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Archive for December 3rd, 2010

The baseball world, but particularly Chicago, lost another giant figure today when Ron Santo succumbed to bladder cancer at the age of 70. After spending his entire 15-year career in the windy city (14 seasons on the North side and one on the South side), Santo added to his legend in Chicago when he joined the Cubs’ radio broadcast team in 1990. During his 20 years as an announcer, Santo’s vocal on-air support of the team became a hallmark of Cubs baseball, which unfortunately elicited more groans than wild cheers from the team’s number one fan.

As an announcer, Santo introduced his passion for Cubs baseball to a whole new generation of fans

Although Santo’s later tenure as a broadcaster overshadowed his playing career in the eyes of many younger fans, his prowess on the field was not forgotten by either those who saw him play or had the opportunity to seriously scrutinize his record. As a result, Santo is believed by many to be the best eligible player not currently inducted into the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, if the All Star and gold glove third baseman is ever able to win enshrinement, it will have to be in a posthumous manner.

After repeatedly falling short of election to Cooperstown, Santo learned to deal with the disappointment. One thing he never seemed able to fully accept, however, was the Cubs repeated failure to at least make, no less win the World Series. Sadly, Santo was unable to see either dream fulfilled.

Santo’s career disappointments paled in comparison to his health-related struggles. In addition to the cancer that eventually claimed his life, Santo also suffered 15 surgeries, including two leg amputations, stemming from his life-long battle with diabetes.

Before he was a Cub, Santo was a diabetic. At the age of 18, he was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes on the very day he signed his first contract. However, afraid that it might derail his career, Santo kept his affliction a secret. Even after learning the seriousness of the disease, he pushed it to the background and went about becoming an All Star baseball player.

I headed straight to the library. What I read was frightening. Diabetes could lead to blindness, hardening of the arteries and kidney failure, among other things. One book even said, ‘The average life expectancy, from the time of diagnosis, is twenty-five years.’ Does that mean I’m supposed to die when I’m forty-three? Ron Santo, Guideposts, June 2003

Santo’s retired number #10 is lowered to half staff outside Wrigley Field (Photo: @CubsInsider).

Living in secrecy had become a burden, and Santo eventually decided to make the Cubs and his teammates aware of his condition after the All Star Break in 1963. However, he still wasn’t ready to let the outside world know about his diabetes, and swore those he told to the same silence he had lived with for years.

The public didn’t learn about Santo’s condition until August 1971, around the time the Cubs held a day in his honor. Part of the reason to go public was so Santo could use the event to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, a cause he would champion throughout his life. According to Santo, however, the impetus for his revelation dated back three years earlier.

On September 25, 1968, Santo’s Cubs faced the Los Angeles Dodgers at Wrigley Field. Bill Singer has been pitching a 1-0 shutout against the Cubbies, but the home team had mounted a rally that brought Santo to the plate with no outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth. As he awaited his at bat, Santo started to tremble. Then, he broke out into a cold sweat. Finally, he had pains in his stomach, dryness in his throat and blurriness marred his vision. Santo wasn’t suffering from the strain of a pressure-packed situation. He was suffering from hyperglycemia.

He briefly weighed taking himself out of the game. But how would that look? ‘Gutless!’ the fans would scream at him. ‘Hey, Santo, whatsa matter, ya afraid of a knockdown?’ he could hear in his mind. So he settled into the batter’s box.” – Jim Murray, Los Angeles Times (syndicated by the Washington Post News Service), June 13, 1972

Although every shred of his common sense demanded that Santo remove himself from the game, he was afraid of what the reaction from his teammates and the crowd would be. So, instead, he walked to the plate and, after taking a strike, belted the second pitch for a game winning grand slam. The fans went wild and his teammates jumped in celebration. Santo, however, quickly circled the bases. There was no time to enjoy the accomplishment. He was in a race to stave off a diabetic coma.

After revealing to the word that he was a diabetic, Santo became a tireless advocate for the cause as well as an inspiration to other player suffering from the disease. So, instead of mourning his death by lamenting the Hall of Fame’s failure to induct him or the Cubs hapless inability to win a championship, it seems much more appropriate to celebrate his life. And, what better way to do that than by making a donation to the JDRF in his name (perhaps a small prayer for the Cubbies wouldn’t hurt either)?

