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The Day I Met Ron Santo

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On March 27, 2010, I flew to Phoenix for the day to attend a Cubs’ Spring Training game.  That’s not nearly as extravagant as it might initially sound.  I live in Los Angeles, so the cost of the trip and the travel time were both minimal.  And it was a small price to pay to finally get back to Spring Training.

When I was little kid, my parents would load my brothers and me into the car for an annual trip to Palm Springs to see the Cubs play the Angels.  Palms Springs Stadium was a glorified college baseball park–in fact, there wasn’t even a separate parking lot for the players, which meant there were lots of opportunities to get signatures after the games.  Somewhere in my parents’ house, we still have a large collection of autographed baseballs and photos taken with former Cub greats and not-so-greats.  We’ve even got a picture of my brothers and me all sitting on Harry Caray’s lap between innings.  But ever since the Angels left Palm Springs in 1992, I had not been back to a Spring Training game*.

*I did try to go to a game once in 2006, but it didn’t work out.  Back then, most of Arizona was at the tail end of the longest stretch of rainless days in its history–143 total.  My brothers, my sister-in-law, and I left LA on Friday night and drove through hours of non-stop rain, snow flurries, and even periodic hail.  We spent the night in one of Phoenix’s skeeviest hotels, and found out in the morning that the game had indeed been rained out.  Instead of basking in the sun at Hohokam Park, we found an Uno’s Pizza and watched some March Madness before driving back home.  The failure of that trip was at least part of the reason I was flying to Phoenix by myself in 2010.

My flight from LAX to PHX took just a little over an hour, but it seemed much longer.  That’s because it served as an unofficial charter for Dodger fans who had won a radio contest and were flying to Phoenix for a weekend of Spring Training fun.  We even had a local celebrity on board–Vic the Brick, a radio host from LA’s FOXSports station.  Once we were in the air, he took it upon himself to commandeer the in-flight PA and treat all of us passengers to a mixed bag of jokes, catchphrases, and rambling anecdotes.  He even hosted a Dodger trivia contest, complete with passengers running down the aisle, Price Is Right-style, to retrieve their free-drink vouchers.   It was one of the worst flying experiences of my life**, and I once spent several hours in FBI custody because of bomb threat made by a fellow passenger.

**That wouldn’t be my last encounter with Dodger fans that day.  In the Southwest terminal for my flight home, I spotted a dejected-looking Frank McCourt.  The Dodgers’ owner was also flying home to LA that night, and wound up sitting in the row behind me.  At the time, McCourt was in the early stages of his ugly divorce that has since exposed his own shady finances and crippled his ability to run the franchise.  As he slumped into a seat near the entrance to the jetway, it seemed clear he didn’t want to be bothered.  That didn’t stop me from selling a few unused baseballs to Dodger fans who wanted his autograph.

I arrived at Hohokam with plenty of time before the game started.  I had come prepared with pens and blank baseballs, and a mental wishlist of the autographs to get.  At the top of that list was Ron Santo.  After walking around the stadium and scoping things out, I asked a friendly-looking usher where I might best be able to meet Ron.  Hohokam employs several senior citizens as ushers, and this kind, old gentleman outlined two possible ways I might obtain Ron’s signature.  If you ever listened to Pat and Ron call a Spring Training game, you know Ron usually left the game early.  That was in part because it took him so long to get to his vehicle, since he stopped so often to sign autographs and meet fans.  Waiting til the end of the game might keep him at the park for hours after the last out, so somewhere in the eighth inning, he’d usually take off.  The usher pointed me to the only elevator at Hohokam, and told me that Ron had to come down from the press box there, and that was the surest way to get his autograph.

He also pointed to a line that had formed a few sections behind me that snaked all the way up to the press box windows.  He said I could take my chances, but that the line was closed off about a half hour prior to game time.  At that point, we were still almost an hour from the first pitch.  I thanked him for the advice and raced over to join the line.  The queue stretched along the main aisle between the upper and lower seating areas, then turned up center aisle of the upper seats, ending at the window Santo sat behind to call the games.  If you stood in the last row of seats, you could make eye-contact with Ron and shake his hand as he signed your jerseys, hats, and baseballs.

Directly in front of me in line was a middle-aged woman who had waited the day before for Ron to sign her jersey.  Today she hoped to get him to sign the hat she was wearing.  She spoke optimistically about our chances to make it to the front of the line, but I wasn’t so sure.  Every time we’d make significant progress forward, a mom or a dad would herd their children to the front of the line to meet up with the other parent who had been saving their places.  At roughly 40 minutes to game time, an usher appeared to tell us we likely would not make it up to the top before Ron had to go to work.  Ten minutes later, when the line should have been dispersed, Ron began to sign in earnest.  The greetings, handshakes, and photos all came to an end, as he fought off the ushers and the WGN radio staff to keep signing whatever the fans put in front of him.

