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Originally published Friday, December 3, 2010 at 7:07 PM

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Larry Stone

Cubs legend Ron Santo, a three-sport star at Seattle's Franklin High School, dies at age 70

Ron Santo, the best baseball player to come out of a Seattle high school, died Thursday in Arizona, at age 70. Santo, an All-Star third baseman for the Cubs and longtime broadcaster for the team, was a tireless advocate for diabetes research.

Seattle Times baseball reporter

Bill Chatalas had a running joke whenever he'd talk to Ron Santo, his old Franklin High School buddy who never forgot his Seattle roots. Even as he established deep and enduring new ones in Chicago.

Invariably, Santo would casually drop into the conversation a mention of his latest health challenge. Maybe it was the heart disease that nearly killed him 10 years ago. Or the cancer that he fought so valiantly in recent months. Or the diabetes he battled his entire adult life, at the cost of both legs, but not before literally dozens of operations he endured uncomplainingly.

"Man, what cat are you on?" Chatalas would say in wonderment.

Santo shot well past nine lives and was in extra innings when finally he ran out of felines. Santo died Thursday in Arizona, at age 70, of complications from bladder cancer.

But here's the thing that made Santo so special, above and beyond the hallowed status he earned on the baseball field as a Chicago Cubs third-base legend, and in the booth for two decades as a Cubs broadcaster of endearing passion.

Santo never complained about his lot in life. On the contrary, his enthusiasm and optimism lit up every room he was in. This was always going to be the year the Cubs finally won the World Series. The next election was going to be the one that put him in the Hall of Fame. And instead of succumbing to his disease, he made it his life's mission to find a cure for juvenile diabetes.

"He never once said, 'Poor me,' " said John Phillips, another member of the small circle of friends from Franklin's Class of 1958 who remained close through the years. "Ron was a phenomenal human."

"Every time I'd ask him how he's doing, he'd say, 'I'm fine.' Always fine," added Frank Savelli, who forged a lifelong friendship with Santo after they got in a fight at St. Mary's School as 6-year-olds. "We talked just last month, and he said he was fine."

Chatalas ran track at Franklin when Santo was the B.M.O.C, a three-sport star who was beginning to attract widespread attention on the baseball diamond.

One spring day, the two buddies found themselves shooting the breeze in the locker room after their respective practices.

"What are you doing running track?" Santo asked Chatalas. "There's no money in track."

"What makes you think you'll make money playing baseball?" replied Chatalas.

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"Watch me," Santo said.

Says Chatalas now, in a voice tinged with sadness: "He was absolutely right."

Unquestionably, he was the greatest player to come out of the city of Seattle. Peers of Santo — including Brooks Robinson, a contemporary third baseman in the Hall of Fame — are absolutely convinced he belongs in Cooperstown. So are many modern analysts, including the patron saint of sabermetrics, Bill James, who once wrote, "If I were in control of the Hall of Fame selections, the first player I would choose would be Ron Santo." And so, for the record, am I.

Yet Santo never could get over the top — not on the Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot, and not in a series of elections by various incarnations of the Veterans Committee.

"It hurt him, because he really believed he deserved it," said Phillips.

I suspect Santo will finally get elected next year, when the Veterans Committee again considers his candidacy. But it was a devastatingly maddening twist of fate that he never got to reach that pinnacle while he was alive.

"That was one of the things he was worried about," said Chatalas. "He'd say, 'You know, when I die, I might get in, and I really don't want that type of thing. I don't want to get in because I died. I want to get in because I deserved it.' "

Sadly, Santo also never got to see the Cubs reach their promised land.

Next year will be their 103rd in pursuit of that ever-elusive World Series title — a streak of futility that Santo, at the outset of each and every season, was absolutely convinced was on the verge of ending.

But it hardly mattered. Every day at Wrigley Field was an ode to joy for Santo. Especially as his health issues mounted.

"What I've been through in my life, every time I come to this ballpark, I never thought about it," he told me in an interview last year. "It was my therapy. I keep going because I love getting here. I love being here. A lot of people love it."

As for his third Holy Grail, a cure for diabetes, researchers are making inroads.

And Santo's tireless advocacy and fundraising efforts — which brought in an estimated $60 million to the cause — have helped considerably.

In a 1992 article in The Chicago Tribune, Suellen Johnson, a board member of the Chicago chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation International, said of Santo: "We can call him anytime. He will make the call or visit. Ron has been an inspiration not only to the kids but to the parents, too. Sometimes I may say I need a break and he'll say, 'What do you mean a break; have we cured this yet?' When we find a cure for this disease, Ron Santo will be very high on the list of those who made that possible."

Mind you, that was 18 years ago; countless golf tournaments, walk-a-thons and luncheons have since been graced by Santo's contagious optimism, tens of millions more dollars raised. Just two weeks ago, in fact, Santo took part in a diabetes walk-a-thon in Scottsdale, Ariz., near his home, even as the bladder cancer that eventually killed him was spreading.

"He was sympathetic to so many people who had diabetes and were not as fortunate as we were," said John J. McDonough, a fellow diabetic and former chairman of the international board of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. "It was his passion, and he lent his name and celebrity to it. He was a terrific spokesman for us. The reason was that everyone trusted Ron. You never had to wonder what was on his mind when he was talking about baseball — or diabetes, for that matter."

McDonough says that 43 clinical trials involving humans are currently in progress, ranging from cell therapy and creation, to development of an artificial pancreas, to new types of insulin.

"There's a lot of good things going on," he said. "Obviously, we're not there yet. But we're close. And getting closer all the time."

Chatalas called Santo "a miracle man" for enduring as long as he did. But on a day we remember Santo's courage and charisma, and lament the milestones he didn't live to witness, also remember that a diabetes cure is the one miracle he wanted most of all.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

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About Larry Stone

Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
lstone@seattletimes.com

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