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Friday, December 3, 2010
Most underrated 3B: Ron Santo

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History" by Jayson Stark. Copyright (c) 2007 by the author. This excerpt has been printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For information on how to purchase the book, click here.

Only about 500 people in the world get to vote in the baseball Hall of Fame election. I'm one of them. So I'm always aware, when I hold that ballot in my hand, that this is about more than a list of names. This is about lives and legacies. Those lives, those legacies, are changed forever by the results of those elections.

So from the day that ballot arrives in the mail to the day I fill it out, those names, those lives, those legacies grab a little chunk of my brain and hold on so tight, you'd think they were stamped on a winning Powerball ticket. They pinball around up there for WEEKS -- until I'm finished the momentous debate that revolves around every one of them: Yes or no? Hall of Famer or not?

I've learned, in a decade and a half as a voter, not to answer that question too quickly. And I know exactly who taught me that lesson.

Ron Santo.

My first year as a Hall voter was 1989. Santo's name was on that ballot. I left the box next to his name unchecked. Little did I know it would be a life-altering experience. (Author's note: All my life, I've been waiting to type a line like that. It just sounds so BOOK-like. Didn't Dustin Hoffman's character teach a whole course on Little Did He Know in "Stranger than Fiction?" I'd better alert him. OK, now back to our story.)

At the time, Santo hadn't played a baseball game in 15 years. His prime had come and gone long before I started covering baseball. So because it was my first year as a voter and I had the Hall of Fame fate of 30 players to weigh, I zipped past Ron Santo faster than I should have. I took a quick look at his numbers, but what I really did was something I've never allowed myself to do since: I went by first impression. A voice up there said Santo was only the fourth-best player on a Cubs team that never won anything. So how could he be one of the greatest players ever to play his position?

This is the logic hundreds of voters used for years to rationalize not voting for Ron Santo. But I admit now that I used it myself before I'd ever seriously thought it through. I didn't even know I'd done that until a couple of weeks later.

So how did I figure it out? Well, let's just say it's not usually a good sign when talk radio changes your mind about anything -- sports, politics, even your favorite lasagna recipe. But in this case, I was co-hosting a talk show about the Hall of Fame when a caller began grilling me on why I hadn't voted for Santo. The more I explained myself, the more he thought my logic made less sense than Borat. So he decided to write me a letter, laying out the case for Santo with depth and passion. I'm still glad he did.

Here's what I know now about Ron Santo that I didn't know then:

1) It IS possible to be the "fourth-best player on your own team" and still be a Hall of Famer. It's not as if Santo was the player-GM of the Cubs. He didn't arrange to be on the same club as Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins. It just happened. There may be quotas on how many anchovies you can import from France. But there are no quotas on how many Hall of Famers can play on one team. So the only question is whether Ron Santo was a great player at his position in his era -- not how his own greatness related to his teammates' greatness. But before I get to that question, let me remind the skeptics that it was Santo -- not Banks, not Williams -- who hit cleanup for those Cubs teams, from his third full season in the big leagues (1963) through his 11th (1971). And there was a reason for that. "Any time things started to get tough," says Dodgers GM Ned Colletti, who grew up a Cubs fan in the '60s, "you'd find yourself hoping it was Ronnie's turn to bat."

2) Ron Santo was almost certainly the greatest all-around third baseman of his time. Name ANY other third baseman from the 1960s you would rather have run out there than Santo. Maybe Brooks Robinson, if you ate a lot of crabcakes. And there's a case to be made for Ken Boyer, a similar player whose Cardinals teams at least finished first once in a while. But I'd still take Santo. Of the 23 third basemen who got to the plate 3,000 times during Santo's 15 seasons, he led all of them in homers, RBIs, runs scored, extra-base hits, walks and times reaching base. Only Dick Allen and Eddie Mathews outslugged him -- but Allen was so awful defensively, he had to be moved to first base, and Mathews was done as a full-time player by the mid-'60s. Finally, let's put Santo's eight straight seasons of at least 25 homers and 90 RBIs in perspective. From the end of World War 2 through the end of Santo's career, only two players at ANY position had streaks longer than that: Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. This was not an age where 40-homer, 125-RBI seasons were as prevalent as bad sitcoms. So the only fair way to evaluate Santo's numbers is from the perspective of HIS time, not our time.

