Monday, February 17, 2014

My Life With 2 Icons...

Lucky, lucky me.  Yeah that's right, lucky me.  In my 15 years of calling MLB games on the radio, I have had the distinct pleasure of working with two amazing, iconic, and wonderful people.

Both are in the Hall of Fame, one as a broadcaster, and one as a player.  Each meant so much to their team's fan base that when they passed away, two big cities, stopped to mourn the loss.  In each city, these two men became the only voices, several generations of fans knew.  Both were philanthropic, both were humble when they had reasons to not be, and both treated fans with respect and love.  To me, both these men, were among the best people I have ever been around, and may ever be around again.

By now, I think you've figured out that I'm talking about the late Ron Santo, and the late Lt. Col.  Jerry Coleman.  The former meant everything to Cubs fans, and the latter, the same to Padres fans.

Ron Santo was an all-star, a gold-glove winner, and a home run hitter for the Chicago Cubs in the early 60s until the mid 70's.  342 career home runs, all as a type-1 diabetic.   This secret he kept, would have kept some away from playing the game, but not Ronnie.  He didn't want his teammates to look at him differently, so he'd sneak a shot of insulin, or a candy bar, and a coke, when his blood sugar was low.  He told me a story, that I looked up just to verify, of a game that was coming down to the bottom of the 9th inning, against the Montreal Expos at Wrigley Field.  Billy Williams represented the tying run at home plate, with 2 on and 2 out.  Santo was in the on deck circle, and all of the sudden, he saw three scoreboards, three pitchers and three of Billy at the plate.  He was having a diabetic episode. I remember him telling me, "it was the first time I ever rooted for Billy to strike out and for a game to be over".  Williams would walk to load the bases for Santo.  He staggered to the plate, and decided to swing at the first pitch he "saw" and told me he was going to "hit the ball in the middle" since he was still seeing 3.  Sure enough, he swung, and launched a grand slam into the seats, and won the ballgame for the Cubs.  It wasn't long after that he came clean about his "secret", and let it be known that he was diabetic.   Ron didn't do it out of fear, or out of some need for pity, no he did it because he knew he was not the only one facing this horrible disease.  Ron Santo became the face of this disease.  He inspired people to live a normal life.  He raised countless tens of millions of dollars for JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) with golf outings, sponsorships, and his Ron Santo Walk for the Cure, which has grown exponentially even after his passing.   The story of Ron was told beautifully by his son Jeff Santo, in a film called "This Old Cub", which has been updated to include Ron's posthumous election to the HOF.   If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it, and not just because I have a cameo or two in it.

Jerry Coleman was a World Series Champion second baseman for the New York Yankees.  The man was a tremendous baseball player, despite what he would tell you on the radio.  He was a World Series MVP, a rookie of the year and a teammate of Yankee greats, like Yogi Berra, Joe Dimaggio, and Mickey Mantle to name just a few.   But Jerry never thought twice (ironically he served twice) about leaving the great game, to defend his country.  He did it twice.  The Marine pilot, served in over 120 combat missions, in both World War II and the Korean War.  Won countless medals, and probably saved countless lives with his bravery.    To Jerry, it was just what somebody does when called upon.  He never wanted the credit, even though he'd tell me a hundred times, "You know I won both of those wars single handedly", it was just his way to deflect any attention given to him.   That was the Colonel.   It seemed natural for Coleman to land in San Diego, this very proud military town. For many he became the face of the military, and especially the Marine Corp.  Jerry had so much respect for all the branches of service, and in kind they respected the heck out of this man.  He was asked to appear at many military functions,  making speeches, and taking part in ceremonies and parades.  He hated the attention, he really did.  But the soldiers loved meeting him, and the Colonel always had a kind word and an encouraging word for them, while wishing them well, should they see combat.  I remember each time we'd stand up in the middle of the fourth inning on a Sunday at Petco to honor the Marine recruits, looking over at him, as he seemed genuinely concerned about all of their safety.  This was real, no act, this was the genuine article.

These two gentlemen are probably better known by today's generations from their work in the broadcast booth.  Their engaging smiles, and energetic personalities, made them so easily identifiable and loved by the listeners.

I really feel like I've learned a lot from each of them, things that I can take forward with me in my broadcasting career.

