Letter to a Friend on the Death of Ron Santo
Well, homeboy, I took a ride on the ‘L’ today with the surly, the squirrelly, and the heavily bundled. You remember them, I’m sure. Remember what it’s like when winter comes to throttle the town? Let me waken you from your California reverie for a moment with news from the city of bowed shoulders as you sit idly on the veranda of some faux chateau, sipping that extra special Valley of the Moon cabernet while watching the hawks corkscrewing above the vineyards and the fields of wild mustard. First, I am not here to make you feel guilty over your good fortune (what you might call your foresight) living in paradise. I’m not saying you have abandoned us as if we were a collection of over-the-hill Eskimos set off on an ice flow, left to the vagaries of wind, tide, and Ursus maritimus. I’m sure your thoughts are empathetic. Let them glide back to us on warm wings of recollection as you pause reflectively between sips on yet another velvety glass of nectar. Let your imagination soar back with me to the land of the snow shovel, and the dead car battery where broken kitchen chairs and plastic industrial buckets mutely guard each parking space.
Ron Santo, died last Monday, at the age of 70. You remember him, I dare say. Back here in the heartland I turned on the TV this morning to find some non-Saint Louis cardinal, a monsignor actually, speaking of joy, hope, and heaven. It is, at our age, what we’ve already heard too often and may expect to hear yet even more of.
Everyone had his speech prepared. The new owner of the Cubs, Mr. Rickets, a man of staunch Republican sentiment, except when stretching his hand out in supplication to the exsanguinated tax payers of Illinois to fund his $200 million dollar Wrigley Field renovation plan, praised Santo for all the right reasons. He told the folks assembled that he (Rickets) represented Cubs fans past and present in his gratitude and regret – a regular man of the people. Fandom makes brothers of us all. I don’t want to get too political, and to his credit he was both eloquent and earnest, and I am sure he understands Santo’s significance to Cubs fans, especially those of us who remember Ron’s playing days and the collapse of ‘69, but it all gives me pause. If baseball teams could charge you for listening to games on the radio as they have now with cable television, they would. Radio commercials just aren’t lucrative enough; the fans must pay. All this sentiment from a man who scalps his own tickets. I think he’s delusional. Maybe we all are for listening to him. But, of course, half the population of the United States regularly votes against its own self-interest so I guess this really isn’t much of a stretch as far as delusional behavior is concerned.
Next the commissioner of baseball, Bud Selig, if not purveyor, then facilitator, of better living (and statistics and ticket sales), through chemistry spoke most eloquently of our third baseman and radio commentator. Santo autographed, unbidden, his own cap and gifted it to the commissioner’s granddaughter. She never forgot the gesture. Who could? Just plain folks.
The way our notions change is remarkable. Santo took injections too, just like the recent batch of ball players, but injections of insulin, afraid that knowledge of his diabetes would ruin his career, that the Cubs wouldn’t want him, that no one else would take a chance on him. A rather difficult thing to keep secret throughout a career, though I suppose it is easier to hide than a twenty inch steroidal neck. He hit a lot of home runs for a guy whose only injectable was insulin. Bud and the other owners turned their faces while the boys shot up. What was Ron afraid of way back then? A different world or was it just the way Santo perceived the situation?
Lastly, Pat Hughes, the radio play-by-play man, respected handler of Santo and his perfect foil for 21 years, spoke. I have heard the story on many occasions, Santo’s toupee catching on fire in a broadcast booth at Shea stadium, but it still made me laugh out loud as the young people like to text. Remember the black cat in 1969? I am not really a superstitious person, but Shea stadium was a bad luck place for Santo.
To be fair to the powers that be in this city, I think it’s a tribute to the small town, naïve boosterism, that still flickers, if ever so faintly, here in Chicago, that the Tribune (WGN) would broadcast Santo’s funeral mass live on television, The station which consists of nothing but commercials, had no commercials. And get the fact that he lay in state in Holy Name Cathedral. A third baseman!
