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Despite adversity, Cubs' legend Santo still rises to the challenge
By Bruce Miles | Daily Herald Staff

Ron Santo chats with Cubs outfield instructor Bob Dernier during spring training camp at Fitch Park in Mesa., Ariz. Santo turns 70 on Thursday.

 

Bruce Miles | Daily Herald Staff

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Published: 2/24/2010 4:27 PM

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MESA, Ariz. - The goal in life, some say, is to reach the big numbers.

For some, getting there is tougher than it is for others.

Take Ron Santo, for instance. On Thursday, the former Cubs third baseman and current radio analyst turns 70 years old.

That's right. Good old No. 10 is the big 7-0.

While Santo may cringe at being a 70-year-old, he definitely feels blessed to have made it this far.

"There's no doubt in my mind after what I've been through," he said recently while watching his beloved Cubs work out from the golf cart he uses to get around Fitch Park. "Diabetes at age 18 and to play through my career and not have any problems whatsoever other than low blood sugars on occasion.

"To go through what I went through, I was personally hoping to make 50, I'll be honest with you. I've beaten all odds. I'm very excited that I'm going to be 70."

Santo is a walking, talking medical marvel. And the fact that he's both walking and talking is marvelous.

"He's one of the most amazing human beings I've even known," said Pat Hughes, Santo's radio partner on WGN. "The things that he has persevered through, I've never met anyone like him."

Thursday night, Santo will have "about 15 friends coming in from Chicago" to help him celebrate the occasion with his wife.

Santo's nearly lifelong battle with diabetes has been well chronicled. Diagnosed at age 18 with the debilitating disease, Santo played 15 years in the big leagues, 14 with the Cubs, hitting 342 home runs, batting .277, driving in 1,331 runs, winning five Gold Gloves and making nine all-star teams.

Despite Santo's best efforts to stave off the ravages of diabetes, the disease took a mean toll. Santo has lost both legs, but he has able to get around with state-of-the-art prosthetics. He underwent open-heart surgery in 1999 and survived bladder cancer in 2003, just as the Cubs were making a playoff run that came within five outs of the World Series.

"Then, the side effects all hit me," Santo said of diabetes. "I feel great. I have my ups and downs only because if there's something I do get, with any diabetic, it's a little worse than someone else."

It was right around the time that the cancer hit, just as the Cubs were clinching the 2003 NL Central title, that provides Santo with a couple of his favorite Cubs memories.

One is the retiring of his No. 10 and the raising of his flag at Wrigley Field. The other is the Cubs' playoff run, which he had to watch from Arizona as he prepared for cancer treatments.

"My favorite Cubs memory, there's got to be a couple there," he said. "The flag, retiring my number, was so big, without being in the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, the team, I thought, definitely would win it all, and after being ahead of the Marlins and losing it-

"I happened to be in Arizona because I was going to be operated on for cancer. I, in fact, had talked to (then-Cubs marketing chief) John McDonough and (then team president) Andy MacPhail, and they were going to fly me in to do the World Series. So I had talked to my doctor to make sure it was OK. And when they didn't win, that scene, with the fans leaving the ballpark, was unbelievable."

Santo's failure to make the Hall of Fame has been a story for the past decade or two. The Veterans Committee will take it up again in December, and even though Hall of Fame players make up the bulk of the committee, Santo manages to fall short.

He insists he doesn't take it as hard as he had in past years.

"I thought with my peers I'd have a great chance," he said. "It's a tough situation. This coming year in December is when they're going to make a decision. I'm not thinking about it like I've been known to do, but I've just got a feeling that it's not meant.

"But you know what? It's not going to change my life. I believe myself I deserve it. I played the game the way it should be played. I put up numbers that diabetics today can't understand how I did it because they know what the ups and downs are."

Here's something else. How many 70-year-olds do you know who have a three-year contract?

Santo is one. Over the winter, he signed on for three more years in the WGN radio booth. He lives for the day when the Cubs win it all.

"Oh, God," he said. "That's why I'm here. The fans. The wonderful, loyal fans. Win or lose, they're there. They love their Cubs. They never lose their allegiance. I just react to the moment. It's all I do. The moments I have on radio, I sometimes don't even realize I'm moaning like I am. Ever since I've been in the booth, every time I come to the ballpark, it's like being on the field. But I can't do anything about it. When I played, I could. That's the frustration.

"It would just be so satisfying, and it would mean a lot. I think this club, personally, the way the organization is going and now with the Ricketts family involved, I think it's fantastic. Now we're back to being a family again, which I love."

One wonders how long Santo wants to continue in the booth. He said he's looking beyond three years, well beyond three years.

"I'm looking until I die. How's that?" he said. "That's long term. I hope it's long term. I take every day as it comes. I try to do the best I can to keep my health, and I think I've done a great job. I've been through a lot. Getting through everything I've got through, and there's been so many fans or people in general I've inspired, but I tell everybody, 'Until adversity hits you, you do what you have to do, and you can't be feeling sorry for yourself.'

"Even when the cancer came, I wasn't worried because I got through so many operations - open-heart surgery, two legs. I'll be all right."