Back in the day, one of the Cubs beat writers (who shall remain nameless to protect himself from himself) came up to me in the clubhouse and proudly said out loud to everyone within earshot: “Hey Chuck, you need a nickname!”
I replied with the only thing that came to mind: “Chuck is a nickname.”
The reality was … I didn’t need another nickname. The longer I was with the Cubs, the more name tags I wore.
Through it all, the one nickname that became the most sentimental to me – and the nickname only this person could have pulled off – was bestowed on me by Ron Santo: "Wasserstromi."
I will swear on legal documents and stacks of Cubs media guides that Ronnie actually thought my name was Wasserstromi. One word, like Madonna. I have my doubts that he even knew I had a first name.
And only Ron could pull off a conversational sentence like this when – at a mall – I bumped into him while pushing the twins in a double stroller: “Hey Wasserstromi! Hey Michelle! Are those yours?”
Ronnie was larger than life to me. He was still the Cubs’ third baseman when I went to my first baseball game in 1972, and he was one of the first players who signed an autograph for me. As a grownup, I was lucky enough to be with him on Cubs Caravans, at restaurants, on airplanes, on bus trips after road games. No one was more passionate about the Cubs than Ron. No one – and I truly mean no one – took losses harder than him. You could see the pain on his face after a 7-1 loss … on September 15 … with the team 19.0 games out of first place.
And no one was happier when the Cubs won.
The best way to describe his passion for his Cubs – and, shall we say, his unique broadcast flair – came on the final play of a Cubs/Colorado Rockies game on August 7, 2001. I was down the hallway in the Wrigley Field press box, so I didn’t hear the live call of the play. But it was such a classic Santo moment, and the WGN Radio production team had the cassette for me the next day.
I’ll set the stage in five bullet points.
Now, here is Pat Hughes’ chaotic and frenetic call of that play – with Mr. Santo’s succinct analysis in the background.
Pat: “1-and-0 on Girardi. 4-4 tie in the 9th. And the pitch … Girardi lines one to leftfield … ”
Ron: “Yes … yes … come on, come on.”
Pat: “It’s a base hit … Gutierrez heading toward third, he’s going to try to score … The throw by Shumpert ... ”
Ron: “Ohhh … nooooooooo.”
Pat: “Gutierrez falls down … He gets back to second ... ”
Ron: “Ohhhhhhhh … nooooooooooooooo.”
Pat: “The throw to second – not in time … Now they’re running Girardi back toward first ... ”
Ron: “JEE-zus Christ.” Followed by silence.
Pat: “Girardi being run toward second … Now Gutierrez gets back to third … The throw to first for Girardi … He’s in a rundown … Gutierrez trying to score … The throw to the plate … He slides … He’s safe … ”
Pat: “Cubs win! Cubs win! Cubs win! Cubs win! Cubs win! Unbelievable play. Cubs win! The Cubs win!”
Ron: Sound of clap-clap-clap-clap behind Mr. Hughes … Well, at least I think it’s Ron in the background. There’s a very distinct sound in the background, the sound of someone standing up – with his hands clapping in front of a microphone.
Most of the “Ron Santo Stories” are well documented in books and movies, but my favorite personal moment with Ronnie didn’t take place in the public eye. It was just the two of us on September 28, 2003 – the Sunday morning after the Cubs swept a doubleheader against Pittsburgh to clinch the National League Central Division title.
I was sitting in the Media Relations department working on the postseason media guide when I heard the familiar “Hey Wasserstromi!” Ron was standing at the doorway. “Isn’t this great?!”
I got out of my chair and asked him what he was most excited about – the Cubs going to the playoffs or that his uniform number was getting retired. The Cubs were finally honoring him, and the pregame ceremony was a couple hours away.
“What do you think?”
His big smile broke out, and he got a little teary-eyed. “I’m excited about everything. This is my Hall of Fame. But it’s better than that, because this is my home. This is my ballpark. These are my people.”
We had one of those half-handshake/half-man hug moments, then he continued down the hall – looking for someone else to hug and share his joy.
Ron Santo was born 76 years ago today and is sorely missed. Happy Birthday, No. 10!
I would be remiss in saying that nicknames only magically appeared during my time with the Cubs.
Even now, my always happy daughter drops new tags on me all the time. During the course of her young life, names she has called me … in no particular order … for no particular reason … include:
Her twin – the no-nonsense child – usually sticks to Dad when she needs something and Chuck when she’s in a good mood. At least she knows that Chuck is a nickname.