Despite an influx of even more kids, we did eventually make it to the top of the stands with about 20 minutes left before game time.  I knew that any minute Pat and Ron were due to go on air, but Ron seemed determined to keep signing right up to the point the Cubs broadcast started.  All that stood between me and Ron was the middle-aged lady in front of me, and the lady in front of her who was leading her kids back down the aisle.  Sensing a momentary break in the action, another WGN employee stepped forward to put a stop the autograph session.  For some unknowable reason, the woman in front of me–who had been professing her deep admiration and respect for Ron for the last 40+ minutes–tossed her hat through the window like a frisbee, knocking papers, pens, and whatever beverage Ron had that day into his lap.  I was mortified as he slowly stood up and backed away to assess the mess she had made.  Pat Hughes scowled at her over his game notes, and the WGN staff shut the window and began cleaning up Ron’s desk.

Needless to say, that brought an abrupt end to the autograph session.  I went to my seat shocked and frustrated.  I knew I still had a shot to catch him at the elevator, but I didn’t know what kind of crowd would greet him there, or if the hat-flinger’s astounding rudeness had put him off signing autographs for the rest of the day.

The game went well.  Tyler Colvin was wrapping up his breakout Spring, and he went 4-5 that day with a homer and triple.  In the 2nd or 3rd inning, I met new Cubs owner Tom Ricketts as he brought his kids back from the concession stands.  But mostly I kept one eye on Ron’s window–which had since been reopened–to make sure I didn’t miss his departure from the booth.

Then in the middle of the 4th inning, I noticed a few Cubs fans standing on the last row of seats, discreetly passing items through the window for Ron to sign.  With the short breaks between innings, he couldn’t do more than a handful of autographs, but he obliged as many as he could, and encouraged the rest to wait for the next break in the action.  I began to inch my way back over to the seats in front of his window.  My plan was to get into an empty seat as close to the WGN booth as I could, so I could be in place just after the third out.  I think it was the middle of the 6th when I finally was able to reach up, shake Ron’s hand, and pass him a baseball.

The details of our brief conversation aren’t really important.  In a short minute or two, it’s hard to say all the things you want to say to someone who you’ve listened to for so long.  How do you tell him that his emotions, reactions, and thoughts go so far to inform you own about a team you both love?  How do you explain he’s such an important part of the prism through which you see your favorite team from day to day?  That you share his ups and downs, his frustrations, and his bottomless optimism that next year might be The Year?  Mostly I just thanked him for his hard work on our behalf, and told him how he made even the worst games worth listening to, in part because I knew he always suffered at least as much as I did.  I told that he was the best, because he was.

If I’m honest, I think it’s odd to feel such a deep connection to a stranger.  But maybe that’s just a reflection of Ron, since he never treated any Cubs fans like strangers. In his mind, we were all his family.

I kept an eye on Ron’s window for the rest of that game, where he flew through handshakes, photos, and autographs.  Around the eighth inning, I walked back down to the concourse to see what kind of crowd had gathered to meet him on his way home.  As he got off the elevator and headed to his car, a swarm of Cubs fans surrounded him and a slowly accompanied him out the stadium gates an into the parking lot.

I didn’t get any other signatures that day, but it didn’t matter.  I got what I came for.  I got to meet Ron Santo.

 

  • Well told. I especially liked the footnote vignette about Frank McCourt.

  • chet

    Best autograph I ever got was Cal Ripken Jr…..he made you feel like you were actually “meeting” him. Those are the good ones, when you can say, “I met ______” when really all they were doing was appeasing you with an autograph. It makes you feel like you actually met them.

    A close second was Kerry Wood.

    George Brett and Pete Rose on the other hand , I did not feel as though I met them. I felt like they would rather crap on my ball then sign it.

    As far as Cubs go, Fergie Jenkins was nice enough, Ron was not in the best mood.

    As a side note, I never pester someone on the job or on their personal time for autographs, these instances are all paid gigs that a recieved these. Which shocks me even more that some were rude. Nothing worse then plunking down $50 and the guy turns out to be an ass hat. I guess that’s why I don’t do it anymore.

  • Buddy

    I got to speak to Ron Santo at a Cubs Caravan about 13 (ish) years ago. He was certain that Henry Rodriguez would put the Cubs over the top. My friends and I politley tried to convince him otherwise. He probably thought we were morons, but he couldn’t have been nicer about it.

  • Jedi

    I want more “day in the life of Jeremiah Johnson” – that was awesome…and more airport experiences too. Denver.

