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December 5, 2011 at 12:59 PM

Great news on Ron Santo, but it’s a shame he wasn’t honored while he was alive

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(Photo by Associated Press)

Ron Santo made the Hall of Fame today, belatedly and posthumously (or, as he once put it, post-humorously).

That’s wonderful news, and I’m particularly happy for his family, and for Ron’s loyal group of friends in Seattle from their days growing up together and attending Franklin High School. As his son, Jeff Santo, said today on a conference call, “I know he would be proud today.”

And yet, it’s hard not to wish that Santo had been around to experience this day that he yearned so long for, to gush with trademark enthusiasm, to hug his grandkids and soak up the adulation in Cooperstown in July.

“We’re all elated that finally, justice prevailed,” said Frank Savelli, one of those lifelong friends from Seattle who lived and died, along with Ron, with each ill-fated vote of the Baseball Writers Association of America and, later, the Veterans Committee of the Hall of Fame. “But it’s a darned shame he’s not here to see it.”

It’s really cruel to think that Santo missed it by just a year, after suffering through so many near-misses when it looked for sure like this time, this vote, he was going to get in. Santo died virtually a year ago to the day, on Dec. 3, 2010, of complications from bladder cancer. He was 70, and in some ways it was a miracle he lived that long, considering the lifelong battle he waged with diabetes, a fight that cost him both legs and necessitated dozens of operations (that’s no exaggeration). And yet I’ve never met anyone as exuberantly and relentlessly positive as Santo, who was always convinced that the next season was when the Cubs were finally going to win the World Series, and the next election was the one that would get him into the Hall of Fame. And, most importantly, that a cure for diabetes — his mission in life — was just around the corner.

“Someone said this was bittersweet, because Ron isn’t here, but I don’t like to use that term,” his daughter, Linda, said today. “Bitter sounds negative, and I know if Dad was here, he wouldn’t want to reflect on unhappy doings. There would be no bitterness; he’d just be happy.”

One of his closest Seattle friends, Bill Chatalas, told me today that Ron never wanted to make the Hall out of sympathy.

“He and I had more than one conversation, probably several, about this whole deal,” Chatalas said. “He was almost afraid they’d vote him in after he died because he died, rather than what he did on the field. He should have been in on his merits, not because he died.”

Ultimately, I think it was his merits that finally got him in via today’s vote of the Veterans Committee. I’ve mentioned it before, but Bill James, the patron saint of sabermetrics, once wrote, “If I were in control of the Hall of Fame selections, the first player I would choose would be Ron Santo.” I’d put him in not just his superb career with Cubs but also his role as a baseball ambassador, most particularly as one of prime advocates of everything Cubs. Ernie Banks might have been “Mr. Cub” but Santo was right there with him, in the trenches, right until the end. Tom Ricketts, the Cubs owner, said aptly today of Santo’s selection, “I think this means a lot to a lot of Cubs fans. It was always a missing piece in the puzzle of Cubs history.”

Chatalas said that for Santo, making the Hall of Fame is “icing on the cake. He had his number retired, which was probably the most important thing to him. They have a flag up (on the flagpole at Wrigley Field in his honor), and a bronze statue, and now this. Maybe he’s turning for home. He was at third base with those three things, now he’s on his way home. I guess he is home.”

For Ron Santo’s baseball legacy, Cooperstown is the final resting place. Finally.

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