Bladder cancer. On top of all his many maladies, that’s what killed him.
They planned, in traditional Chicago style, to drive the hearse past the Tribune building, and then on to Wrigley Field (yes, it’s still called Wrigley Field implausibly enough) for a turn around the ball yard, which was more his home than anyplace else. The gesture reminded me of all my great aunts and uncles, as they died off one by one, how the funeral cortege stopped in front of the family two-flat at 17th & Ashland, a neighborhood old enough to have vaulted sidewalks. Once it was horses in front of that house that bore the earthly remains of my forbearers off to Saint Adalbert’s marble orchard. A long time ago, in 1914, horses in the streets, Weeghman Park (Wrigely Field) was built. No one’s left who saw such a thing, a horse-drawn cortege, though my mother is old enough (91) to have heard about it first hand certainly. They might have contacted those people who do the carriage rides around Streeterville, but some things are beyond whimsy I guess. A good thing perhaps.
So what was I to do? The mass ended and I turned off the TV. Unemployed, once again, there’s an overabundance of idle time. I’ll call it networking at my next support group meeting. I could easily beat the cortege to the ballpark. I put on two stocking caps, my leather coat with the nice lining, my gloves, and what you would call hiking boots in Sonoma, and headed out the door. I had just cleared the sidewalk earlier in the morning with my brand new Chinese shovel so all impediments, including my compulsive feelings of guilt and fear of lawsuits, had been removed. I wished doubly that you were here, first so you could witness this historic event and second, since I know you love snow so much, I’d have allowed you to clean out the alley in front of the garage for the tenants’ convenience and the aesthetic nicety of it all. Your image suddenly danced before my mind’s eye, fallen down in the alley, an unspecified coronary episode, supine in the fluffy white you love so much, struggling to make that perfect snow angel, your last testament like Brando’s chewing gum stuck to the balcony railing.
It’s up to 39 degrees now and the sky is a flawless azure. It’s a teasing taste of spring on the tip of the tongue here in December with the winter just revving up. The low winter sunlight reflecting off last night’s snow is blinding. I am squinting as I head for the ‘L’. I will be squinting all day or calling it that. For once, in the seventeen years I have lived in this neighborhood, the gates do not go down and the bells start clanging just before I get to the station entrance. I consider this. I must have left my wallet, containing my money and my CTA card at home on the dresser so I’ll have to make a mad dash back to the flat and fly back at top speed, just in time to have the gate come down in front of me once again. But no, I have my card and my cash. Just as I slip the card into the slot on the turnstile, the bells begin to chime. I made it. At least it’s my lucky day. The only possible impediment now would be the train stopping inexplicably on the tracks for twenty minutes or so as the recorded voice intones at ear-shattering volume that we are waiting for signals ahead and will be moving shortly. I am a pessimistic and ironic person from a pessimistic and ironic race (more on that later).
I am wearing nothing that would give away my mission or my destination. At Western a guy gets on the ‘L’ and I think there but for the grace of God went I. Everything about him screams I am thirty-five years old, I am in twelve rotisserie leagues, and I have been living in my parents’ basement all my life. The guy is unshaven with a greasy goatee/soul patch thing going on. He looks like he had just got up from the counter at Ernesto’s after a big plate of tacos pastor and his waitress hadn’t reminded him to wipe his chin.
He is sort of tall with a little winter paunch and a terrible slouch. His head is weaving rhythmically along with the swaying of the train like a bobble-head doll. I’ll bet his Mom is always telling him to stand up straight. He is sporting a Cubs faux silk warm-up jacket, a bright blue Cubs batting helmet, a Cubs muffler (his sister must have bought it for him last Christmas), low riding blue jeans (butt crack just visible) with holes in the knees, and some surprisingly sharp blue leather trainers with, as if you couldn’t guess, the laces untied and flopping around. It surprises me that there are not more deaths on escalators in the city of Chicago, but there are surprisingly few. So, we know where he’s going.