  • Greg

    I have only seen Ron Santo once in person and that was in 2008 in August when the Pirates were in town. It was about an hour before the game and my dad and I (I was 16) were walking the concourse and he was in a golf cart getting driven around. He made the driver stop so he could sign a sign that a woman, who was old enough to be alive in 1908, had brought, and along with the autograph Santo took a picture with the woman, and her newborn [great]grand daughter. It was a cool moment to see for only listening to Santo’s calls on the radio, and allowed me at 16 to see how he encapsulated Cubdom.

  • BLPCB

    @chet – I met Ripken in 2008 at a book signing. I tried getting him to sign a baseball for my friend at the end of the signing but his assistant was a jackass to everyone. He was like sorry no time we’ve got a plane to catch.

  • Buddy

    From the Tribune…

    “Carlos Zambrano had a rough night, serving up five home runs and trailing 8-1 in the fifth before being ejected by plate umpire Tim Timmons for allegedly throwing at Chipper Jones. The Cubs lost 10-4. After the game, Zambrano’s locker was already cleaned out and the pitcher told a team trainer that he had retired.”

  • BLPCB

    If it is true that Bozo the Clown has retired, good riddance

  • BLPCB

    And @Jeremiah – Was it the tobasco sauce that caused your stomach problems on your flight home or was it something else?

  • Brandon

    Great story Jeremiah. RIP #10

  • Pecadillo

    Excellent. I too would enjoy a part 2 in the near future. Denver. I had forgotten about the Harry Caray pictures. Which one of us had the honor(?) of sitting on his lap? We need to find those pictures. I think Harry was the first celebrity I ever met, if you don’t count Sinbad. He was certainly the first drunk celebrity I ever met, again if you don’t count Sinbad.

  • CubbieDude

    JJ, I enjoyed reading your piece. Thanks for the nice work.

  • Randy Allen

    You Johnson boys sure can write! Now I have to add “VFTB’ to my reading list along with ‘Pecadillo’ & ‘Pyromaniacs’!
    BTW, I’m a Dodger fan but, mostly a ‘baseball’ fan, so I can appreciate your zeal for the ‘cubbies’, etc.

  • Jeremiah Johnson

    Thanks, everybody. Glad you liked it.

    BLPCB-I should have probably made this clear in the post, but the airplane story I linked to is actually from my father. I was with him on the trip, and can back up every detail of his story–it was not our family’s best day. But to answer your question, it wasn’t the Tabasco that begat his gall bladder issues–it just inflamed them. As much as two or three days before the flight home, he had been having periodic stomach problems, but chalked them up to something he had eaten–after all, we were in India, so that wouldn’t have been a big surprise.

    But even though it wasn’t me suffering through the exploding gall bladder, it still was not an easy day. To say what might be your last goodbye to your mom on an airplane phone over the Pacific, and then hours later face the real possibility that you might lose your dad in the hospital is something I would not wish on anyone.

    And even when you factor in the hefty amount of hyperbole I intended, it should give you some appreciation for just how bad that Dodger flight was.

  • BLPCB

    Wow. Yeah, I just wanted to clear up who was having the issues. That is scary. I am well aware of Indian food. I am of Indian descent. My parents are from India, I’m 1st generation here. I don’t like the spicy food either. I don’t understand how people can eat the ghost chili and pop 4 or 5 of them a day like candy and still have a stomach.

  • Jeremiah Johnson

    Indeed, and we all generally like Indian food, too. Especially my dad. But we had spent a month in India, and after a while our defenses lowered, our common sense went out the window, and we all started being a little too daring with what we ate. About three weeks into the trip, I got violently ill from some contaminated water–turns out I picked up an amoeba, and was on a steady diet of horse pills for the next few days. And most everybody else had been varying degrees of sick at one point or another–we just assumed it was my dad’s turn.

  • BLPCB

    I got something like that when I was 6 or 7. Got to be really careful with that. My grandparents would only get drinking water from one dedicated tap line and even then they had to boil it.

  • Seymour Butts

    I’ve told several of my Ron Stories before, but I enjoyed your’s.

  • Well told, Jeremiah. Thanks.

  • Doc Raker

    Spring training 2005, my brother and I had press passes for a Cubs Padres game in Peoria. Pat and Ron were doing the radio broadcast that day. We said hello to Ron and he was walking to the booth. My brother was wearing his Ron Santo jersey. After a brief exchange of pleasantry’s Santo said, “Nice jersey.” Inwhich my brother replied, “Hey thanks, Luis Salazar’s number, he was great.” Santo got a good chuckle after a moment of wonder. Later in the day we got a picture with Sandberg and wished him congrats onhis recent election to the HOF. Then we had a nice steak dinner at Sullivan’s with Seymour.

  • (Seymour had the garden salad, dry)

  • Doc Raker

    dry white toast, thousand island on the side, ice cream sundae and a tab.

  • I can’t give you a tab until you order something. “Marty McFly”