Plenty of Fight in This Old Cub

May 12, 2002

Don't you dare feel sorry for Ron Santo just because in the last
three years he's had eight operations on his right foot, a
quadruple bypass, his right leg amputated and his heart stop cold
while he was in a hospital bed.

No, feel sorry for him because he has to watch every Chicago Cubs
game.

Santo, 62, has been the color analyst on WGN radio broadcasts of
the perennially dog-ass Cubs since 1990. Worse, he loves them
like Pooh loves honey. When they screw up, it nearly kills him.
He throws his headphones down. He bangs his head on the desk. He
stomps out of the booth and paces the hall. He clutches his
hairpiece in agony and moans as if a truck has just backed over
his poodle. Somewhere, Harry Caray beams.

He does not call the game--he lives it. "C'mon, c'mon!" he yells
at Cubs runners. He cheers so much that it sounds as if
play-by-play partner Pat Hughes is broadcasting from Murphy's
bar.

But it's when things start to go bad, as Cubs things tend to do,
that the fun starts. "Boy, oh boy, oh boy, oh boy," he famously
says with a big sigh. Chicago radio stations still play the tape
of Santo's primal scream--"Nooooooo!!!"--after leftfielder Brant
Brown made his infamous Milwaukee Muff, dropping a fly ball that
ultimately forced the Cubs into a playoff in 1998. During one
typical Cubs disaster, Santo could be heard to yelp, "Well, Jesus
Christ!"

Life hasn't been easy. At 18 Santo found out he was a Type 1
diabetic. He looked in a library book and was terrified to read,
Average life expectancy: 25 years. He vowed to outrun the
disease.

Two years later, in 1960, he was a rookie third baseman for the
Cubs and told almost no one about his diabetes. He'd give himself
insulin shots in locked bathrooms. He learned to gauge his
symptoms: intense hunger, followed by a numb nose, followed by
diabetic shock, followed by the onset of a coma. Every now and
then second baseman Glenn Beckert, one of the few Cubs who knew,
would whisper, "Ronnie, you're looking a little white," and Santo
would dash for the Snickers and Coke he kept in the dugout.

He spent his entire career in Chicago--14 seasons with the Cubs
and one with the White Sox--and hit 342 home runs, leading those
late-'60s Cubs to heights they've hardly sniffed since. And every
time they'd win, which they did 92 times in 1969, he'd jump and
click his heels coming off the field.

Three years ago the diabetes finally caught up. He went into a
coma while driving his Corvette and turned it into modern art.
(The Vette was totaled, but Santo escaped injury.) The disease
had hardened his arteries, which led to the bypass. Then one day
last year a small ulcer on his right foot turned into gangrene.
In a span of 11 weeks Santo had eight full-anesthesia operations
in an effort to save the foot. Nothing worked.

Last November, a day after one of the surgeries, he lay in a
hospital bed, aware that his heart had stopped. He could see 10
people working on him, could hear his nurse yelling, "Stay with
me, Ron!" Heard a technician holler, "He's flat!" Tried to talk,
but nothing would come out. "It was weird," he recalls. "There
was absolutely no pain. I was completely at peace." A
defibrillator saved his life. The electrical impulses of his
heart, it turned out, had gone on the fritz. He got a
mini-defibrillator implant.

The doctors finally had to take the leg off in December, just
below the knee. But Santo still showed up in Mesa, Ariz., for the
first day of spring training. "He had to come back," says Hughes.
"The Cubs are part of the cure." Other than feeling pain in toes
he doesn't have anymore, Santo isn't much bothered about missing
a leg. He kids about it, takes off the prosthesis and pretends to
fire it like a tommy gun. Or he'll play a quiz game: Stump Ron
Santo!

Last week he missed three games to go home to Phoenix and get a
new prosthesis. He called the control room at WGN and had the
phone placed by a speaker so he could hear his beloved Cubbies.
They lost two out of three.

Doesn't matter. Nothing gets Santo down for long. When you've
nearly been picked off lying on a hospital bed, even the Cubs are
a joy. Plus, with a new committee voting on old-timers, he might
finally make the Hall of Fame next year. And next week the
Chicago chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation will
toast him as its 2002 Person of the Year. No wonder--the Ron Santo
Walk to Cure Diabetes raised $4 million last October.

"I just appreciate being alive," he says. "Every day is a gift."

You had the sense, right then, that if he'd had two heels, he
would've jumped and clicked them together.

COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA

Other than feeling pain in toes he doesn't have anymore, Ron
Santo isn't bothered about missing a leg.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)