I wonder how he’s adjusting to his role as sports uncle. Do his sisters and brothers, the ones who have replicated, force him to take their kids to the game with him? Maybe he likes it, likes their company because he’s still sort of a kid himself. Does he amaze them with tales of his mushball prowess in the Horner Park 16” league or cultivate their adoration with candy or puffs on his cigarette, sips of his Old Style while the other “adults” are elsewhere engaged? Or maybe he’s a shy minder, protective of the kids as if they were made of porcelain, petrified that he lose them, get separated from them by an ‘L’ door, him running down the platform after the train, screaming at them “Pull the cord “Pull the cord!”
As you might guess, I had a bachelor, baseball uncle. But he was a shy man and wouldn’t have thought to behave or dress so outrageously. He was not an athlete, but rather a sickly rheumatic child, his heart weakened by scarlet fever. He was doted on and systematically infantilized by his ever-vigilant mother and siblings. I think his mother and sister bought all his clothes for him his entire life. He always had that Dads & Lads appearance about him. My father used to pawn me off on him when Teddy went to the ballgame. And I was happy to go.
Ted was basically a Cubs fan, but this was at a time when team allegiance wasn’t something that provoked fist-fights in bars or the exchange of gunfire between newly minted in-laws at wedding parties, so we’d occasionally see the Sox too, the Go-Go White Sox, or what remained of them. If the sun was shining, and it was Saturday, and it was between Memorial Day and Labor Day we might see whomever was in town. It didn’t really matter since either team was sure to disappoint in those days.
Ted liked to keep score. He showed me how to do it, but I didn’t have the patience. I was nine years old. I wanted to see a homerun, eat a hotdog, or catch a foul ball. Keeping score was like an academic exercise, like homework. Ted kept every score card from every game he ever saw in a big cardboard box in his closet. I discovered them there after he died when we were cleaning out my grandparents’ house. I guess he must have been a little compulsive. He surely was nervous, gnawing his fingernails to the quick as he watched the game. Bloody awful really. It would never have occurred to him to chew gum or smoke cigarettes, even though so many of the adults in his life were smokers and he grew up in a blue smoke screen laid down by my grandfather who fired up Lucky after Lucky, taking a hit or two and laying it in the ashtray to smolder away, often as not lighting yet another before the current one had burned out.. My family.
Ted and I shared Ron Santo together. Of course, I was always partial to Ernie. There was something so innocent and corny and optimistic about him which belied his prodigiously quick hands – so many homeruns from such a slender frame. And such a guileless demeanor. But Ernie was already an established star by the time I began to become interested in baseball. 1960 was Ron Santo’s rookie year. I was eight. Well actually, still seven that summer. So in a way his career and my growing interest in baseball were on a parallel trajectory. He was sort of my guy. And of course the fact that he lived in Park Ridge linked our fates, sealed the deal. It is to my great shame and embarrassment that I heard later in life that Ernie Banks wanted to buy a home in Park Ridge, but the realtors wouldn’t sell to him. God, I hope that story isn’t true, but it sure sounds right doesn’t it?
By the time we got to Addison other Cub fans had joined the CTA memorial train. There was a forty-ish Latina, probably an Indian, one of those regal, angular Aztec faces like a goddess chiseled into a bas relief or a stone calendar. She wore her hair long. Her pride, once black as a raven’s wing, now beginning to streak with gray, hung to her waist in an intricately twisted braid. She had on tight jeans to good effect, long snow boots, and a brown and white hounds’ tooth coat. What gave her away, you might ask? Why the two miniature baseballs bearing the Cubs logo that dangled from her ears on little golden chains. They would not be the only set of those earrings I would see that afternoon.
