Bears

Why Ron Santo was 'Superman' to the Cubs

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Why Ron Santo was 'Superman' to the Cubs

ST. LOUIS Ron Santos body had betrayed him long before he wound up in an Arizona hospital in December 2010. But the news still felt like a shock.

Cubs director of baseball operations Scott Nelson received a phone call in the middle of the night from Jim Hendry. The general manager at the time was hearing rumors about the 70-year-old Santo. Their worst fears were about to be confirmed, complications from bladder cancer.

I never thought hed die, Nelson said. To me, he was like Superman. Everything would just bounce off of him.

I never thought anything would get him, because he was the toughest guy in the world.

Thats the image Santo projected to all those kids who were fighting diabetes, the disease that got his legs amputated.

Virtually everyone around the organization has heard some punch line to a Santo story, and thats why hes still so beloved. But there was a much harder edge to this Hall of Famer, who will be inducted on Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Between 1960 and 1974, Santo was strong enough to hit 342 home runs, quick enough to win five Gold Gloves at third base and steady enough to make the All-Star team nine times. The grind was like oxygen, which was why he kept coming back year after year, 21 seasons as the voice of summer on WGN Radio.

Santo was addicted to Wrigley Field. Thats where Dusty Baker got to know Santo on a daily basis as Cubs manager from 2003 to 2006. Baker, now managing the Cincinnati Reds, paid Santo the ultimate compliment, comparing him to his old-school father, a military man who served in World War II and didnt believe in sick days.

(Santo's) about as tough a guy as I've ever met, but he's also a kind-hearted, sensitive man, Baker said. He never complained about anything. I knew he had to be in pain. I know there were times he'd fall down and he wouldn't let you help him up.

Nelson who began working in the Wrigley Field clubhouse in the mid-1970s and is in his 30th season with the Cubs still gets emotional talking about Santo.

It was because of him that I fell in love with baseball, Nelson said. It was because of him that I fell in love with the Cubs. He is the Cubs. I always say when you look at that team, the Hall of Famers Ernie (Banks) and Billy (Williams) and Fergie (Jenkins), even the manager, Leo Durocher (Santo was still) the captain of that team, and that tells you a lot.

As a player, there was nobody like him. There was such enthusiasm, spirit, just such heart. I know a lot of the clichs have all been said that he was the heart and soul but he was, and you just had to see him play to know that.

Growing up in the western suburbs, Nelson remembered Santo appearing at a Pontiac dealership in Naperville one day to sign autographs. Near the end of the session, they took a group picture: I like nudge every (bleeping) guy out of the way to be right next to him.

Nelson recalled riding his bike back there several times, waiting for the photos to develop, which never happened. Santo the player had captured the imagination of an entire generation of Cubs fans.

But Nelson eventually discovered that his hero was even better than advertised, and became a good friend over the years: How often can somebody say that?

Nelson watched someone who always had time to stop and chat with fans and sign autographs. This was a rainmaker who helped bring in more than 60 million for juvenile diabetes research. The way Santo carried himself isnt forgotten in the clubhouse.

The great thing about Ronnie is he didnt have an ego, pitcher Jeff Samardzija said. When youre that good for so long and you were on the cusp on the Hall of Fame and now in the Hall of Fame sometimes humble isnt necessarily part of the dictionary. And Ronnie was 100 percent humble and he knew where he came from.

On the field or on the air, that personality resonated in the city that works.

Ronnie loved to play and have fun, said Samardzija, who grew up in Indiana. He withstood a lot of things and I think Chicago fans appreciated that. Hes definitely not a pretty boy or anything like that. They just tend to agree with those kinds of players, and Ronnie was definitely the epitome of that, just a dirtball who loved to play every day.

Santos legacy was secure no matter what, with his retired No. 10 flying at Wrigley Field and a statue at Sheffield and Addison. But the timing of it all a Golden Ballot vote last December after being turned down 15 times by the writers and denied by the veterans committee is still bittersweet.

I only wished that he had gotten into the Hall of Fame while he was still alive, Baker said. He didn't enjoy it. His familys enjoying it, and I'm hoping that, indeed, hes in heaven smiling right now.

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman. 
 

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

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AP

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”