Ron and Pat were a lot of things; boring they were not

When Ron Santo’s gutteral “Oh noooooo!,” at old County Stadium in Milwaukee — one of the most famous calls (or non-calls) in Chicago broadcast history –  is considered just the tip of the iceberg of the work of Santo and partner Pat Hughes, you know you got a good thing going.

Santo, the perfectly imperfect color announcer, and Hughes, the guy with the golden voice and impeccable diction, prove that opposites attract. And after everyone pulled themselves off the mat with the stunning news of Santo’s death late Thursday, Dec. 2, only fond and happy memories come forth from his 15-year pairing with Hughes.

The above call, of course, came when the Cubs, panting for a wild-card playoff berth days before the end of the 1998 season, seemed poised for a Wednesday matinee victory over the Brewers. But when the hosts got a rally going and then Brant Brown, otherwise a pretty good ballplayer, dropped a very catchable fly ball by Geoff Jenkins in the late-afternoon, Santo uttered his primal scream. A shocked Hughes later thought “Ron had expired” in his grief. But he lived to call the 163rd-game victory over the Giants that pushed the Cubs into the playoffs five days later.

Given Santo’s emotional state and often-precarious health, perhaps it was best he was sidelined from the booth due to his first bout with bladder cancer for the 2003 playoffs. I don’t see how he could have survived the Bartman Play and the ensuring eight-run Marlins eighth. As it was, he no doubt went into apoplexy at home watching the debacle.

Calmer moments in the booth brought out the wise, sly, dry side of Hughes – who survived his own trial by fire in the broadcast funnyman business, having previously teamed with all-time one-line master Bob Uecker in the Brewers booth. I don’t know if Santo was the comic and Hughes was the straight man, or vice versa. It didn’t matter. It was great radio vaudeville.

I was riding my bike, fortunately slowly due to the ocean liner displacement of my body, through a nearby forest preserve a few years back when the Cubs got shellacked in Atlanta. Employing his “B” material, Hughes challenged Santo to come up with a host of animal names that were limited to three letters. Santo no doubt got a refresher course in zoology when  Hughes offered up some beauts like “ewe” and “gnu.” I could barely stay on the bike when the pair got going.

Up close in the pressbox and around the booth, Hughes and Santo involved their supporting cast without discrimination. One day I found myself at the same lunch table as the duo. Abruptly, Hughes rose from his chair and proclaimed, “George, now tell Ron all about 1969.”  It was hit-and-run, Hughes style. He zoomed out of the lunchroom and out of the blast zone as steam started to rise from Santo’s ears and yours truly, never a good ad-libber, was left holding the bag.

All along, Hughes was witness to an amazing story of endurance and love of a team as Santo had to miss road trips here, weeks there, due to the ravages of diabetes, but somehow always found a way back into the booth. In 2011, he was only going to do road games in National League Central cities. He did not intend to retire anytime soon.

“He just was one of the toughest people you’d ever meet, one of the strongest physically,” said Hughes, trying to collect himself after digesting the news. “He just stayed positive. He didn’t want to sit around the house waiting to die. He wanted to be around the ballclub. I really think broadcasting Cubs games kept him alive for several more years.

“He did not want you to feel sorry for him. He wasn’t about self-pity.”

Concluding his thoughts on one of the most difficult days of his life, Hughes called Santo an “iconic role model for diabetics” worldwide. Funny stuff aside, Santo used his bully pulpit on radio and as an informal “Grandpa Cub” to help raise $40 million for diabetes research. He uplifted the spirits of so many who underwent amputations and had to adjust to prosthesis, as he did.

Now Santo belongs to the ages of Chicago sports and broadcasting. It’s so fitting he’s now as prominent as those broadcasters who busted their vocal chords describing his feats – Jack Brickhouse, Vince Lloyd, Lou Boudreau. Throw in Harry Caray – he called Santo’s only grand-slam homer with the White Sox in 1974.

To be sure, Santo was never in their class as pure broadcasters. He didn’t have to be. Picky critics aside, Cubs Universe and beyond accepted him as “Ronnie,” the man who wore his heart on his sleeve, and did not demand more.

And Pat Hughes will soldier on in the booth without Santo in 2011. He’ll have a heavy heart, but a forward gear. It’s the only way Santo operated, and it’s the only way to go when you think about it.

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