Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Remembering the fallen

Walking on the Randolph Street overpass above Columbus Drive today we saw a sight that has become quite familiar in town, the phalanx of police cars and black SUVs with tinted windows. I turned to my friends and said matter of factly: "look, the president is in town." A man with a grim look on his face shook his head. My heart sank when he told us that it was actually a procession for the firemen who were killed this morning. I knew exactly what he was talking about. In the morning the reports came over the radio of a burning building whose roof had collapsed with two firemen trapped inside. It sounded bad and all I could do was hope for the best. Then I got on with my day and forgot all about them, that is until I saw the fire trucks and a Chicago Fire Department ambulance carrying the body of one of the fallen heroes.

I haven't stopped thinking about them since.

Firefighters are special. A friend in the CFD gave me an insight a long time ago about what a firefighter is all about. When he was about to graduate from the Fire Academy, there was the scramble to get assigned to a "good" house. Most normal people would think that the difficult houses to get into are the ones in relatively safe neighborhoods, ones where a typical day includes maybe one or two false alarms, a trash fire and perhaps getting a call that there's a cat stuck in a tree.

Not so, the difficult houses to get into are the ones in the worst neighborhoods in the city, "where all the action is." That's why they became firefighters in the first place.

The fire today was in an abandoned building. The CFD could have contained the fire to the building and let it burn itself out. But firefighters don't do that. A group of them entered the burning building on the outside chance that there may have been squatters inside. Others were on the roof looking for hot spots. The two men who died were inside when the roof collapsed on them. Seventeen other firefighters were injured.

My heart aches this evening for the children who will have no father this Christmas, for the wives who have lost their soulmates, for the parents who have lost their sons. I keep thinking of the men as they left their homes for the last time, kissing their wives goodbye, telling their children to be good because Santa will be watching them, just as I do every time I leave for work in the morning. That morning ritual is so important because none of us ever knows for sure if we will come home in the evening.

Of course most firemen, policemen and people in other professions who put their lives on the line every day thank goodness, do in fact come home after work. All of them deserve our thanks and eternal gratitude because there is no way that we can repay them for what they do for us.

The names of the two men who will not be coming home again to their families are Corey Ankum and Edward Stringer. Pray for them.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Old number ten

As the boy and I were skating the other night we spotted two beautiful red hockey jerseys. One was worn by a teenager who donned a Montreal Canadien jersey with the number ten, the number of their retired star right winger Guy LaFleur. Ten must have significance in that family as a woman who appeared to be the boy's mother was also wearing the number ten. She wore a Chicago Blackhawk jersey with their current star Patrick Sharp's name emblazoned on the back.

Ten is a magic number in many sports. In soccer, the number is usually reserved for the best player on the team. The most famous number ten in all of sports is still probably Edison Arantes do Nascimento, known to all the world as Pelé. American football is a game dominated by the number and its multiples. The field is 100 yards long, you need to advance ten yards in order to keep the ball, and so on. Ten of course means perfection in sports that are determined by judges. For obvious reasons we base our numbering system on the number ten and all over the world, except of course here in the United States, measuring systems are based on ten.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the most American of games does not revolve around ten. Baseball instead revolves around the number three and its multiples. A batter has three chances to defend the strike zone, a team has three outs per inning, a game is divided into nine innings and in order to win, a team must get the other team out 27 times. There are nine members of the team involved in the game at any given time during a game. The most famous and perhaps greatest baseball player of all time, Babe Ruth, wore the number three.

Some pretty good ball players have worn the number ten, but that number doesn't have any particular significance to the game. That is with the exception of the north side of Chicago where no member of the Chicago Cubs will ever again be assigned that number.

That's because on September 28th, 2003, the Cubs retired the number in honor of old number ten, Ron Santo, the all star third baseman who played with the team from 1960 until 1973. That it took thirty years for his team to officially recognize Santo should not be surprising as just about everyone knows of his tireless fight to get respect among the baseball community. Even his death last week may not help his chances of getting into baseball's Hall of Fame in its upcoming election which will take place next year. The fact is that as good as a player Santo was, he's borderline at best to qualify for inclusion in the halls of that hallowed institution in Cooperstown. Adding to that was his almost shameless campaigning for induction over the years which probably did more to hurt his chances than anything else.

Here I will make the heretical statement that it really doesn't matter much now if Ron Santo is ever inducted into the Hall of Fame. No, not because I'm a White Sox fan who thinks way too much attention has been given to Santo's passing.

On the contrary, I could not possibly have more admiration for the man and his contribution to the game of baseball. The outpouring of grief following his death, not seen in this town since the passing of Walter Payton, is absolutely deserved for a man who meant so much not only to Cub fans, but to an entire community, and especially to those who suffer from Juvenile Diabetes, the disease that Santo so courageously lived with throughout most of his life.

It may be that the best one can say about Santo's baseball career is that he was a solid, above average major league ball player. His post retirement years however are another story. Santo left the public life for the business world, then returned to be immersed in baseball as the radio "color man" for the Cubs beginning in 1990. He remained there for the rest of his life. To say that he was THE voice of the Cubs is a gross understatement. While Harry Caray's was the voice most people associate with the team, the voice that presided over the era that saw the team's meteoric rise in popularity, it must be remembered that Caray did the same for the White Sox and before them, the St. Louis Cardinals.

Santo was a Cub, through and through except for one year...

... which he claimed was the worst year of his life. The Cubs were dumping their old sandbys from the "glory days" of the late sixties and early seventies. Santo was to be shipped off to the California Angels but as a veteran he was entitled the right of refusal. He agreed instead to be traded to the south side. The Sox already had a full time third baseman Bill Melton, and as you can see from his baseball card above, Santo after a lifetime at third base, was turned into a second baseman. As you can imagine it was an experiment doomed to failure.