Another set of those earrings belonged to the female half of a couple in their mid-sixties who were sitting across from me. Her eyes puffy, her mascara slightly smeared. He was looking away from her, silent, staring out the window at the snowy yards and porches, the crazy webs of telephone wires tethering the buildings to crooked poles as if they were in danger, like his thoughts, of floating away into the winter sky. Her ungloved right hand, like a sparrow, nestled within both of his. Back in 1969 they were just two kids from the neighborhood, a bartender and a waitress living the bar life on the Northside, working at Barleycorn or maybe McGuire’s, Mothers, or some such, hanging out in the bleachers in the afternoons and working on their tans all that summer.
And she got caught up in it, the whole baseball thing. He always had it since childhood, grew up with Ernie when he was at short, the MVP seasons. She never thought about it as a child, but ’69, day after day, it was like catching the flu or a cold except she never got over it, as if she woke up one morning, started sneezing and continued sneezing for forty years. She never got over the disappointment either, each new year thinking now, this time, they’ll catch what got away. He infected her and she had it bad, worse than he ever did. A sad case, really, addict and enabler.
Now, dressed richly, but in a casual sporty style, they’re two Barrington amateur horse-farmers, long retired from service, bouncing back and forth between the farm and their place up in the foothills of Tucson. He bought his first two flat in 1968. The neighborhood was a bucket of blood, but he was way ahead of the wave. Ever hear somebody say how they should have bought into that neighborhood back in the 60’s or 70’s or 80’s? Well, he’s the guy who did, flipping one property after the next until one day he stopped selling and just kept buying. In the winter they like to drive up to Mesa and see the Cubs in training. She still loves the sun. And she’ll always love Santo. There was something about seeing him in Mesa that just took her back. The sound of his “Aw Jeez” on the radio, after some young reliever combusted in the ninth inning, jump started her memory and she was back in 1969. And they catch a couple of regular season games in the summer too when they’re back. They drive in, leave the Mercedes in his sister’s garage, and take the ‘L’ to the game just like when they were kids, back when the bleachers were a buck. That’s where they still sit; their skin now permanently copper.
So they’re all wimps, wimps and pussies. They’re going to stay on the train until Belmont and then double back on the Red Line. I’m getting off at Southport and I’ll leg it to the park. We’ll all arrive at the corner of Clark and Addison at the same time, but I’ll be basking in the radiance of my own self-congratulation for that heart healthy little walk I took.. Besides I have things to think about and the people on that car were distracting me. Rather than making up life stories about them, I need to use my imagination for something much more important and that is to figure out why, on a December day when I might be comfortably at home, I am schlepping through the snow to bear witness to a hearse hauling a guy I didn’t know past a spot in this city which is positively cursed, a place where I have suffered nothing but frustration and disappointment born of false hope.
I have been working on this one for awhile, but like a bodhisattva struggling to realize his Buddha nature, I am bringing that big raft to shore today. Why would anyone in their right mind want to be a Cubs fan?
They haven’t won a pennant since 1945. They haven’t won a World Series since 1908, since there were copious amounts of horse manure in the streets of Chicago. My father lived to be eighty-six and never saw them win the World Series in his lifetime. 1945 was the year he was de-mobed from the navy for crissakes. I’m fifty-eight and my prospects aren’t so good for a pennant much less a World Series win considering their current infield and starting rotation. Even the lowly White Sox have won two pennants in my lifetime and a World Series as well. What is wrong with this picture? Would they put up with this bullshit in New York? You know they wouldn’t. So why do people in Chicago put up with this state of affairs year after year after year? And why do these perennial losers inspire such insane loyalty? Why do we subscribe to this endless frustration and heartbreak? Well, my dear friend, I think I know the answer. I discovered it in the window of a Serbian tailor shop on Lawrence Ave.