3) Ron Santo was even more underrated defensively than he was offensively. I didn't figure that out right away, either. By the time I became a voter, Mike Schmidt had broken all of Santo's National League glove-story records. And Brooks Robinson, who played in Santo's era, probably needed to add a floor to his house to hold all his Gold Gloves. So if you were someone like me, who hadn't seen Santo leather it up, you had no idea how good he was. But that's why I now make sure to take a closer look at EVERYONE who appears on the Hall of Fame ballot. During the time Santo was in the big leagues, he not only led all third basemen not nicknamed "Brooksie" in assists, double plays and total chances. He set or tied National League records for most years leading the league in every one of those categories. He won five straight Gold Gloves, in an age when the only other third baseman who did that was Robinson. So he didn't just have a GOOD glove. He was the dominant glove man in his league at his position.

4) We shouldn't be keeping Ron Santo out of the Hall of Fame just because his team was allergic to October. No team in most of our lifetimes has been more creative in finding ways to avoid the World Series than the Cubs. But that didn't keep Jenkins, Banks or Williams from barging into Cooperstown. So what's the excuse for using that argument to keep Santo out? The only reason to factor that in is that poor Ron Santo never got the opportunity to use that stage to show the masses how good a player he was. And that had a lot more to do with the guys who pitched for his team than with the third baseman who would have given up deep-dish pizza for life to win it all just once.

It's now more than three decades since Ron Santo played baseball for the Cubs. He's still as beloved a figure as anybody who has EVER played for the Cubs. In part, I know, that's because he became the voice of the Cubs. But there is more to that phenomenon than a radio microphone.

Santo may have been "the fourth-best player" on those Cubs. But really, says Ned Colletti, "he was the leader of those clubs. Yeah, he had Williams on one side of him and Banks on the other side, so he was protected in that lineup. But HE also protected THEM. If you want to win, you have to have players who lead. And nobody on those teams played harder, competed harder or cared more than he did. They wouldn't have been the same team without him. He defined the personality of the club. He was the one everyone looked to."

Even after he took off that uniform, not even the men who were still wearing those uniforms could possibly have cared more whether the Cubs won or lost than Ron Santo. There is a classic scene in "This Old Cub," the riveting documentary on Santo's life, that takes us back to the final week of the 1998 season: Cubs leftfielder Brant Brown dropping a ninth-inning fly ball with the bases loaded. The Cubs losing a game in Milwaukee that they once led, 8-7. And the voice on the radio -- Ron Santo's voice -- is summing up the moment in two eloquent words -- "Oh nooooooooooooooooooo." After the game, Santo's partner, Pat Hughes, heads for the clubhouse. What he finds, he says in the film, is "something that probably has not been ever seen before in a big league clubhouse. I saw the MANAGER trying to cheer up the BROADCASTER after the game."

All right, I know the compassion many of us feel for Ron Santo -- at that moment, at every moment -- has nothing to do with whether he's underrated or not. But I've already established that the guy was one of the great all-around talents of his time. His real story, though, is about something larger than that.

For a lot of people in this world, the Cubs are a walking laugh track, a Comedy Central compendium of collapses and calamities and bad billy-goat jokes. But there's a human side to that tale. And no one embodies it more than Ron Santo. All those great seasons. All that passion. For all those years. And now here he is, in his mid-60s, still waiting for his just reward. He has had to have both legs amputated because of diabetes, a condition he battled his whole career. He has survived cancer and a quadruple bypass. There isn't much more he asks out of life. Just to see the Cubs win a World Series one stinking time. And to have his amazing lifelong dedication to his team and his sport recognized by the Hall of Fame.

Many years ago, a talk-show caller convinced me to look at Ron Santo's career from a different, more enlightened place. Hopefully, this tiny slice of baseball literature will cause a lot more people to do the same.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.