Santo’s exuberance for baseball was evident even during his playing days.

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The Yankees and future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera have agreed to a two-year deal worth $30 million. According to some reports, Rivera actually turned down a more lucrative deal from either the Angels or, of all teams, the Boston Red Sox.

The Red Sox reportedly extended an offer to make Mariano Rivera a permanent fixture at Fenway Park.

The knee jerk assumption is that the Red Sox offer was merely a means to drive up the price on the Yankees, and that very well could be the case. If you really think about it, however, stealing Mo would have struck the perfect blow and dramatically shifted the balance of power in the AL East, especially because the Yankees currently have no alternative and the market is void of an adequate replacement. From Boston’s perspective, it could have offset some of Rivera’s contract by trading Jonathan Papelbon, who is on schedule for another raise above his $9.4 million salary as he prepares for a big free agent contract next offseason. Even at Rivera’s advanced age, it isn’t a stretch to think he’ll out perform Papelbon over the next three years, so having him hold the spot for Bard would have represented the best of both worlds for Boston. And, if Papelbon’s poor 2010 was more systemic than an aberration, the benefit increases exponentially. What’s more, by trading Papelbon, the Red Sox could have netted significant prospects, whom they then could have used to pry Justin Upton away from the Diamondbacks.

Another factor to consider is the psychological blow that would have been inflicted upon the Yankees. Rivera has truly been a one-of-a-kind closer, so even with time to prepare, the organization is going to struggle during the transition to a mere a mortal. Now, imagine the panic if Rivera’s valuable right arm was suddenly removed from the team and placed in the bullpen at Fenway Park?  With Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner sounding more and more like Red Sox’ executives who have driven away countless team legends (from Carlton Fisk to Wade Boggs to Roger Clemens to Pedro Martinez and then some), maybe Theo Epstein thought Rivera might be ripe for the picking? If any team knows about the overarching impact of losing a legend to your rival, it’s the Red Sox.

Because Rivera decided to turn down a larger offer from Boston (kind of like Bernie Williams did after the 1998 season), his loyalty is likely to be lauded…and with good reason. Unfortunately, you can also bet many of those same people praising Rivera will use his fiscal modesty against the negotiating position of Derek Jeter, who was initially offered a three-year, $45 million deal that has reportedly been sweetened. However, the opposite side of that argument may be just as true. After all, if the Yankees are willing to pay a “41-year old closer” $15 million per year, shouldn’t they be willing to offer an everyday shortstop significantly more?

Ironically, when Mariano Rivera opted for arbitration before the 2000 season, his agent’s main argument was the All Star closer was at least as valuable as Jeter, who was earlier given a $10 million deal. The Yankees disagreed at the time, citing Jeter’s off-field economic contributions as the main reason why he was paid more money. So, unless the Yankees thinking on that has changed, the $15 million award for Rivera seems to demand that a higher figure be offered to Jeter.

Of course, one could argue that the reason Jeter’s value has declined and Rivera’s has not is because of their relative on-field performance. However, that argument is hard to make from a purely statistical standpoint. After all, despite having the worst season of his career, Jeter’s WAR was still 2.5, according to fangraphs.com. By comparison, Rivera, who had an outstanding season, checked in at only 1.7 (his best season was 3.3). Granted, WAR has many flaws for such an evaluation, but it does at least raise an interesting question. At the current stages of their careers, who provides the Yankees with more value?

Because we rely can’t rely on the stats to provide an answer, the question kind of forces us back into the realm of the psychological, or the intangible, if you will. Needless to say, that’s not a playing field the Yankees want to be on in a battle against Jeter. Presumably, these difficult to quantify elements factored into the Red Sox (or Angels) offer to Rivera, so who is to say some other team won’t do the same in a push to sign Jeter? Most observers, and even the Yankees’ front office, seem to think the Hall of Fame shortstop has no other alternative, but nothing can be gained by finding out.

Loyalty is a two-way street, and in this instance, it has led one Yankees’ legend back into the fold. Hopefully, Jeter and the organization aren’t too far down the road.

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