The legend of Ron Santo will live forever in Cooperstown


The legend of Ron Santo will live forever in Cooperstown

ST. LOUIS Before Ron Santo and Billy Williams had their statues facing each other at Sheffield and Addison, they were side-by-side at Double-A ball.

This was San Antonio in 1959 and Williams remembered Rogers Hornsby, a roving Cubs instructor, going down the line after watching workouts near the end of the season.

He looked at some of the guys and said, Listen, you better go get a job because you cant play this game of baseball, Williams recalled. He started to get to us and we didnt know what he was going to say.

He goes: William, you can hit in Chicago. You can hit right now in Wrigley Field and we want you to work on your defense. Santo, youre a good defensive ballplayer and youre going to hit some home runs. Both of you guys are going to be in the big leagues pretty soon.

Hornsby must have had a pretty good eye for talent, but theres no way he could have known that both players would ultimately join him in the Hall of Fame.

As part of the Golden Era committee, Williams lobbied for his old friend last December, and secured the spot in Cooperstown, almost exactly a year after Santo died from bladder cancer.

After years of frustration and disappointment, the induction takes place on Sunday in upstate New York, and theres no doubt which hat Santo will have on his plaque.

I dont know if the worlds ever seen a guy with more passion and care and love for a franchise, said former Cubs general manager Jim Hendry. Loved the players. Loved the fans. Loved the city. And gave his whole life through thick and thin, through good health and obviously horrible health the last decade to the organization.

Santo wound up hitting 342 home runs, and winning five Gold Gloves at third base. He never ran with the sabermetrics crowd, but he did finish among the league leaders in walks nine times during his 15 years in the big leagues.

But numbers dont tell the story of Santo, not even the more than 60 million he raised for juvenile diabetes research, because that doesnt even begin to account for all the sick kids and amputees he quietly found time for across the country.

Traveling secretary Jimmy Bank is in his 20th season with the Cubs. Santo had two legs when Bank took the job, lost them both fighting diabetes and to the end pushed to make as many trips as possible.

Heart of gold, Bank said. Every hotel, everywhere we went, he stopped and signed autographs. I even asked him a couple times: Ronnie, dont sign in the lobby, because then weve got security issues with the players.

Santo would raise his voice: These are our fans! Im gonna sign!

In good times and bad times, Santo became such a huge part of the Cubs brand, as the voice on WGN Radio for 21 seasons. Hendry, Bank and TV play-by-play man Len Kasper all essentially said the same thing: I think about him all the time.

When I got the job, he called and told me how excited he was for me, Kasper said. He basically said: Youre a Cub now. And thats kind of how he viewed the world. Once I was a Cub in his mind, I was in.

Santo didnt need to memorize the game notes. Pat Hughes, a great straight man with such a smooth voice, was there for that.

Santo was the one connected in the managers office and the clubhouse. The players saw what he went through, hobbling to get on charter planes and refusing to complain during the brutal travel schedule.

He was real, man. He was truly passionate about baseball and the Chicago Cubs, outfielder Reed Johnson said. The players really bought into that, (and) thats why he got so much respect, especially from guys in the clubhouse.

Johnson remembered the call when the Cubs clinched the division in 2008: You could just hear him in the background on the radio going: Yeeeeesssss! Yeeeeesssss!

On some level, even if you never met Santo, you still knew him if you just listened on the radio, and that connected generations of Cubs fans.

He was as himself on the air as he was off the air, Kasper said. That is what I think most broadcasters strive to be, but we all hold something back, under the guise of professionalism or whatever.

But I think in a pure sense of what people want especially Cub fans and people in the Midwest they want you to be genuine. They want you to be unvarnished and unfiltered and Ron brought that every single day.

If there was a player he had never heard of, he would tell everybody on the air, and there was something very charming about that.

Bank had lunch with some friends on Saturday in St. Louis and they started telling Santo stories. It doesnt really matter whats going on in Cooperstown. As Bank said: There are things in every city that remind me of him.

After Santo died in 2010, Bank got phone calls from bus drivers in a few cities, including the one the Cubs have had for years in St. Louis.

They used to hear us on the buses laughing and having fun and talking, Bank said. They called me (to say) were really gonna miss (you guys) on the buses.

That was the kind of magnetism at the core of Santos personality. Friends, strangers, it didnt really matter. They gathered to watch him play with maximum effort and listen to him moan and groan and cheer on the radio.

Thats why so many will be there in Cooperstown, as the Hall of Fame recognizes what the Cubs already knew a long time ago.

Under Center Podcast: Saying bye to Elliott Fry


Under Center Podcast: Saying bye to Elliott Fry

On this episode of the Under Center Podcast, J.J. Stankevitz is joined by John "Moon" Mullin. To start, Moon takes a moment to remember Cedric Benson, who died in a motorcycle accident on Saturday night (00:30). Then, the guys discuss the Bears' surprise announcement that they released Elliott Fry, leaving Eddy Pineiro as the only kicker on the roster (05:40).

