‘This Old Cub’

Kate made an odd find at the neighborhood video store while returning a couple of my late DVDs. “This Old Cub,” a documentary on Ron Santo, the great third baseman, by his son Jeff. The movie’s got an amateurish feel to it, and at the end it comes off as a plea for Santo to be elected to the Hall of Fame. In fact, the movie builds up to the moment when Santo believes he’s about to be elected by a panel of old-timers only to be disappointed.

I haven’t thought about Santo in a long time. He was a great favorite of mine when I was a teen-ager. Playing softball, I used to try to manicure the batter’s box the way he did (I could do a passable impression, since it didn’t involve any athletic ability) and swing like he did (passable again) and hit like he did (a passable fantasy as long as the pitch was only going 3 miles an hour). I took it for granted he was one of the best players at his position when he played, and the numbers show he was. But he was marked as one of the guys on a team that came close but just never quite made it. I still remember the last time I saw him play. He had wound up on the White Sox after he was done with the Cubs and been stuck at second base. When he came up, the Comiskey Park fans — his home crowd — booed him; they recognized a lifetime Cub when they saw one, Sox uniform or no Sox uniform. His last time up, he lined a single to center. Maybe his only hit of the game, and just a shadow of what he’d been. But he’d done that much, anyway, to show he still had a little something left. I stood up and cheered.

Later, the Cubs hired him as a radio color guy. I’ve never been impressed by his work. Too much of a hometown clown on the air (or maybe I’ve just been won over for life by the A’s chief radio man, Bill King; but that’s another story). One of my brothers talked about seeing him outside Wrigley Field once, giving a cop a hard time as he was trying to drive through traffic, saying something like, “Do you know who I am?” He sounded like a jerk.

But the movie, mawkish as it is, changed my mind, or at least will make me think about him differently. The real subject is how he had to cope with Type I diabetes throughout his career, and more recently, how the disease caused him to have both legs amputated. He comes off as a guy with a lot of guts and determination to take on what many people — can’t tell about myself — might not be able to face. Someone else copyrighted the line, but: Check it out.

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