Archive: Santo not afraid of dying

Daily Herald sports columnist Barry Rozner wrote this column in December, 2001

Ron Santo isn't afraid of dying.

He's already been there and done that.

So as depressed and saddened as he was to learn this week that he will lose his leg below his right knee, Santo also knows it could have been worse.

"Yeah, there was that morning about six weeks ago when I flat-lined,'' Santo recalled. "I arrested right there on the table in the cardiac wing. Good thing there was a nurse standing over me.''

No joke. If the nurse hadn't been holding Santo's hand at the moment his heart stopped, the popular 61-year-old Cubs broadcaster, restaurateur and former all-star player probably wouldn't be here.

"That was pure luck,'' Santo said. "I was in the right unit, on the right table with the right nurse right there and the right doctors a few feet away. She called for the doctors and held my hand and I could sort of hear her yelling, 'Stay here with me Ron! Stay here with me! Don't go!'

"And I made it. Next was the defibrillator. The body can only take so much. It's been some four months. I just don't know how much more I can take. I'm just wondering when it's going to end.''

It's no wonder Santo is depressed.

When we sat with him in his Bannockburn home a few weeks ago, he appeared to be making great progress, despite losing the toes on his right foot. His spirits were up and the hope was that after nine operations in 10 weeks, he was in the clear. But when he returned to Arizona early this month, the circulation in his foot worsened again. He developed an infection and doctors have decided to amputate the foot today.

The worst part is he'll have to go back there Monday for the second part of the operation, when they'll remove his leg below the knee.

"They have to make sure the infection is gone and we have to wait three days," Santo explained. "If everything is OK, they finish it on Monday.

"Hopefully, this is the end of it. There's still some risk of more infection, but it's small. They say this is the best way to do it and the most successful operations of this kind are done this way."

And it all began, he believes, with a simple sore on the bottom of his foot that may have been the result of a loose sock that caused a blister.

At the time, Santo was still walking 2 1/2 miles a day, knowing exercise is essential for a diabetic's good health. In October, thousands joined him in raising $3.9 million in his 23rd Walk for a Cure fundraising drives in Busse Woods near Elk Grove Village, Naperville and Lincoln Park. The problem is, there's no such thing as a "simple" wound for a diabetic.

"It became an ulcer on my foot and it's been nothing but misery since the beginning of September," said Santo, who will remain in Arizona for the procedure. "We thought we had the blood flow corrected in my leg and into my foot, but it's so calcified that there's just nothing else they can do now.

"So now we'll get rid of the problem," Santo said, managing a chuckle. "I've done everything they've asked and we've tried everything imaginable. I had the best doctors and the best care.

"This is just something we had no control over. No control at all. We did all we could."

So now it's two more operations, bringing the total to 11 in less than four months.

"The doctor here (in Arizona) got all of my records of all my operations, and when he sat down to read them, it took him 40 minutes to get through it all," Santo said. "He said, 'You look pretty good for a guy who died. God, you've been though a lot.' He's right, and now a little bit more."

A little bit?

"Hopefully, it's almost over," Santo said. "If everything comes out OK, I'll get my life back and it'll be a lot better than it has been.

"Since the first operation in September, it's been hell. I get up in the morning and the nurse comes to change the bandage. I watch TV and move around on my scooter to go to the bathroom. Then, the nurse comes back at 4 o'clock.

"I've been out to dinner once.

"But the doctor promised me that the prosthesis will be ready and I'll be working and playing golf by spring training.

"Right now, I just want to be home for Christmas."

From a purely physical standpoint, Santo is the toughest and most resilient man you could ever meet, and it hurts to hear the sadness in his voice.

For Santo, next year is always the year the Cubs will win the World Series, the year they'll find a third baseman and the year it will snow in the desert on Christmas.

The one thing you could always count on with him was hearing the joy and optimism, but he is just plain worn out.

He has survived a rough childhood, an adult life without parents and lived 40-plus years as a diabetic. He laughed off quadruple bypass surgery and walked away scratch-free from a car accident that could have killed him.

We used to joke about his health, with Santo saying each year that, "I've got to stay alive one more year until I make it to the Hall of Fame."

But it's not funny anymore. Nothing means more to Santo than being recognized with the greatest of all time, and taking his rightful place in Cooperstown among the best who ever played baseball.

When it happens in the spring of 2003, it will not be a gift from the Veterans Committee. It will be an injustice corrected. It will be the right thing.

It will be the greatest day of Ron Santo's amazing and difficult life.

Let's just pray Santo is still here to enjoy it.