I used to walk past this shop all the time. Inside were rows of sewing machines which were mostly idle, though I would occasionally see an old woman in a black dress and black headscarf working at one of them. There were bolts of material stacked haphazardly. Spools of thread and yarn scattered about. But what attracted my notice was what my grandmother used to call a canvas, displayed in the front window. A canvas is a color image painted on a woven mat. The canvas is later embroidered with yarn whose various colors correspond to the image painted on it. It’s like paint by numbers tapestry.
This particular canvas was notable because of its size, four by six, maybe larger. But more noteworthy was the subject matter. A wounded man lies propped up on the corpse of another man in a field littered with dead men and horses, a bloody broadsword cradled between his legs (oh boy). The wounded man is dressed in a brilliant blue coat, the dead men in red. The divan dead man must be a Turk; he still clutches a scimitar in his hand and a turban lies on the ground next to him. A woman, sporting a kind of headdress that makes her look like something out of the Sacre du Printemps lifts an ewer to the lips of the fallen warrior. It is a very melodramatic and exotic piece and it was immediately apparent to me that the canvas must have had specific political significance though at the time I didn’t know what or to whom.
That neighborhood by Lawrence and Rockwell was then home to various Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs, Balkans of all stripes, so I figured I generally had the geography of the canvas down. Upon later research I found out that the painting depicts a poem or lyric called The Maid of Kosovo. As it turns out the poem and the painting commemorate the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. I learn that this battle looms large with the Serbs, sort of the definitive emblem of their ethnic identity. You’d think a great victory, right? Well, actually a great defeat. Or some may say a victory, but a Pyrrhic victory then for it marks the ascendance of the Ottoman Turks on the Balkan peninsula and hundreds of years of frustrated political ambitions for the Serbs and various other Slavs and Greeks.
Do you see where I’m going here? Poles and Ukrainians, Armenians, Albanians, Romanians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Bulgarians, anyone who came to Chicago, this most Eastern European of American cities, from anywhere east of the Oder has his own sad story to tell of glorious defeats and the blood of martyrs. When I visited Poland in 1979, still under the rule of the Soviets, the joke of the day, and this is typical of Polish humor (humor?), was that if every Polish patriot who died for the cause of national sovereignty had simply picked up a hand full of dirt they could have moved the whole goddamned country somewhere else. And who else can we add to the list? The Norwegians have a smorgasbord of beefs. And the Irish, my Hibernian friend, the Irish. There’s a nation well accustomed to futility; she’s raised the celebration of her failed uprisings and martyrs to the absolute heights of poetic expression. But if Yeats had only written September 1969 rather than September 1913, he might have changed the whole tenor of modern poetry.
“So what’s the point”, you say, “Get on with it”. Well, I think there’s some kind of gene of catastrophe and loss that has been bred into these various nationalities, some kind of Jungian archetype which is actually predisposed to defeat, not satisfied, unfulfilled unless keening, unless mourning their dead. Since the frustrated political ambitions were left behind on the teeming shores when these tempest-tossed landed in the city of big shoulders they needed a new talisman, some new fetish to fulfill their inbred need for doomed romance, a substitute, a way to express their natural identity as long-suffering, pessimistic, deluded, resentful losers. And so they became Cubs fans. Even before they learned to speak English, they knew what was what. You could ask my great-aunt Stella except she’s not around anymore. She may have been a little vague on who Thomas Jefferson was, but she sure knew who Ron Santo was, and what he was hitting on any particular day, and how many homers he had, how many rbi’s. It was instinct, an instinct for loss and tragedy. Like lemmings to the sea, we went to the bleachers. It’s racial memory pure and simple.
So I’m almost at the ballpark. I’ve been walking down Racine and have turned right on Addison. As I see the venerable bandbox in the distance, I can make out Santo’s name and dates on the marquee.