The last time I saw Santo play in person was a night game at old Comiskey Park. It was seat cushion night at the ballpark, the first 20,000 through the gates received a free promotional fanny pad. The cushions were used for everything but their intended purpose, at first they were used as noisemakers. 20,000 seat cushions make a hell of a racket when banged against open palms or wooden seats in unison.

Seat cushions also make pretty decent Frisbees as about 15,000 fans discovered when Santo booted a routine ground ball at his unnatural position. Cushions floated from all directions and quickly the field was covered with the unwanted souvenirs. The teams were cleared from the field and before order was restored, the Sox stood a good chance of forfeiting the game. I never heard Santo comment about the incident, but it certainly had to be one of the lowest of the low points of his career. He would retire from the game after that season.

Today the sight of Ron Santo in anything but a Cubs uniform is as incomprehensible as the sight of water flowing up.

The person who coined the expression, "bleeding Cubbie blue" certainly must have had Santo in mind. I would bet that never in the history of broadcasting did an announcer have so much at stake in one team. Not only did Santo take every win and loss personally, but every at bat, every ball, strike, popup, every line drive, every squib single. But what he took most personally were errors, especially at third base. Santo himself was a glove glover many times over and he had no tolerance for poor fielding or lack of hustle.

Santo's disappointment was palpable every time his team screwed up, which was often. But so was his excitement at the good stuff. He did nothing to cover up his emotions as his partner in the booth for the past 14 years Pat Hughes, described the action on the field.

Here's a typical exchange between the two:

Hughes: "The Cubs are down by one run, the bases are loaded with only one out, Alfonso Soriano is at the plate."

Santo: "C'mon let's' get a hold of one."

Hughes: "The pitcher checks the runners. Here's the stretch, and the pitch, Soriano hits a ground ball to third..."

Santo: "NO!"

Hughes: "...he scoops it up and throws to second for one..."

Santo: " ah JEEZ"

Hughes: "...and over to first for a double play."

Santo: "OH MAN"

Hughes "and that's the inning, no runs, three hits, and two left"

Santo: "SHEESH!, oh man..."


Santo: "DAMN!"

Yet after every disappointing loss, Santo's trademark sign-off line to Hughes was: "well we'll get 'em tomorrow partner."

He'd begin each broadcast of a home game with "From beautiful Wrigley Field" and preface his daily interview with the current manager with: "Here's the fine manager of the Chicago Cubs..." And after each win, you could almost picture him jumping in the press box and clicking his heels just as he did during his playing days, two prosthetic legs and all.

Santo was not particularly articulate, his observations were not very astute, and he didn't go much into the finer points of the game as so many of his contemporaries do in the booth. He and Hughes often got into their banter and it wasn't rare that you'd hear something like:"Hey how'd that guy end up on second?"

Santo was like your old man sitting in his Archie Bunker easy chair watching the game right next to you.

Which is exactly why he was so endearing to his listeners. He was a fan just like us. Yes, I'm including myself, the Sox fan in that mix. I enjoyed listening to the Cubs more than my White Sox on the radio, mostly because of Ron Santo. And I also wanted the Cubs to win, mostly for Ron.

As tireless as his campaign for the Hall of Fame was, an infinitely deeper concern was JDRF, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Santo learned he had the disease shortly before signing with the Cubs in 1959. Fearful that it might keep him off the field, Santo kept it private, playing most of his career while keeping the disease a secret.

In the twilight of his playing career, so that young people in the future would not have to suffer as he did, he made his condition public and in the subsequent forty years helped raise over 60 million dollars for JDRF. Perhaps even more valuable was the example he set for those of us who cared to pay attention. As his condition deteriorated over the years, Ron Santo could have easily slipped out of the public eye to live out the remainder of his life in private, cherishing the glorious memories of the past while keeping his current struggles to himself, leaving us only the memory of a youthful high spirited player. Instead he chose to be as open and honest in public about his condition as he could. As parts of his body began to fail him one by one, like the brave Sir Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who loses his battle with King Arthur limb by limb, Santo kept going on as if to say: "hey it's only a flesh wound."

A particularly poignant moment was re-played over the radio on the day he died. Last season on the 50th anniversary of his debut in the major leagues, Santo threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Wrigley Field. Standing in front of the pitcher's mound he bounced the ball over home plate to Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster. Pat Hughes talking about it later in the booth joked to Ron in an uncharacteristically patronizing tone that Dempster shook his catching hand in pain after catching the ball. (I checked the video and Dempster did no such thing). Santo sounding slightly defeated said, "well I did the best I could."

We hear the word hero bandied about quite liberally to describe sports stars. But Ron Santo is truly deserving of the word. He was a man who was blessed with incredible talent but who was also dealt many bad cards in his life. Yet like any good poker player he was able to play them to their best advantage, and we all came out ahead. Santo was a great ballplayer to be sure. But his life on the field was eclipsed by his life off the field by a mile. In his later years Santo showed the world that living with diminished abilities did not mean a diminished life, not in the slightest.

It would have been nice, very nice, if Ron Santo's wish to have been inducted into the Hall of Fame could have been granted during his lifetime. It also would have been nice if he could have seen his Cubs in the World Series, if not win the thing. But as we will certainly see today and tomorrow as he is laid to rest, the outpouring of love for the man and the way he touched this community will far outweigh any plaque hung in a hall in remote Upstate New York.

Santo was replaced on the field by a number of competent third basemen, who just like him, didn't make it to the World Series. But replacing Ron Santo and what he has meant to Chicago for all these years will be impossible.

Post script:

On December 5, 2011, almost exactly one year after his death, the Veterans Committee elected Ron Santo posthumously into baseball's Hall of Fame. Congratulations Ronnie, wherever you are!