"This is Un-Stinking-Believable . . . "

When push came to shove, if you want to call it that, and it came time to stand tall for induction, Barry Larkin was the one moved to tears and Ron Santo’s widow, who admitted to working through tears forming her talk, stood more composed.

No knock on either one of them. The best shortstop you almost never heard of in the 1990s, usually remembered as a very reserved fellow, almost exploded in launching his Hall of Fame acceptance speech. “This,” he purred, “is un-stinking-believable.”

And the best all-around third baseman in the 1960s National League, represented by his comely widow, must have been enjoying a no-harm, no-foul last laugh on whichever fools yet prevented him from accepting in his lifetime the honour he deserved.

Somehow, it seemed appropriate and poetic alike that such a reserved shortstop and such a gregarious third baseman, gregarious in the face of an insidious illness against which he battled since his youth, should go into Cooperstown together Sunday.

Barry Larkin hoists his plaque; Vicki Santo, her late husband’s . . . (National Baseball Hall of Fame photograph.)

Larkin—the career-long Cincinnati Reds shortstop standout, now an ESPN analyst, who still looks like he could go out, play nine in the infield, and poke out a base hit or two—could barely get through his opening, thanking his family and a number of teachers and players who influenced him, fellow Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar in particular. “I just told Roberto,” said Larkin, translating what he had just said in Spanish, “during my career I wanted to play with this guy so bad because I saw on the other side of the field he was just that special of a player, and I just told him finally we are a double play combination.”

In due course he addressed his own self-questioning. “Am I doing enough? Is there more? Could I do something a little bit different? Something better? Can I try harder? Is this the right thing to do? I asked that question because I took a lot of pride in representing not only myself but my family, the Reds organisation, the city of Cincinnati.”

The best 1990s shortstop you almost never heard of . . .

Sometimes that pride got in the way of Larkin with people on their own terms, and he admitted it. “I acknowlege that, at times, I acted out. I made plenty of mistakes. I didn’t always handle situations as best I could. I humbly appreciate your acceptance of me and my shortcomings, and your continued support for me and my family—and for those questions I used to ask. Well, no longer do I have to ask those questions anymore. The answer is forever written on my plaque in Cooperstown.”

It was written forever, too, into the mists of the place, when Larkin buoyantly connected with Red fans who made the trek for his induction, just as the Santo family did with the throng of Cub fans, many of whom turned out looking like they jumped up and clicked their heels out of the pages of 1969, when the Cubs threatened to win the National League East until the Miracle Mets overthrew them down the stretch.

Perhaps feeling her husband’s hand on her shoulder, Santo’s widow couldn’t resist opening with a self-deprecating zinger. “Words cannot express my sorrow that Ron Santo didn’t live to see this day, that he’s not here to give this speech,” began the widow of the Chicago Cubs standout. “Believe me when I tell you I’d rather have Ron up here than me, but rest assured that he’s laughing at my expense to see me squirm a little bit.”

She didn’t really squirm at all, as things turned out. “He said his ability to play baseball was a God given gift, that playing the game was easy, that it was only the diabetes that made the game hard,” she continued. “Looking back, he believed he was given the gift of talent as well as the challenge of diabetes so that through his hardship, he could shed light on a cause that he could help others through his story. And I think he would say that’s why he’s now been given the greatest honor any athlete could ever hope for from a sport, to be included among the greatest players who have ever set foot on earth.”

Those pesky sabermetricians who broke down Santo’s career performance and saw through and behind the counting stats that mattered to the exclusion of almost everything else, mostly, in his era, had a little something to do with it, too. So, in some ways, might Santo’s un-stinking-believable courage. According to his widow, it wasn’t just a gag Santo liked to tell on himself that, if his sugar was low, he might see three balls coming to the plate and just swing on the ball in the middle:

The sweet swing of courage . . .

You see, long before science and technology caught up to diabetes, Ron Santo was as much a guinea pig as he was a baseball player. On a given day, he played doctor and patient as well as third base. He tested his sugars by taking batting practice. He checked his glucose levels by fielding grounders. He gauged the amount of insulin he would need after running the bases. And this was before the game even started. His prescription was often a candy bar or a glass of orange juice, never letting on that his sugars were low or telling his teammates about his daily injections.

