As a kid growing up in Kendallville, Ind. in the 1960s, John Wilcox played third base in Little League to emulate Ron Santo of the Chicago Cubs.
Although Kendallville was near the larger city of Fort Wayne, Indiana did not have a Major League team, and residents in that part of the state mostly rooted for the Cubs.
Wilcox, now 62, and his wife, Jacqui, who have lived in Mesa for four and a half years, were among about 300 people who turned out at Mesa's Hohokam Stadium on Saturday to honor Santo, the former all-star third baseman who has been a WGN broadcaster for the Cubs for the last 20 years as part of the city's Keep the Cubs Campaign for Proposition 420.
Mesa voters will decide on the Nov. 2 general election ballot whether to allow the city to spend up to $99 million for a new spring training facility for the Cubs at Riverview Park to retain the Cubs for another 30 years. The costs will cover $84 million for the ballpark structures and $15 million for infrastructure. The development also will include a privately-funded multi-million dollar development including a hotel and a year-round baseball-themed complex, Wrigleyville West, generating revenue and creating jobs for the city.
"Ron Santo was my favorite," said Wilcox, who moved to Mesa after retiring from the accounting department of Kraft Foods. "A lot of kids wanted to play third base back then to emulate Ron Santo. Those guys were like Gods to a kid growing up. Where I lived, you never got to see any celebrities come through."
Santo, who turned 70 in February, and is known as "This Old Cub," had a Major League career that spanned from 1960 to 1974 as a nine-time all-star who won five straight Gold Glove awards, hit 342 home runs and had 2,254 hits. Santo also batted .300 or more five times on teams with the likes of Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and later Fergie Jenkins. Santo's 1,331 RBIs rank fourth among third basemen.
Santo was presented a proclamation from Mesa Mayor Scott Smith celebrating Oct. 10, 2010 - the 10th day of the 10th month of the 10th year as Ron Santo Day in Mesa, honoring his career as a player, broadcaster and a supportive presence for the Cubs in Mesa. Ten was the uniform number Santo wore that the team retired in 2007.
Although Santo has not been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Smith was quick to say that Santo has had a hall of fame career and should be a member of the Hall.
"We admire Ron Santo," Smith said. "He is an unabashed fan of Mesa and Arizona."
In addition to Smith, Cubs Vice President Mike Lufrano, Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau President Robert Brinton spoke at the event -
Brinton was six months old when his father, was among a group of downtown Mesa businessman and rancher Dwight Patterson who were instrumental in luring the Cubs from California's Catalina Island to Mesa in 1952 for their spring training home at Rendezvous Park.
Brinton has fond memories of selling programs at spring training games when he was six years old and keeping an eye on Ernie Banks' purple Cadillac in the parking lot during games. Brinton said he hopes his son will be able to tell future Cubs fans in Mesa that he also was six years old when he started selling programs at spring training games.
When Santo was given his turn to speak, he thanked the fans and made them laugh although the Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908.
"Win or lose, you're there - and once again, I'll have to say Wait ‘til next year," Santo said.
Santo, who was the first player to invoke the ten-and-five rule that allows players with ten years' service, the last five with the same team, to decline any trade which he did when the Cubs tried to trade him to the California Angels in 1973, also invoked a similar rule on Saturday:
"If the Cubs go to Florida, I won't go!," Santo said, triggering a loud round of applause.
Santo also was quick to mention that on Sunday, he'll be the best man in his son, Jeff's wedding, who produced about a film about his father's career and struggle with diabetes in 2006 that led to Santo losing both of his legs. Santo serves on the board of directors for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. His efforts through the annual Ron Santo Walk for the Cure in Chicago have raised more than $40 million for diabetes research since its inception in 1979.
Santo has a fan who understands in Mickey Gavin of Mesa, who began attending Cubs games at Wrigley Field in 1938 when she was 5 years old.
Gavin, 77, attended Saturday's event with her son, Scott Patrick Gavin and daughter, Kerry, who moved to Mesa from Chicago for the better weather and so they could continue seeing the Cubs. Mickey Gavin was proudly wearing her dark-blue T-shirt with the words "This Old Cub" across the front of it, and waited in a long line of fans so she could get Santo's autograph on an 8 x 10 color picture of Santo's uniform number retirement ceremony at Wrigley Field.
"I knew "Ronnie" from way back when," said Gavin, who also suffers from diabetes. "I remember one time when we went to eat at Maddie's Wayside Inn in Chicago, Ron Santo used to eat there a lot when he played for the Cubs. We saw him there with his two sons. I went up to him and kissed him, and he stopped to talk to us."
Scott Patrick Gavin said he was struggling in Little League at the time and Santo took the time to give him tips on how to improve at the restaurant.
Gavin said his family listens to the Cubs games religiously, and they "ooh and aah" and laugh along with Santo as they now listen to him broadcast the games.
"If the Cubs were to leave Mesa, the city could bring another team in here, but it would never be the same," Gavin said. "They need them now more than ever."