Thursday was Ron Santo Day at HoHoKam Park. This would be just the start of a season of fond recollections. As Santo's friend and teammate, Hall of Famer Billy Williams, suggested during the ceremonies, "It will take years" to properly pay homage to "an individual who did so much for the game of baseball."
On this day, Cubs players wore Santo's No. 10 on their caps for the Cactus League game against the Cleveland Indians. A plaque honoring Santo was placed beneath the radio broadcast booth, the spot where fans lined up on a daily basis to get Santo's autograph. Pregame ceremonies included Cubs officials, local officials, Santo family members and three prominent Santo teammates; Williams, Ferguson Jenkins and Randy Hundley.
Santo, who died in December at age 70, had become an iconic figure for the Cubs during two careers, one as a third baseman, the other, as a broadcaster. In the first career, he was a nine-time National League All-Star and a five-time Gold Glove winner. His offensive statistics -- compiled largely in an era in which pitching was dominant -- were impressive. His absence from the Hall of Fame offers a reminder that life can be short on the precious quality of justice.
What also made Santo an icon in the global Cubs community was his genuine passion for the game of baseball, and for the Cubs. It was indisputable, undisguised, ever-present.
"It was exceptional," Cubs manager Mike Quade said of that passion. "It was sincere. It wasn't manufactured for the booth or anything else."
Quade noticed what everybody noticed, that you could tune in mid-game to a Cubs broadcast and know what was what without a recitation of the score. All you had to do was hear the tone of Santo's voice to understand the Cubs' situation.
"I never needed to hear the score when I was in Iowa," Quade said. "All those years, I would turn on the radio after my game and listen to three words out of Ronnie's mouth -- or three groans. [If it was groans], I wasn't sure how bad we were losing but I knew it wasn't good. If he and Pat [Hughes] were having fun, then I knew we were in good shape."
What made Santo's careers and his life even more remarkable, and even more admirable, was his struggle with Type I diabetes. Santo had both of his legs amputated below the knees as a result of the disease. This did not end his broadcasting career and it did not diminish his enthusiasm. It also did not affect his tireless charitable work on behalf of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, an organization for which he raised more than $60 million.
The title of "Mr. Cub" had already been taken, and worn well, by Ernie Banks. But for a lot of people, Santo summed up the whole Cub experience. The recollection of Santo clicking his heels was a vivid memory of the triumph that constituted most of the 1969 season, even though that ended up being a memory that turned deeply disappointing, demoralizing, and just generally unthinkable.
But it was all part of the Ron Santo package. This was a man who embodied the totality of the Cub experience -- the triumph and the tragedy, the joy and the disappointment. But, plus or minus, he kept on going as well as he could for as long as he could.
"I guess when they say people bleed Dodger blue, Ronnie bled Cubbie blue," Williams said. "He inspired a lot of guys to go out and play hard ball. Being around him the last few years, I think the players here got a taste of what type of individual he was. Ronnie came to the ballpark, he played hard, he did his job, he got information, and he just enjoyed the game."
So Ron Santo Day was a day of mixed emotions at HoHoKam -- the obvious sadness at Santo's passing, but the joy that his memory evoked. More than for anyone else, of course, that was how it was for the Santo family.
"We hurt for our dad, but at the same time, we're honoring him," said Santo's son, Jeff. "So there are mixed emotions. It's a great day. His life will live on, for many generations. It's an honor to us, but it's also overwhelming, too, because we miss him so much. "
This is a particularly difficult time of the year for the surviving Santos.
"Every spring it brought a smile to his face because he was ready to come to the park and see you guys and the Cubs and be part of this second family that is his," Jeff Santo said. "So that smile and that optimism that every spring brought is kind of gone now. ... But when we come to the park it still lifts us and we're still carrying on our dad's legacy, and that's what we have to do, for him."
The Cubs will continue to honor Santo. All uniformed personnel will wear commemorative No. 10 patches during the regular season. A Santo statue will be unveiled at Wrigley Field on another Ron Santo Day, on Aug. 10. The cover of the Cubs 2011 media guide features a montage of Santo photographs covering the 50-year span of his two careers with the Cubs.
This is all completely fitting. There cannot be too many Ron Santo remembrances; for baseball, for the Cubs, for what this man meant to so many.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.