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updated: 12/3/2010 5:22 PM

Santo not just a winner -- he's a champion in life

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  • Ron Santo leads the crowd in singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh inning stretch of a game at Wrigley Field in 2006.

       Ron Santo leads the crowd in singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh inning stretch of a game at Wrigley Field in 2006.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

 
 

"Oh no!."

That probably was Ron Santo's most famous call as a Cubs' radio broadcaster when Brant Brown dramatically dropped a fly ball in 1998.

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It likely also was the reaction Friday morning of Chicago sports fans to news that Santo -- as iconic a sports icon around here could be -- had died.

Santo was 70 years old but illnesses and professional disappointments inflicted the miles of man about twice that age. That he lived this long was a testament to his competitive spirit.

Fifty years of Ronnie in Chicago was quite a trip, from rookie in 1960 to all-star third baseman to local restaurateur to radio analyst.

Along the way Santo became a combination of lovable character and role model for diabetics.

Santo was the guy who played 15 years in the major leagues as a Type 1 diabetic, who clicked his heels down the left-field line after victories during the fateful 1969 season, whose "Ron Santo Pizza" wasn't as good as his fielding, who the past two decades was the absent-minded grandfather commenting on the action down on the field.

More than anything, Santo was a sports lesson that a person doesn't have to always win to be a winner.

Santo, who wanted badly to make baseball's Hall of Fame, famously failed in that attempt but, more important, became a Hall of Famer in the game of life.

Right up there with Cooperstown was Santo's obsession with hoping to see the Cubs win a World Series that never arrived, and his passionate analysis was one of the reasons they remained popular for other reasons.

Santo was a member of the Cubs team that squandered the 1969 pennant, but he and Ernie Banks and Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins and the rest became beloved figures anyway.

Yes, they were winners who never won a championship.

Ron Santo especially won something more significant than Cooperstown, pennants or World Series: The respect, affection and admiration of family, friends and fans.

Just think of all the money Santo raised for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund so some day others won't suffer the disease he suffered.

Just think of all the years he struggled into the broadcast booth on artificial limbs after his toes, then feet and then legs were amputated.

Just think of how Santo kept on keeping on year after year despite bouts with cancer, heart ailments and complications from his life-long battle with diabetes.

On a personal note, I had a friend who endured all the same health problems Santo did from cancer to heart ailments to Type 1 diabetes that led to the same amputations.

Their medical histories were on parallel paths, which I mentioned to Santo years ago. One thing led to another and before long he was on the phone with my friend to discuss the different prostheses available.

Some remember the years Santo loved playing for the Cubs, others the year he hated playing for the White Sox, and still others the two decades he spent on the radio. I'll remember most that he took the time to lend support to my friend.

Obituaries will mention that Santo lost his battle with illness but the real story is that his strength, perseverance and resilience won him so much extra time as a living legend around here.

It was a pleasure spending time with Ron Santo at the ballbark all these years, which is why I had the same response so many others had upon hearing the news of his passing.

"Oh no!"

We lost a winner -- no, a champion in life.

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