For example, Ron Santo's love for Cubs fans was as evident as their love for him.  One day when I was working for WGN and doing the pre/post game with Ron, we arrived on the team bus in St. Louis.  The Cubs/Cardinals rivalry is fierce and many Cubs fans would make the short journey to see the games.  We were running late and there were hundreds of fans lined up by the gate we needed to go in, to get up to press level.  Ron handed me his cane, he had to use it to get around since diabetes claimed both his legs below the knee, and he had two prosthetic limbs making it difficult but not impossible for him to get around.   It seemed like he was signing autographs for hours.  Finally he wrapped up the impromptu session and was ready to get moving.  Ron apologized for taking so long, but said, "those people out there," referring to the Cubs fans, "kept me alive and kept me going when I had my surgeries, it was their outpouring of love, with cards and letters that kept me fighting."  I thought, wow, this guy that could have easily asked "why me?" at any time, but never did, really showed me something.  He had made a deep connection with the fans.  They cared about him, and his caring for them was not superficial.  It was genuinely appreciated.  I never forgot that.  He knew, and I know, that a broadcaster, or a player, are nothing without fan support.   What a lesson to learn, and one I have taken to heart.

The lesson was furthered as I watched Colonel Coleman interact with the fans.  Always charging that mythical 'nickel' for the autograph, but never taking any money.  The thing that rang true with me, was the fact that after he finished signing the autograph, he always thanked the fan for asking for it. He was amazed at how many of the "younger" generation would want his script, on a hat or glove, but no matter what the age, he would always say thanks.   Most fans would walk away stunned that he would thank them, when so many players nowadays treat the autograph line like an assembly line, very robotic.  Not Jerry.  In his own way, he was teaching me again, that just because someone desires your autograph, doesn't make you any better in any way than that person.  It's polite to say thank you and to keep proper perspective on things.  Message received Colonel.  Thank you.

How lucky am I?  I got to work with both of these fine, proud and terrific gentlemen.  They were quite similar.  Each had a bit of difficulty with names at times, neither took themselves too seriously and could poke fun at their own mistakes.  Both of these guys made it very interesting for the play-by-play man, in as, sometimes we never knew what they might say.    They each had an amazing laugh, a sound that was music to my ears, because my goal was to make them laugh at least once or twice a broadcast.  Both had an immense respect for the game of baseball, and wouldn't hesitate to let you know if someone wasn't playing the game correctly.  Ron couldn't stand it when a hitter would swing at a 'pitcher's pitch' early in a count with men on base.  Jerry hated the one hand catch and the positioning of some infielders.  Each earned the right to be critical, but it never crossed the line or became personal.  They admired what the players could do, too much to make it an aggressive attack.

Both Ron and Jerry knew each other, as players and broadcasters.  In Jerry's case, he saw Ron at a tryout camp in his hometown of Seattle, while a player personnel director for the Yankees.  The Colonel told me that Santo, who was a catcher back then, was one of the best power hitters he'd laid eyes on.  He said the Yankees actually offered Ronnie more money, but Santo was a big fan of Ernie Banks, and Wrigley Field and the rest, as they say is history.   Watching them interact in the press box  was an awesome sight.   Ron wanted to make sure Jerry was taking good care of me, and Jerry would joke, "you want him back?", and they'd both have a laugh at my expense.

I'm sure you're probably wondering why I chose now to write this blog, about these two special men. I looked at my calendar and realized that next Tuesday, February 25, is Ron's birthday, if he were still with us, he would have been 74 years old.  It just started me thinking about him, and then I thought about Jerry and my relationship with both.

Two special men, both gone way too soon.  Each will always hold a special spot in my heart, forever. It was such a pleasure to work with them, to know them, to call them both dear friends, and now I miss them both dearly.  Not a day goes by that something triggers a memory of either Ron, or Jerry, my two heavenly hall of famers.

Rest in peace my friends.
Ron Santo and me in Seattle 2002

Jerry in the booth at Petco

Ron Santo's statue at Wrigley Field, August 2011

The Scoreboard version of Jerry's Memorial patch 

Jerry's Statue after his death in January 2014

The patch the Cubs wore during the 2011 season


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