The guys toss to highlights from Matt Nagy's press conference on Sunday morning where he explains why the Bears decided to cut Fry now, how they think the move will help Pineiro and whether the competition is officially closed (07:55).

Finally, J.J. explains why the end of the kicking competition was just like the end of the Bachelorette (12:10), and which kickers on other teams the Bears may still have their eyes on in the upcoming preseason games (16:40).

Listen to the entire episode here or in the embedded player below.

Under Center Podcast


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Death of former Bears RB Cedric Benson a blow – and a reminder

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Death of former Bears RB Cedric Benson a blow – and a reminder

Getting the news that Cedric Benson had died last night in a motorcycle accident was a blow on Sunday. The former Bears running back and a passenger were killed when the bike they were riding collided with a minivan in Austin, Tex. As former Bears defensive end and Benson teammate Adewale Ogunleye tweeted Sunday, “What the hell is going on? The Bad news wont stop.”

Personally, this sort of thing hits hard. The passing of receivers coach Darryl Drake last week, former 1994 first-rounder John Thierry dying last November – of a heart attack at age 46 – Rashaan Salaam committing suicide in December 2016, and now Ced. That’s too many good dying young.

And yet even as the Benson news was sinking in, Bears beat colleague Rich Campbell over at the Tribune was celebrating the birth of his daughter. Not sure why that seems so striking, maybe just something about the circle of life, or just how there’s a spot of sunshine somewhere. 

As in so many of these things, the Ced death sparks memories, and in this case, good ones. Which may seem a bit unlikely, since Ced was one of the least popular Bears during his three (2005-2007) years after the organization made him the fourth-overall pick of that 2005 draft.

But things are not always as they seem.

Benson went through a 36-day holdout before reporting to the team, missing just about all of the 2005 training camp and preseason. When he arrived, the locker room seemed pretty set against him, for various reasons:

He was drafted as the replacement for Thomas Jones, the very popular tailback who’d been signed in the 2004 offseason but who failed to impress in the first year of a four-year, $10 million contract. He and Jones did not get along, coming to blows in one practice, and teammates were clearly Jones supporters.

But Jones had zero 1,000-yard years over his first five seasons; beginning with ’05 and the arrival of Benson, he went on a run of five straight seasons of no fewer than 1,100 yards, two with the Bears followed by three with the New York Jets after he engineered a trade to get out of Chicago.

And Ced was just…different. But to this reporter, different in good ways. He was very thoughtful; more than a few times, he’d have a question posed to him, then take an unusually long time before answering. But he was simply a thoughtful guy.

Case in point: I did a lunchtime sit-down with Ced outside the Olivet Nazarene mess hall during the 2006 training camp in Bourbonnais. To one of my questions, Ced said, “Hmm, that’s an interesting question. Let me get back to you about that one.”

Much later that afternoon, after a brutal, full-pad practice, I was walking away from the fields. Ced came running over, still in pads. “Hey,” he said. “I was thinking about what what we were talking about… .” And he had. And he also was honest about getting back to me. Yeah, I liked the guy.

The Bears let him go after a disappointing 2007 season and he caught on with the Cincinnati Bengals the next year. In 2009 the Bears went to Cincinnati and were annihilated 45-10, putting 215 rushing yards on a very good Bears defense and Benson accounting for 189 of those yards.

Afterwards I was able catch Ced before he left, and I was stunned to see how good he looked physically. He laughed at my surprise, then talked a long time about how he’d discovered a severe gluten intolerance. With that fixed, his complexion cleared up and he wasn’t dealing with the intestinal issues that any gluten-challenged fan out there knows too well. Anyhow, it was great to see a young man moving on to some sort of career, which included that year and the next two with more than 1,000 yards.

That it didn’t happen for him in Chicago was always a little puzzling. He was a phenomenal athlete, good enough to be drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers as an outfielder and play in their summer league.

He was a very, very emotional guy; at Halas Hall Sunday it was recalled how he’d cried during his conference call with the media following his drafting by the Bears. And he had his problem situations off the field, and he was waived in the 2008 offseason after a couple of arrests involving suspected alcohol abuse.

Those are probably the things too many people will remember about Ced. Too bad. There was much more to the young man. And as was said before, things — and people — are not always everything they seem to be. Under that heading I’d include Thomas Jones’ tweet on Sunday. From a supposed “enemy:”

“Woke up to the horrible news of Cedric Benson's passing,” Jones said. “My heart aches for him and his family. Sending love, peace and blessings their way. Gone way too soon my brother. Rest well young King. You will truly be missed…. “