Don't you dare feel sorry for Ron Santo just because in the last three years he's had eight operations on his right foot, a quadruple bypass, his right leg amputated and his heart stop cold while he was in a hospital bed.
No, feel sorry for him because he has to watch every Chicago Cubs game.
Santo, 62, has been the color analyst on WGN radio broadcasts of the perennially dog-ass Cubs since 1990. Worse, he loves them like Pooh loves honey. When they screw up, it nearly kills him. He throws his headphones down. He bangs his head on the desk. He stomps out of the booth and paces the hall. He clutches his hairpiece in agony and moans as if a truck has just backed over his poodle. Somewhere, Harry Caray beams.
He does not call the game—he lives it. "C'mon, c'mon!" he yells at Cubs runners. He cheers so much that it sounds as if play-by-play partner Pat Hughes is broadcasting from Murphy's bar.
But it's when things start to go bad, as Cubs things tend to do, that the fun starts. "Boy, oh boy, oh boy, oh boy," he famously says with a big sigh. Chicago radio stations still play the tape of Santo's primal scream—"Nooooooo!!!"—after leftfielder Brant Brown made his infamous Milwaukee Muff, dropping a fly ball that ultimately forced the Cubs into a playoff in 1998. During one typical Cubs disaster, Santo could be heard to yelp, "Well, Jesus Christ!"
Life hasn't been easy. At 18 Santo found out he was a Type 1 diabetic. He looked in a library book and was terrified to read, Average life expectancy: 25 years. He vowed to outrun the disease.
Two years later, in 1960, he was a rookie third baseman for the Cubs and told almost no one about his diabetes. He'd give himself insulin shots in locked bathrooms. He learned to gauge his symptoms: intense hunger, followed by a numb nose, followed by diabetic shock, followed by the onset of a coma. Every now and then second baseman Glenn Beckert, one of the few Cubs who knew, would whisper, "Ronnie, you're looking a little white," and Santo would dash for the Snickers and Coke he kept in the dugout.
He spent his entire career in Chicago—14 seasons with the Cubs and one with the White Sox—and hit 342 home runs, leading those late-'60s Cubs to heights they've hardly sniffed since. And every time they'd win, which they did 92 times in 1969, he'd jump and click his heels coming off the field.
Three years ago the diabetes finally caught up. He went into a coma while driving his Corvette and turned it into modern art. (The Vette was totaled, but Santo escaped injury.) The disease had hardened his arteries, which led to the bypass. Then one day last year a small ulcer on his right foot turned into gangrene. In a span of 11 weeks Santo had eight full-anesthesia operations in an effort to save the foot. Nothing worked.
Last November, a day after one of the surgeries, he lay in a hospital bed, aware that his heart had stopped. He could see 10 people working on him, could hear his nurse yelling, "Stay with me, Ron!" Heard a technician holler, "He's flat!" Tried to talk, but nothing would come out. "It was weird," he recalls. "There was absolutely no pain. I was completely at peace." A defibrillator saved his life. The electrical impulses of his heart, it turned out, had gone on the fritz. He got a mini-defibrillator implant.