Santo’s absence hits home in Cubs camp

MESA, Ariz. — You expect to hear him come in any minute now.

You always heard him before you saw him, given the grand manner of his entrances every spring.

It was always around this time, about four or five days into spring training, that he’d arrive.

With the media work room here at Fitch Park right next to the reception area, you knew the moment he walked in.

“Ronnie,” somebody would shout.

“Hey, big boy,” he’d shout back.

And then it was on.

It’s really hitting home now that Ron Santo won’t be making his annual debut at Cubs spring training. Ronnie left us a couple months ago. Spring training, and everything else related to the Cubs, will never be the same again.

As cynical as we all get and as low as the expectations can be for the Cubs in any given year, Ronnie blew into camp as the breath of hope and optimism.

He’d bound into the workroom and greet all of us. After we’d get the handshakes and hellos out of the way, I’d ask him: “Well, Ronnie, what do you think?”

“BUH-LIEVE me, I like this team,” he’d bellow.

Somehow, you always wanted to BUH-LIEVE him.

From there, Ronnie would then ask, “Where’s Lou’ or ‘Where’s Dusty?’ or whoever the manager might be. I’m sure it would have been no different this year with Mike Quade, who no doubt would have graduated to “fine manager” status on Ronnie’s radio pregame show.

After being told the manager was on one of the fields, Ron would be off on his golf cart to survey the rest of camp, surely to report back even more optimistically over what he had just seen, even if it is still February.

Memories of Ronnie came flooding back Wednesday, when the Cubs announced Keith Moreland as their new radio analyst. Moreland, a fine choice, sounded all the right notes in his media appearances, saying he wasn’t going to “replace” Ron Santo. Who could?

It’s also about this time of year when we got ready to celebrate Ronnie’s birthday. He would have turned 71 on Feb. 25, just a week away.

Last year, I shared a seat on the golf cart with him on the eve of his 70th birthday, and we talked about all things Ronnie. Back in 2000, which seems only like the blink of an eye ago, I interviewed Ronnie as he prepared (or dreaded) to turn 60. One of our great Daily Herald photographers, Mark Welsh, was here that year, and he went up north of Mesa and captured some breathtaking shots of Ronnie riding his beloved horse.

The Cubs are doing right by Ronnie’s memory. The No. 10 patches the players are wearing on their uniform sleeves, even in spring training, are just the right touch. And the team’s media guide will feature a collage of Ron Santo photos that capture the essence of who he was. The guides will be big sellers, I guarantee.

So, yeah, it’s a little quiet around Fitch Park.

But I keep waiting.

Anytime now.

Cubs’ Pena looking ahead and leaving the past behind