When your hero dies, it’s as if the very shape of the earth has now changed. Ripples of heavy heart pain stab your soul, you walk down the street and you stumble for no reason, and the timing of the seasons goes awry. Spring could be a little late this year.

My hero, a man named Ron Santo, died in Phoenix Arizona last night. Complications of bladder cancer. He made it to 70. But it’s what he made it through that’s the story. He was a baseball player and a broadcaster. But to define him by baseball is like defining a human being by their blood. It’s narrowing the focus of why they are your hero. When your hero dies, it’s about so much more than what they do for a living.

We are floating in the green grass late summer roar of 40,000 of our closest friends as the man wearing “Number 10” walks out unto the baseball field sunshine . . .. with no legs.

Two prosthetic legs kept Ron Santo walking. Just one of the physical battles this professional athlete had faced down and conquered since discovering at age 18 that he had diabetes. A disease, which, the 18-year-old Santo went to the library and found out, predicted a life expectancy of 25.

The outpouring of love roaring in the sounds of all those voices on Ron Santo Day washed across the park, circled the ball field in the billowing of ivy along the outfield walls, leapt to the scoreboard, fueled the wind in the flags around the top of the, park and soared like a home run slammed up beyond all sight and time. This was about so much more than baseball. This was about inspiring hope. If Ronnie could do it—whatever “it” was—than so could you.

One day the 18 year old Ron had no idea what juvenile diabetes was. The next day, after the routine physical, he was in the library reading that the 25-year life expectancy also included blindness, kidney failure and hardening of the arteries.

So, and the words sound so simple, such paltry representations of his decision, he decided he was going to fight the disease and beat it.

In addition to the amputation of his legs, he fought through numerous heart attacks, quadruple bypass surgery, bladder surgery and vision problems. And that just the list that’s reported.

Along the way raising millions of dollars to combat the disease and always, always, having time for those individuals who fought the battles with him.

The roar subsiding on that September day, Ron Santo stepped up to the microphone and told us all, “This couldn’t have been any better. With all the adversity I have been through if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be standing here right now.” Santo was famous for being the player most deserving to be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame who never received that honor. But on that September day he told us: “This means more to me. This is my Hall of Fame.”

And the toughest, grittiest, street smart hardest cadre of Chicagoans—those who had seen it all, shrugged, and then went to work the next day, wiped away tears,

Memories of your hero never really stop. Especially when your hero dies.

It’s a pristine autumn day in the golden wonder of upstate New York. Cooperstown. The National Baseball Hall of fame. Six of us. Souring the souvenir shops looking for the perfect Ron Santo baseball card. His rookie year. That night, tiptoeing out to the ball field next to the Hall of Fame in the dead of a cool autumn night, we all climb the fence to jump down to the grandstands that ring the ball field. (Not realizing till it’s time to leave that the gate was unlocked and we could have simply walked in.) We trot out to our positions on the field. Heads down. Cool guy baseball player style. No real ball or bat but it doesn’t matter. We run the bases and slide roaring out SAFE! We scramble back fast to catch the pop up not being winded because we’re not old men, we are baseball players. We hurl a change up over the plate. Smack it hard up into the stars of a cool country night.

And exhausted we troop out to find a bar. Leaving traces of our youth in the very same dust where once Babe Ruth rounded third and headed home.

The next day was our ceremony. Ron Santo’s induction into the hall of fame. If the political powers behind the hall wouldn’t do it—then we would.

The 6 of us. Drenched in serious business and a mission stood on a step. Everyone said something. Along the likes of “Go Ronnie!” And then we did it.
We went into the hall and while 5 of us provided cover, one of us scotch taped that baseball card of Santo’s rookie year up next to Ernie Banks.

Where it stayed for at least 10 minutes. When a security guard took it down.

Ron Santo was a guy who made a character out of his hairpiece. Often he’d wear, as he called it, his “Gamer.” But sometimes, he’d switch off to other pieces. All of it chronicled in conversation with his masterful rock of a partner Pat Hughes. There was the time the hairpiece caught on fire from the space heater in the booth at a Mets game. The Ron Santo stories flowing like the very rhythm of the game itself and the way it gave the larger games of our lives order or a solace or escape or even sometimes pure simple joy.

That’s what happens when your hero dies. The stories spin in to memories; an autumn sadness settles in, you think about how nothing will ever be the same.

This morning when I walked outside, helicopters were circling Wrigley Field. Grabbing pictures for news shots. This is a big story here in Chicago.

But there is a bigger story that this touches, applicable to all of us. What is it that happens when your hero dies?

Ron Santo thought he had tops seven years to live. But he wanted to be a big league ballplayer so bad that he battled. And he won.

So what happens when your hero dies?

You remember.

You trudge through snow on a day so cold it burns. You look up at a flagpole, empty now, where you know that in the eternal spring there will be green grass again. And whatever it is you, just you, no one else, whatever it is you battle: unemployment, hunger, illness, family, loneliness, depressions, crying at the winds of our sad and troubled world, you keep walking.

Even if you have no legs, you keep walking.

Just like your hero would have done it. You know that because you have stories.

Like the stories of Ron Santo.

My hero.

2 Responses to “”

  1. Paulhaider74 Says:

    This old Cub, Ron Santo, will always be missed. It is still a shame that he wasn’t inducted into Cooperstown while he was alive. However, you placed his baseball card there to remind the voters of their oversight and lapse in judgment for not recognizing sooner that Ron was the best third baseman in the history of the Cubs. He might have also been the only diabetic to ever play the game as well as he did, and baseball can’t produce a hero like Ron anymore since he retired. Well, Ryno was quite special too!

  2. chicagoguy14 Says:

    Here’s to good old Number 10!

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