Honor. What a quaint word. It pops into my head like a tune you can’t get away from, that you keep repeating and repeating to yourself for days. The Cubs organization honors him. It is an honor of a rather ironic kind though. The messages on that marquee are, of course, informational. Here’s the date of the next game. Here’s when ABC company gives away free bats to the first ten thousand kids who attend a game. Here’s the next Jimmy Buffet concert. Tickets still available. Whatever. But really the sign’s the quintessential marketing tool and it’s all about making money. There is no message that appears on that sign that doesn’t have some kind of pay-off for someone or elicit a forking over of someone’s cash. And it is this advertising tool that crowns the palace of our pain, the diadem on the royal head. But today, for one day, the message has no pay-off. Instead, it subverts the whole crass endeavor because this sudden lack of advertising underlines the relentlessness of the message, the state of affairs we have unconsciously accepted as normal, so normal in fact that we are suddenly jarred by its absence And instead of telling us what will happen, it tells us simply what has happened – a man has died, his name and his dates. No lure of the future, no wait until next year. And no monetary exchange, no milking the cash cow. We liked you so much we turned the goddamn messages off for one whole day. And there is honor in that for the man and the organization and the lunatic fans he so honorably served.
It’s all so Chicago. There is an impromptu shrine set up by the front gate, reminiscent of the one under the viaduct at Fullerton where rusty water washing down from the expressway left an image on the concrete wall of what some people thought was the face of the Virgin Mary. There are jerseys and caps, flowers, stuffed animals, those Mexican glass candles with colorful images of Jesus, Mary, and the saints on them. There are hand-made signs, prayer cards, cans of Old Style. Public displays of grief like this always make me feel uneasy. They seem so maudlin, somehow debasing the object of their veneration rather than honoring it. This little shrine too makes me feel uneasy, uncomfortable, but for another reason entirely. It seems strangely desperate this collective grief, as if we were trying to bribe fate or death with gaudy trinkets to return the hero to us, to return our youth to us, return our memories to us of who we were both singularly and collectively. His passing is somehow more than just his passing. His passing is emblematic of many fine things now banished from our American culture, at least as presently constituted, and even more so then, physically banished from our little parochial world of Chicago and eventually from our collective memory, altogether and forever, as we one by one join our baseball uncles nodding in the marble orchard.
And who’s being maudlin now? Touché, you got me pardner.
The Cubs have set up a small kiosk on Clark Street by the press entrance. They are giving away hot chocolate to the fans. A group of energetic young people are bounding about enthusiastically pressing steaming Styrofoam cups of it into peoples’ hands. The oldest kid is perhaps twenty-four. Their enthusiasm is in vivid contrast to the majority of the crowd who are somber and respectfully silent though there is a small contingent of the beer-swilling frat boy types who obviously view the situation as a marvelous opportunity to get a buzz on in the middle of the day and are bellowing like elk in season. You have to accept this, I guess. These are the clowns who swill the Old Style which pays the salaries so they must be given their due which is to tolerate them until they do something dangerous, violent, or so blatantly disrespectful to the occasion that some old geezer pops one of them or the coppers have to be called in. But really these jokers are in the distinct minority. Most of the crowd, save the chocolate kids, are milling about aimlessly or standing quietly at the curbside staring at their cell phones, or whatever the title of the latest device is, and checking on the progress of the cortege as it meanders toward the ballpark.
The hearse, the small funeral cortege, having left Holy Name Cathedral, proceeded east to drive by the Tribune building. I’m not quite sure why as the Tribune did not own the Cubs when Ron Santo played third base and they don’t own the Cubs now. I guess since Santo worked for WGN radio he was an employee of the Tribune Company, though I suspect he didn’t really understand it that way himself. He worked for the Cubs; he worked for the fans.
Whatever the case, as the cortege draws near the crowd sort of holds its collective breath. For really, though everyone is standing here in the cold anticipating the arrival, I think they are all actually dreading it because it means that what was viewed on TV and what was talked about on the sports shows and read about in the paper has really happened and I don’t think that the full impact of it has really and truly penetrated anyone’s consciousness until this very moment that Ron Santo is dead and the voice of summer has been silenced. And though someone else will take his place, things will never really be the same again. And even more than that it means that not only will things never really be the same again, but things will never really be as good again. Ever. Period.
