Nineteen seventy-one was a year, all right. I was eighteen and, when you’re that age, you’ve got the world on a string. Detroit made muscle cars, top 40 radio rocked, and many of the players on my first baseball cards still played; some, in the pre-free agent era, with their first teams.
Billy Williams started in left field for the Cubs. Ernie Banks, in his last season, played first now and then. When Fergie Jenkins pitched, there were three future Hall of Famers on the field.
That number should have been four, to include third baseman Ron Santo.
In the sports section, on the morning of December 3, was a 1971 picture of Santo and Williams, with the news that Santo had passed away during the night at his Arizona home.
Back in ’71, Wrigley Field still had no lights. The Cubs had weekday afternoons to themselves, and their game broadcasts on WGN radio made them a second home team. Pre-free agent, the roster, loaded with talent, came to include familiar names: Banks, Hundley, Beckert, Kessinger, Williams, Hickman, Jenkins . . . and Santo.
On draft day in the Strat-O-Matic league, I went for as many of my Cub heroes as I could. Ron Santo, thirdbase-1 (the best fielding rating) and a consistent hitter for both average and power, could become a franchise player.
It felt really strange to read “secondbase-4” on his 1974 SOM card, with Chicago White Sox across the top.
1974 was Santo’s last year as a player. He re-entered my baseball world in 1990 where he entered it; at 720 on the AM dial, as the analyist on Cubs’ radio broadcasts, paired first with Thom Brennaman, after 1996 with Pat Hughes.
Pat Hughes is two years younger than me; has been in radio all his life and, when you have, you acquire a working knowledge of formats besides your own. His pop culture timeline thus parallels mine, and late innings of lost games sprouted discussions with analyst Santo on oldies whose words I knew, movie stars, favorite classic TV shows, generally anything to make the fan forget he was listening to a blowout. WGN, on Sunday nights, played 30 minutes’ worth of such meanderings; Pat trying to get Ron to name all six Brady Bunch kids, to remember who sang “Timothy,” or explaining who Eva Longoria is and her relevance to the broadcast of a baseball game.
Writing is a solitary craft, often best executed in late night quiet. If it’s baseball season, when I’m writing a daily Tigers blog, I always have a game on. If the Cubs were out west, playing into the wee hours of an Eastern Daylight Time morning, theirs was the game. Many times I’ve paused the craft of transferring the thoughts in my head to words that make sense, turned to the the radio, and asked it: what ARE they talking about, and why are they talking about it during a game?
Or, at other times: why’s he so mad? It’s only a game. If that’s how you react to every throw airmailed past the cutoff man, how are you going to make it through a 162 game season?
NO! NO! shreiked Santo when Brant Brown dropped a fly ball and cost the Cubs a game they needed to stay in the 1998 National league wild-card race. It’s cited so often in print probably because an MP3 of the call still circulates on file-sharing sites. I count hundreds of Santo Moments, when he, like the exasperated fan at home, could only shake his head and moan: oh NO . . . oh Jees . . . come ON . . . When Brandon Inge beat the Cubs with a walkoff homer two seasons ago: oh MAN . . . (sigh) . . . And, when something did go right for the Cubs: YESSS !!!
Only in the radio booth of a team whose cursed history includes the College Of Coaches , Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio, Steve Bartman, and no World Series appearances in sixty years, would such rooting be allowed.
That’s why I’d pass on the Tigers or Jays to hear The Pat and Ron Show.
Announcers who make everyone happy while offending no one make a game as interesting as a pile of freshly-raked leaves. Make a point, take the other side, root, scream, do something to make me stop what I’m doing and listen. (Please?)
The anti-Santo fans who considered The Pat and Ron Show a broadcasting train wreck, who posted their grievances on Santo Must Go websites, now have their wish.
I’ll miss him, and the link he provided to 1971, and to those first baseball cards.
On the final weekend of a baseball season, I listen to as many individual teams’ games as I can. Personal service contracts expire, broadcast rights move, and you never know who you might not be able to hear next season.
As the 2010 season wound down, I tuned in one more game. The final Saturday, I think it was; Pat and Ron sounded great, it didn’t matter who the Cubs played or who won as long as I could goodbye to them, see you on the radio next spring.
That I did; and that I made sure to hear Ron Santo one last time makes his out-of-nowhere passing a tiny bit easier to accept.