Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Ron Santo

I’m sorry, but I can’t see the belated election of Ron Santo to baseball’s Hall of Fame as anything but borderline cruel. Perhaps I’m afflicted with an undiagnosed case of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Maybe it’s the crass capitalism of Christmas.

Or maybe it’s the smug and exclusionary politics that kept an earnest, deserving ballplayer from the Hall for decades as he battled the diabetes that would eventually kill him.

None other than baseball-obsessive Bill James named Santo as one of the ten-best third basemen ever. Not of the 60s. Not of the modern era. Ever. How is it that someone so good remained excluded for so long?

There are a dearth of third basemen in the Hall. According to Baseball Almanac, just eleven. Only the position of catcher (thirteen) even comes close. Yet Ron Santo, nine-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glove winner, breaker of a sixty-year-old league assist record at the position somehow wasn’t good enough.

Third base is an extraordinarily difficult position to play. It is physically demanding, and as such, makes long-term success as a hitter (the primary criteria for entrance to the Hall of Fame) unlikely. Despite their often powerful builds, only two third basemen have ever surpassed 400 home runs. None have 3,000 hits.

Third base is a meat grinder. It devours baseball players.

There are only a few obvious choices at the position. Mike Schmidt. Brooks Robinson. Eddie Mathews. Pie Traynor.

While admittedly a shade below their stature, Santo was nevertheless the premier National League third basemen of his era, second only to Robinson in all of Major League Baseball. He was clearly and obviously a rare talent.

And coupled with his private struggle with diabetes, his success at one of sport’s most-difficult positions was remarkable. Ron Santo was given a life expectancy of twenty-five years. Think diabetes is a tough battle now? What do you think it was in 1964?

More than any of his quantifiable athletic gifts, Santo’s greatest asset was his heart. It was a relentless and powerful one.

Admittance to any type of club is invariably political. It is often no more than a popularity contest. And for inexplicable and unfathomable reasons, it was one Santo had to die to win.

Having spent fourteen of his fifteen years in baseball as a Chicago Cub, it is an irony Ron Santo no doubt appreciates.

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