Constable: Suburbanite with diabetes pinch-hits for Santo, 'my hero'
By Burt Constable
The Cubs play the season's last regular-season game at Wrigley Field on Sunday, where the No. 10 jersey of Hall of Fame legend Ron Santo flies from the left-field foul pole. For all of Santo's career as the third-baseman for the Chicago Cubs, and for most of his career as a radio broadcaster for Cubs games, the end of the regular season meant no postseason for the Cubs, and the start of Santo's other calling as the leading advocate and fundraiser for Type 1 diabetes research through a charity now known as JDRF.
In that realm, Santo was a winner every time.
"Without meeting and talking to Ronny, I might not be here today," says Michael Molinaro, a 57-year-old Naperville man who met Santo at a JDRF fundraising walk in Naperville in 1998 and became his friend. "He gave me hope, and is my lifetime hero."
As a little boy growing up in Chicago, Molinaro knew Santo as the baseball player who kicked up his heels after wins during the 1969 season at Wrigley Field. A decade later, the retired Santo hosted his first walk for the charity that funds Type 1 diabetes (T1D) research.
Forty years later, Molinaro will pinch-hit for Santo, who died from complications of bladder cancer on Dec. 3, 2010. "They're giving me the honor of cutting the ribbon," he says of being chosen to kick off the Oct. 6 walk at St. James Farm in Warrenville. Schaumburg also hosts a walk that day at Busse Woods, while the walks in Libertyville and Chicago are Sept. 29.
"Ron Santo and his legacy mean so much to the T1D community here in Illinois because of everything he stood for as a Chicago Cubs legend and as a champion to everyone with T1D," says Mimi K. Crabtree, executive director of JDRF Illinois. "It's because of champions like Ron and Mike that we are able to move the needle forward to provide a less-burdened life for those with T1D until we can find a cure."
Molinaro tops all Illinois walkers by having raised more than $150,000 during his two decades as a volunteer, and has been the state's most prolific fundraiser the past two years. "It's a traveling trophy, kind of like the Stanley Cup. I don't want to give it up," says Molinaro, who works as an operations supervisor for Citgo Petroleum's plant in Cicero, and is grateful his company matches the donations he brings in. To donate, visit www2.jdrf.org and search for Molinaro.
Molinaro was diagnosed with T1 diabetes in June 1984, shortly before he became a father. "I lost a tremendous amount of weight and I was pretty sick," remembers Molinaro, who spent two weeks in the hospital. "The only thing I knew about diabetes was you lost legs, died early and lost your vision. That freaked me out."
Struggling with as many as five insulin injections a day and carrying a glucose meter the size of an iPad, Molinaro says he wasn't handling his diabetes well.
"I was in denial for so many years. That's where Ron Santo came in and changed my life," says Molinaro, whose first walk gave him the chance to chat with Santo. "I was struggling day to day."
Santo gave him a pep talk.
"You'll be fine. You're doing good," Santo told Molinaro. "Take care of yourself. Watch your sugars."
Molinaro took that advice to heart, and reunited annually with Santo at the walks. "He was a giving person," Molinaro says, noting Santo patiently talked with everyone who wanted to meet him.
One year, Molinaro stepped on Santo's foot and started to apologize. Santo merely lifted his pant legs to display his two prosthetic legs. Another year, Santo signed the front of the Cubs jersey Molinaro was wearing, and autographed the back the next year. Santo's last walk in 2010, a few months before he died, was in Lisle.
"It was a cloudy day. I turned to my friends and said, 'I don't think he's going to show today,'" Molinaro remembers, explaining to the crowd that Santo couldn't be at every walk. Molinaro was on his way to the bus when Santo rolled up in a golf cart.
"I remember you," Santo told Molinaro.
"You're my hero," Molinaro told Santo.
"The 2011 walk was so hard to go to. I loved the guy." Molinaro says, adding he cried with Santo's daughter, Linda, at that first walk without Santo. As the father of two grown children, Molinaro says Santo's example led to an epiphany.
"I might have selfishly walked for myself in the beginning," admits Molinaro, who wanted a cure for himself. "But I saw Ron doing this for others."
Diabetes took Santo's right leg in 2001, his left the following year, and ravaged his body.
"He wasn't walking for himself. He was walking to help others," Molinaro says he realized. "I walk today still in his honor. I'm walking for these kids, who just might see a cure someday. More than 35 years ago, a doctor told me, 'A cure is right around the corner.'"
Santo's passion found a home with Molinaro.
"I've been blessed to be a diabetic," he says. "I can't stress enough how much Ron Santo changed my life forever."