People crowd the curb on the Clark Street side as the hearse rolls up. I am standing on my tiptoes peering over the heads of a couple of older ladies who are snapping pictures of the limos with their cell phones. There is a young bearded man to my right, sort of a new bohemian type, with his toddler son on his shoulders. The kid can’t be any more than about four. He doesn’t really understand what’s going on, but he’s holding his old man’s digital camera in his hand waving it in the direction of the limos.
“Hold it steady, Josh. Hold it steady.”
The kid seems pretty much in command of the situation, because he is holding that camera very steady, snapping away, his hand stretched out above the crowd like Michelangelo’s anthropomorphic God bringing life to Adam.
The line of limos stops only for a moment. There is a smattering of applause from the crowd, a few people shout Santo’s name, and the line of cars moves along. Everyone seems disappointed. It is all so anti-climactic. We all wish that the hearse had stayed a little longer. To what end, I don’t know. It’s just that we felt (I’ll speak for everyone here) that there was something more to wring out of that moment, as if there should have been some payoff, some final word, expression, offering.
I watch the cortege head north up Clark Street. But then, as if to answer our unspoken need for this moment to endure, the cars take a right on to Waveland. They’re going to circle the park! He can check out where the homers land. The crowd slowly moves south to reconstitute itself on Addison.
Now we are three deep. I look to my left. Modern baseball uncle is in the front row. His body is tensed. It is not from the cold, because it’s not that cold out, not even freezing. He’s shaking though, hopping up and down, nervous little bobs of excitement. And to his left stands the woman with the braid, which she has tucked into her jacket. She holds her coat closed at the collar, as if she were missing the top button. She now sports Cubbie blue knit gloves, so vivid they flash in the crowd like buntings though a forest. She casts an occasional side-long glance in modern baseball uncle’s direction, but he is oblivious to her, to everything really, focused like a laser, leaning out and staring up Addison straining for the sight of the hearse. She is both happy and sad that he doesn’t recognize her from Ernesto’s, though in his defense he generally sits at the counter and she works the tables. She’s sad, slightly annoyed too, that he doesn’t recognize her. Maybe he does, but he thinks she’s too old for him or she’s not pretty enough or he doesn’t like Mexicans. But, no, he’s just oblivious or shy or both. And so she’s happy just to observe him, since she’s already decided he is most possible. And she likes to pick, she doesn’t like to be pursued or wooed. She knows he’s incapable of anything other than being led. And she knows that Inez will like him. And somehow she knows that he will like Inez too. And she knows they have at least one thing in common. Her favorite uncle Luis played minor league ball. She thinks for the Cubs.
I had noticed the amateur horse couple wandering around aimlessly. She is mostly silent, continuing to tear up, he touching her, her hands, her arms, her shoulders as if directing her, steering her around. He continuously tries to engage her, as if they were two birds on the verge of consummation in some slow-motion mating ritual. The hearse has yet to appear so I peel off from my spot in the crowd and sidle up next to them. I am very curious about them. They have finally landed in a spot right near the corner of Addison & Clark. They do not recognize me from the train. I stand next to them trying to listen in on their conversation such as it is. Most of their conversation is too low to be audible to me, but I hear the word “tests” repeated several times. I can make nothing else out. Now she is turned towards the street, he standing in back of her, his arms wrapped around her middle, her hands resting on his. She in a white leather parka, he in a black bomber jacket, together, from my angle, they look like a large pantomime penguin. I hear a voice in the crowd call out, “They’re turning the corner”, so I back off and return to where I had been standing before my little eaves-dropping foray.
