Commentary

Santo phenomenon lands in Hall

Cub legend heading to Cooperstown is most important, not unfortunate timing of honor

Updated: December 5, 2011, 5:24 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

That there are Chicago Cubs fans on Monday who were furious and heartbroken over the news that Ron Santo was voted into the Hall of Fame posthumously only underscores the Santo phenomenon.

And he is a phenomenon, both in life and death.

The Santo Hall of Fame argument was always obscured by discussion of his statistics, both traditional and otherwise. It was and is about more than that, which is why his induction was up there with all the great Hall of Fame debates.

[+] EnlargeRon Santo
Jerry Lai/US PresswireRon Santo will forever be a beloved figure in Wrigleyville.

This is not to say Santo's numbers don't stand up. And for those interested in sabermetrics, it should be acknowledged that its creator, Bill James, ranked Santo as the sixth-best third baseman of all time.

But why he was not voted in, like all the near-misses, was always a mystery. Was it because he had three Hall of Fame teammates on a club that never won a championship? Was it his personality as a player or unabashed enthusiasm and some would say politicking for the honor that turned some voters off? Or was it just because many voters never saw him play and therefore could not appreciate the intangibles Cubs fans saw every day?

The most passionate among Santo's fans pointed out that he simply was Hall of Fame stock, that the challenges he overcame playing with type 1 diabetes in his era made him an amazing competitor, in and of itself.

They spoke of his leadership and his clutch ability and always about his spirit and his heart, which earned him ridicule by detractors as both a player and broadcaster but probably prolonged his very life beyond the expectations of medical science.

If you were to argue why Santo should not have been in, you may as well have argued why dozens of other guys were either out or in. But then that is what makes the Hall of Fame what it is, and why no set of rules or addendums to rules or, obviously, newly-formed committees, can turn it into an exact science.

Santo's last years were worthy of chronicling not just because of his bravery in the face of debilitating illness but because of the always swirling controversy over the Hall of Fame.

And one year and two days after his death, it has continued.

With every expression of joy and celebration Monday, there were sincere expressions of bitterness and sorrow that Santo could not be the one to answer the literal and proverbial call from the Hall of Fame. That an honor he so richly cherished and coveted would elude him in life, only to almost taunt him in death.

The Santo phenomenon was as strong as ever, though his widow Vicki dispelled any notions that his family saw this as a hollow victory without Ron around to help celebrate it.

"All he said is that 'I hope I get it in my lifetime,' which is certainly a reasonable request for anyone getting an honor as wonderful as this one," Vicki Santo said in a conference call Monday. "Unfortunately, that wasn't meant to be but the timing is amazing to me, one year to the day he died that they voted on it.

"It's something that should've been [done] earlier, but it is what is meant to be, and we're all just thrilled that he's been elected."

There is no contradiction there. It was not meant to be and it was meant to be.

Ultimately Vicki has decided, and a great move that she has, that it is the honor that's important, regardless of how and when it occurred.

She said she could picture her husband sitting on his couch, pumping his fist in elation in the same gesture he used to celebrate a Cubs home run.

Pat Hughes told "Waddle & Silvy" on ESPN 1000 that more than anything he would want to say to Santo, he would simply want to watch his former broadcast partner's face as he reacted to the news, and observe the grin of "a 10-year-old kid" that would have no doubt enveloped him.

Have Hughes and all of Santo's friends, family and admirers been robbed of the opportunity to witness the newest Hall of Famer's elation? Perhaps. Has Santo been cheated? That we can never know.

The Hall of Fame is eternal. Both his fans and cynics would be well-advised to keep that in mind.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.