the hospital recovering from this surgery or that, of how shocking was his stamina.

One thing I've never been able to get out of my mind was his decision to get his second leg amputated.

Thing is, he volunteered.

When he had a problem with his only remaining foot, rather than go through the process he endured with his first leg, the many months of agony and uncertainty, he told doctors to take off the leg.

"This time I sort of took control and I told them that I wasn't going to go through eight or nine months of fighting it again,'' Santo said in December 2002. "The first one almost killed me and look how it wound up.

"This way, I'm shortening the inevitable. I also didn't want to miss any baseball, and by doing it now I'll have more time to get ready for the season.''

In other words, he had them saw off a leg so he could be ready for Opening Day.

"That's the truth,'' Santo admitted.

Some people go through a lot just to get to Wrigley Field on time. Santo gave a leg.

He truly lived to be at that park and be with his team. He loved the Cubs so much that it was rare when he wasn't completely blind to their faults, which led to some very loud arguments.

He was an incredibly strong man, even with all his ailments, and when he got those big mitts on you, his brute strength was still apparent.

As it was when I played golf with Santo and Ron Jr. last summer. Even with prosthetic legs, that man could crush a golf ball, and his touch around the greens was brilliant.

It was just fun to see him smiling and out with his son, reliving the good times and enjoying his life. In the clubhouse, we ran into Jim Dowdle and that led to another hour of stories and laughs.

Ron Santo's energy was the stuff of legend.

His highs were mountainous, his lows pushed him to the precipice.

It's why every Cubs win made his day so perfect, and every thought of the Hall of Fame made his day so horrible.

That's who he was to the end, as certain as a sunrise, as eternal as a sunset.

Genuine.

We often mourn the death of someone taken too soon, but this should be the celebration of a man who got every ounce of life from a body that offered him far less than he took from it.

Santo was a 25-year-old car still somehow in working order despite no tires or doors, a busted engine patched up with glue and duct tape, and leaking five kinds of fluid.

It was a fight he extended far beyond the scheduled 15 rounds. He did not get cheated.

And though you knew for years the call could come at any moment, it is nevertheless a difficult day.

I find real friends hard to come by, I guess because I'm not very good at pretending and don't have a surplus of patience when it comes to such things as respect and sincerity.

To say I will miss Ron Santo would be to suggest that only someday I might.

When in reality I already do.

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