But without the difficulties, what value would have been the gift? What meaning would have been the journey? It never held him back, not before his career, not during and not after. Not even after double amputations, because Ron Santo believed it’s not what happens to you in life that people may judge, but how you handle what happens to you in your life.

Ron told the story many times about an afternoon at Wrigley Field when he was really struggling. The low sugar came over him very quickly, as it sometimes did, and suddenly he found himself in the on-deck circle. Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert had already reached base, Billy Williams was at the plate and Ron’s sugar was really low. It got so bad as Billy took his sweet time up there working the count that Ron was hoping Billy would just strike out so he could end the inning and get back to the dugout for a candy bar, but Billy walked to load the bases.

Now Ron really had a problem. His vision was blurry and he was weak. His plan was to hit the first pitch but he didn’t count on seeing three balls coming to him so he picked the middle of the three and swung hard. He did it. A grand slam. But as they ran the bases, Billy was jogging, enjoying the moment and Ron quickly caught up to him. Billy said, “Hey don’t pass me up, what’s your hurry?” Ron said, “You better get moving, Whistler, or I’m running right around you.” Billy picked up the pace and they got off the field but it wasn’t until years later that Ron explained why he needed to get off the field.

Santo didn’t get off the field when it came to joining the battle against juvenile diabetes (he helped raise a reported $65 million for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) or the need for his beloved but hapless Cubs (for whom he worked as a popular broadcaster for decades) to win one now and then. The man’s enthusiasm was as infectious as his illness was insidious. “I always think of how Clarence [in It’s a Wonderful Life, a film that must have meant something in the Santo household] inscribed that copy of Tom Sawyer that George Bailey holds at the end of the movie,” Mrs. Santo said. “‘Remember, George, no man is a failure who has friends.’ Well, I don’t know of anyone who had more friends than Ron Santo.”

Larkin at least got to win a World Series ring as an anchor for the 1990 Reds, before the Reds collapsed in a morass of Marge Schott before her eventual purge. He also got to hear his daughter, Cymber, open the proceedings by singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” Then, he had to try following Vicki Santo and keeping his composure. It was easier following Mrs. Santo than keeping his composure once he spotted his mother in tears.

Santo never got even close to a pennant or division championship, never mind a World Series ring. He had Leo Durocher to thank for that, a manager he admired and respected otherwise, who wrung out his regulars until they gassed down the 1969 stretch, accused injured or exhausted players of being quitters, refused to trust his bench, over-relied on one relief pitcher (Phil Regan), and baited umpires so incessantly there’s evidence that they all but ganged up on the Cubs on close calls as the Cubs began to fade while the Mets heated up in earnest. In time, Durocher would even alienate Santo with a false charge that Santo himself had manipulated a Ron Santo Day at Wrigley Field.

Like fellow Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ferguson Jenkins, and Ryne Sandberg, Santo forged a brilliant career with no Cub championship to show for championship-caliber play.

Santo’s family and fellow Hall of Famers celebrated exuberantly at a pre-induction private party Santo would have loved. Johnny Bench, whose career began as Santo’s was in its prime, brought the house down by slipping into a Cub uniform and oversize black eyeglasses and pulling off a splendid Harry Caray impersonation, right down to the language assault. (John Santo in the Hall of Fame—holy cow!!) On induction day, Banks got laughs cracking, “It’s a beautiful day—let’s induct two!” (Banks, of course, was legendary for saying it was a beautiful day and let’s play two no matter how the Cubs were doing.)

Santo’s beloved Cubs commemorated his induction Sunday by clicking their heels—a Santo trademark after home victories, for awhile, anyway—as they crossed the line to hit the field at Busch Stadium to face the St. Louis Cardinals, who seemed to understand what the heels were all about. And, by losing, 7-0.

Were it anyone but the Cubs, that, too, could be called un-stinking-believable.

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