It’s safe to say that Ron Santo is sorely missed – as the birthday tribute from last week generated a lot of positive vibes.
As you probably figured, there are many Ron Santo stories that I can share – and I’ll trot them out from time-to-time. For instance, Opening Day just wouldn’t be Opening Day without reminiscing about the demise of Ron’s hairpiece at “the hands” of a Shea Stadium overhead heat vent.
The truth is, to understand Ronnie, you had to realize that his levels of passion and love that he had for the Cubs was 100% genuine. He wore it on his sleeve. And if he wasn’t talking about the Cubs, he was most assuredly talking about baseball.
If you wanted to get him going, ask him about a notorious head hunter from his day – Don Wilson. He could take an hour telling you about his encounters with Wilson – all negative – and as bad as this sounds, you could hear the excitement in his voice when he talked of the time that Wilson was found dead due to carbon monoxide poisoning. “I called Johnny Bench. I was the first one to let him know. Did you hear the news?!”
The same fire and intensity he brought to the ballpark as a player often popped up during his broadcasting days. Sometimes, the littlest nugget could flip on the switch, and you had to contain yourself when he went into full-throttle Ronnie mode. If you couldn’t stifle a smirk, you just made things worse.
At some point, I hope longtime Cubs traveling secretary Jimmy Bank (also known as the mayor of Tuscaloosa, the mayor of Tupelo, and Lenny) will guest column for me to fully tell the story of this one Saturday night in Philadelphia when Ron decided he wanted to take a bunch of us out for an Italian dinner. Unbeknownst to the rest of us, there apparently is a ginormous difference between Northern Italian and Southern Italian cuisine – and the restaurant the hotel concierge suggested served the fare that Ronnie didn’t care for. I was under the table laughing when he loudly said “Jimmy, this sauce came out of a Ragu jar.”
And there was nothing better than being a fly on the wall when instigators like Steve Stone … or Chip Caray … or Thom Brennaman got Ronnie going. They knew how to push his buttons -- as Mr. Santo could NOT take a joke.
I preferred being on Ron’s good side, so I rarely participated in egging him on. However, I am on the deviant side – and I’d often get called in to execute a plan.
This one time in the early 2000s, Steve Stone was visiting Wrigley Field during his hiatus from broadcasting. He was meeting with a co-conspirator who also knew how to push Ronnie’s buttons – an “unnamed” marketing/broadcasting guru who now has plenty of pictures hoisting the Stanley Cup as the president and CEO of a Chicago hockey team.
As the Cubs’ press release writer, I was summoned down the hall to the Marketing Department. They were hatching a plan, and they needed someone devious to pull this off. I was that deviant.
The grand plan: I was to write a faux press release stating that Stoney would be coming out of retirement to work as an analyst for WGN Radio.
As part of the press release, a fake quote was to be written for Stoney – talking about how great it was to be coming back and getting to work alongside Pat Hughes.
A fake quote was to be attributed to Pat – addressing how great it was going to be to finally work with someone with a great baseball intellect. And even better, something along the lines of how honored Pat was going to be to work with Steve Stone – an analyst who could further his career in the same way Bob Uecker did in Milwaukee.
And the bonus – and this was my biggest contribution … There was no mention of Ron Santo anywhere in the press release. None.
Need I remind you, Ron didn’t take jokes well. And while many would have, could have and should have seen through this, Ronnie wasn’t wired that way. It didn’t take much to get him going.
I’m guessing I wrote in the vicinity of 1,500 press releases during my time with the Cubs. But that fake one was the easiest press release I ever wrote. It literally took minutes to write. I wish I had the foresight to have kept a copy for myself, because I would have loved to be showing it to you here. But I also knew how it was going to play out, so I destroyed the evidence.
A little while later, that solitary faux press release found its way into Ronnie’s hands when he arrived in the Marketing Department to pick up his game notes and stats for that afternoon’s action. It was the lead piece of paper in his mailbox.
While I wasn’t physically in the vicinity when he began reading the release, you know where this is going.
I was at my desk – I’m guessing about 50 yards away – when this booming “I QUIT” came thundering down the hallway.
Followed seconds later by a door being slammed.
Followed by Marketing Department personnel chasing Santo down the stairs to make sure he didn’t jump.
Needless to say, that one-and-only press release wasn’t just humanely destroyed by Ronnie. It was slaughtered.
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