And indeed the cortege is moving very slowly up the street. When the hearse finally reaches us modern baseball uncle does something unexpected and completely appropriate. He bellows out, “Okay, everybody, let me hear you. A one, a two, a three. Take me out to the ball game..”.
This was the most peculiar rendition of this song that I have ever heard. Ron Santo could not carry a tune in a bushel basket and modern baseball uncle upholds that tradition and goes him one better. He starts the tune in a key he himself can not reach. It’s somehow too high for the men and too low for the women. But the crowd picks it up. The song is totally melody-less. Instead it’s a chant; it’s crying, keening, a gurgling ululation, the sound that fell like a poison rain from the proud towers as Hector’s body was dragged through the dust of Ilium. I swear to you this is true. This really happened, this tremendous distillation of grief, truly the collective memory of both hope and futility, was first palpable and then faded beneath the sound of the cars and of the buses plying the city streets and the eternal din of the Red Line as it clanks and rumbles and squeals past the park.
The hearse came to a stop at the corner of Clark and Addison. There were two, maybe three, limousines with their windows rolled down. And inside the limousines, the people, Santo’s family one would presume, stared out at the crowd. Some were old and some were just kids. Some were crying. His adult children, I suppose, with spouses. Some were taking photos of the crowd on their cell phones. It occurred to me that this moment, to them, must have been even more important than it was for the fans, more important, perhaps, than the eulogies in the church. It is a peculiarly reassuring and uplifting feeling to find that someone you love is in turn loved and admired by other people who are complete strangers to you.
Hands grasped hands through the open windows of the limo and words of encouragement and consolation were spoken. There was an indefinable connection established between these strangers. It was one of those rare moments in existence when something occurs, which is tangible and real as a stop sign or the concrete beneath your feet, but is also completely invisible, non-temporal, non-corporeal, immeasurable, unrecordable digitally or in analogue, invisible, and insubstantial in every respect. And yet, it is so hyper-real that it stands in absolute contrast to everything else you normally see or hear or feel; it is so real you never forget it even though you have no frigging idea what it was and know no words that could possibly be used to describe it.
And so the cortege began to move and pulled into the intersection. I crossed Addison and stood on the south side of the street. I wanted to see the crowd, take sort of a mental snapshot of it all. And I wanted to see that marquee again, just to make sure that it was what it was and said what it said. The cortege stopped again. I don’t know what was going on. The cops were milling about in the intersection, but eventually the limos pulled away amid the flashing blue lights of the squad cars. I could see the modern baseball uncle and Inez’s mother both moving towards the ‘L’ now. I couldn’t see if they were speaking to each other or not before they disappeared into the crowd. By the time I got back across the street the amateur horse people were headed north on Clark Street, probably off to some old haunt to bank the embers. I thought about following them again, but I decided that was just too creepy. Besides I wanted to savor the moment myself. Savoring a funeral…I’m getting eccentric. Please let me know if I really start getting out of hand.
I decided to walk home, it had become such a beautiful day, such a respite from winter. You almost felt like it was spring, the snow melting off the lawns, little lakes and rivulets in the street. But there was nothing spiking up in the muddy lawns, no crocuses yet. Why should there be, pitchers won’t be reporting for months yet?
As I walked along I thought about relatives and friends, some still here, some at rest, scattered near and far, whom I have shared the delightful agony of baseball with. I thought of the day in July of 1966 when Ron Santo broke Hack Wilson’s record for consecutive game hits by a Chicago Cub: 28. I was at that game with my uncle, Fourth of July, they beat the Pirates, a rare enough occurrence back then. Santo was wearing a special batting helmet with an extension covering the left portion of his face because he had been hit a few weeks earlier and sustained a fractured cheekbone. This custom helmet looked strange and bulky, more appropriate for a gladiator than a third baseman. Standing safely on first after his record breaking hit, he tossed off the helmet and performed a slow, graceful pirouette while modestly tipping his cap to the cheering crowd.
Man, I’m sorry you weren’t here.