COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. - Ron Santo did not come walking out of one of the cornfields that dot this quiet rural setting.
But, for his wife, and the children of the beloved Cubs broadcaster and player, Cooperstown on Sunday truly did become their field of dreams.
After 32 years of hoping, praying and lobbying, Santo was given his place in baseball’s Hall of Fame.
“Words cannot express my sorrow that Ron Santo did not live to see this day,” Santo’s wife, Vicki, told a sea of red and blue-clad baseball fans, during an emotional tribute to her husband, who died last year after years of battling juvenile diabetes and cancer.
Meantime, commissioner Bud Selig might’ve wanted to find a cornfield of his own to hide in as Sunday’s other inductee, Barry Larkin, spoke at large about how much of an inspiration and help the ostracized Pete Rose was in his career.
Larkin spent two decades with his hometown Reds, where Rose was the manager when he broke in.
“He helped me through some very rough times as a young player,” said Larkin. Like the day Larkin was called up and the airline lost his equipment.
“Pete says to me, ‘What size bat you use’?
“I looked at his and said: ‘Whatever you use.’
“He said, ‘What size shoe you wear?’ I look at his and say, ‘Those will do.’
“He says, ‘Okay, here.’
“I’m thinking this doesn’t get any better. First day in the big leagues and Pete Rose is my manager and I’ve got his bat and his shoes.”
After driving in a run Larkin was talking to media. “As they walk out, Pete walks over and says, ‘How was that?’ I said that was awesome and he talks to me about growing up ... and playing in my hometown. The responsibilities of being a Red, how to conduct myself in a professional manner.”
“I want to thank Pete. If he hadn’t given me that opportunity I might not have been in the big leagues.”
Around major league baseball, and in particular Selig, Rose is a four-letter word.
Curiously, it had been the Santo family who could have made things uncomfortable. Instead, his wife used the induction to lobby fans to support her husband’s fight against diabetes.
“He was the grit and glue of the Cubs lineup,” Selig read from the plaque that will hang in the Hall. “(He) served as an inspiration to millions with a courageous fight against diabetes.”
Santo became the 16th Cub to be inducted and many of his teammates who have lobbied since 1974 to get him in — Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins, Andre Dawson and Ryne Sandberg — graced the podium.
Santo, spent 14 years playing at Wrigley and 21 seasons broadcasting, taking every loss as hard as the fans in the bleachers.
“People loved how happy he was when they won a game,” said his broadcast partner Bob Hughes.
He recounted a particularly difficult loss when a Cubs’ outfielder dropped an easy fly ball. “I’m making the call and can hear (Santo) in my earset, yelling AWWWW! AWWWW! How can he drop that!”
After the game, Santo was sitting dejectedly in the dressing room. Then, to laughter from the crowd, Hughes said: “Manager Jim Riggleman comes over ... it’s the only time I ever watched a manager try to cheer up a broadcaster.”
There are two things that were important to Santo ... “a cure for diabetes and a Cubs’ win,” said Vicki. “He thought he had a God-given gift to play baseball, that the game was easy and only the diabetes made it hard. He believed he was given the gift of talent and the challenge of diabetes so that he could shed light on a cause and help others through his story.”
In 15 seasons, including one with the Chicago White Sox, Santo hit 342 home runs, won five Gold Gloves and was named to nine all-star teams. “He hid diabetes for a decade ... afraid baseball would be taken from him,” said Vicki.
He used candy bars and orange juice as prescriptions; ran the bases before games to regulate his insulin.
People just thought he was enthusiastic.
Eventually the disease would result in amputation of both feet. But he used his popularity to raise $65 million for juvenile diabetes.
“Before science caught up, Ron was as much a guinea pig as he was a baseball player,” said Vicki. “He played doctor, patient and third base.”
But, said his wife, he would love this day. Paraphrasing actor Jimmy Stewart in the classic movie It’s A Wonderful Life, Santo’s wife told fans — some of whom could be seen wiping tears — “Ron did have a wonderful life ... No man is a failure who has friends and Ron had a lot of friends. This is not a sad day.”
Just, perhaps for Selig, a bit of an uncomfortable one.