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Ron Santo’s call from the Hall should have come a lot sooner

Better late than never does not apply terrible timing RSanto’s electiHall. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Better late than never does not apply to the terrible timing of Ron Santo’s election to the Hall. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 7, 2012 8:15AM

How many times had Ron Santo waited optimistically for the phone call that would indicate the Baseball Hall of Fame had come to its senses? And how many times had he sat there while the silence crushed him?

When the call finally came Monday, he wasn’t there to answer it.

What a crying shame.

Congratulations to his wife and four children. They’ll be able to celebrate his Hall induction, an event that should have happened a long, long time ago.

But they have been deprived of what would have been one of the greatest sights imaginable: the look of amazement and joy on Santo’s guileless face when the good news arrived.

He died a little more than a year ago, meaning it was left to his family and his fans — same thing — to savor the announcement Monday. The Veteran’s Committee finally saw the light that previous committees, voters and assorted fools hadn’t been able to see.

Better late than never? Late doesn’t feel so good right now. It stings.

Santo’s widow, Vicki, couldn’t hide her happiness during a conference call with reporters Monday.

“Absolute elation,’’ she said of her feelings.

I can’t get past anger. How cruel that a year after Santo succumbed to complications from bladder cancer at 70, the doors in Cooperstown, N.Y., are finally open for the former Cubs third baseman. Check that. They’re open for his memory.

Now you’ve decided to let Santo in? Really?

In the last 10 years, I had come to a good place, a contrived place, on the Santo snub: It was better this way, I told myself. If voters couldn’t grasp his greatness, then he shouldn’t want to be part of their club anyway.

Along the way, Santo had allowed us to learn a little something about perseverance. His routine never varied when the Hall rejected him. His initial mood would be lower than sea level, and he would marinate in his depression for a few days. Then he’d finally emerge with his sense of hope fully intact. Throughout the process, fans, in bulk, would remind him how much he was loved.

How many of us get that reminder in such large quantities?

And yet, damn it, he deserved to be in the Hall well before the call arrived Monday. Baseball Writers’ Association of America voters had passed him by 15 times, the Veterans Committee three times. How could all those people be wrong so many times? They weren’t wrong, the anti-Santo crowd said.

He was a nine-time All-Star and a five-time Gold Glove winner. He hit .277 and had 342 home runs and 1,331 runs batted in during the 1960s and 1970s, when pitching was king and he regularly faced the likes of Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax. There are 11 third basemen already in the Hall, and Santo’s power numbers were better than most of theirs.

Some factors might have worked against him. The 1969 Cubs, an enduring symbol of failure, already had three players in the Hall: Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins. Why should that ill-fated team be rewarded so lavishly? Some opponents did not like the way Santo ran and clicked his heels after each Cubs victory. Perhaps that played a role with previous Veterans Committee votes. But in light of some of the touchdown celebrations we see weekly, Santo’s mode of celebration seems charming now.

Sometimes there’s just no explanation for things.

“It was meant to be,’’ Vicki Santo said. “He belongs there. It’s a great thing for Chicago and all Cubs fans. … We’re all thrilled.’’

As the years passed and the snubs began to collect, I didn’t want Hall voters to feel sympathy for Santo’s decades-long battle with diabetes. I didn’t want them to be swayed by his popularity as a Cubs broadcaster. I wanted him to make the Hall because he was an excellent baseball player.

When the Cubs retired Santo’s No. 10 jersey in 2003, he said it meant more to him than the Hall of Fame. I believe he meant that at the time. But deep in his heart, the heart of a competitor, he wanted the ultimate affirmation. That was Cooperstown. Great athletes want to be considered among the best at what they do. Santo was no different.

Now it’s here, a year and a few days too late.

The induction ceremony will take place July 22. It figures to be quite a celebration for the Santo family. They deserve it. But so did Ron Santo.

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