On Monday morning, the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee confirmed what Chicago Cubs fans have known for a long time: Ron Santo, legendary third baseman, belongs in Cooperstown.
Ronnie was an elite player in his own era, despite a career cut short by juvenile diabetes (for which there were no reliable treatments at the time). But he cemented his place in Cubs fans’ hearts by returning to the organization, this time as a color commentator for WGN Radio’s game broadcasts. He lived and died with every pitch, his groans and cheers (mostly groans) echoing the sentiments of everyone tuning in. That’s how I got to know him, never having seen him play.
On December 3rd, 2010, Ronnie died of complications from bladder cancer. He had also lost both his legs to diabetes, but had continued to make the climb up to the radio booth every day to broadcast. Huge crowds turned out to pay their respects.
Yesterday, almost exactly a year later, Ronnie was voted into the Hall of Fame. To know Ron Santo was to know how much this honor would have meant to him. He was passed over by the committee for years, but he was never bitter, and he understood how much he was loved. On the day the Cubs retired his #10 jersey, he declared to a packed house at Wrigley Field: “This is my Hall of Fame.” When asked, however, he stated explicitly that he did not want to be elected to the Hall posthumously. He wanted to be able to experience it himself, or he didn’t want it at all.
I saw a lot of sentimentality in my Twitter feed today. The most popular word was “bittersweet.” Few of the tweets were overtly religious, but most hoped that Ronnie, “wherever he is,” was satisfied, and could tell his fellow deceased veteran players to shove it. Most acknowledged disappointment that Ronnie could not revel in this moment, like this tweet by Sports Illustrated’s Jon Heyman:
I found that decidedly off-putting for a couple of reasons. The first, and most immediate, is that regardless of what I actually think, I’m not going to step into a religious person’s emotionally charged situation and start correcting her in the name of comforting her. It’s arrogant and inappropriate. There’s a time and a place for debates like these. This isn’t it.
The second reason was that I hadn’t really decided, as someone who doesn’t believe in an afterlife, what I thought about Ronnie’s posthumous induction. Despite the warm thoughts and wishes of his many fans, Ronnie isn’t anywhere enjoying this. He’s dead. The Veterans Committee missed their chance to give him the recognition he longed for, and they haven’t made up for anything by inducting him now — in fact, they’ve flagrantly disrespected his stated wishes. Frankly, I’m a little pissed off.
But is there a redeeming factor here for a nonbelieving fan? I’m glad for the Santo family that Ronnie is being honored, so that they can know that the rest of baseball shares their pride in him. I’m glad that future generations will know that he was a great player (and a great man, unlike some of his Hall-mates). But I think those things would have been true whether he was inducted or not. And I think the people who are getting the most comfort out of this, Veterans Committee included, are the people who choose to believe that Ronnie knows.