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Last Dance For A Symbol Of The Joys Of Baseball

Ron Santo was 18 years old and a high school star in Seattle when doctors told him he was a diabetic. They said the future of which he had dreamed since he was a boy -- to play Major League Baseball -- was in doubt. Diabetes would make his blood sugar levels dip, causing him to swoon or even faint, and make his vision blurry.

Almost as an afterthought a doctor added, "If you take care of yourself, though, there's no reason why you can't live another 25 years."

"When you're 18, 25 years seems like forever," Ron Santo told me years later. "What I really heard was, 'You may not be able to play ball.' "

He kept his illness secret. He didn't want major league teams to doubt his strength or skills.

But by 1960, when he was 20, Ron Santo was at third base for the Chicago Cubs. They played day baseball at Wrigley Field, and there were sweltering summer afternoons when Santo could feel his strength dip, and he lost sight of baseballs in long afternoon shadows.

"It was like looking at the field through a screen door," he once said.

But on a team that was often famously futile, Ron Santo became a nine-time All-Star. The Cubs were pennant contenders in 1969, and Santo would run down the third base line that he so capably patrolled, leap into the air and click his heels when they won. Santo's dance, as his leaps became known, joined Ernie Banks' smile and Wrigley Field's ivy as images of joy: men playing a boy's game in a city garden under the El tracks.

Of course the Cubs lost the pennant that year -- and every year since, come to think of it.

After leaving the field, Ron Santo became one of the Cubs' announcers. He didn't take on the voice of a retired jock or a sportswriter, but an unabashed fan, who sometimes could only moan or grunt at his team's errors and losses.

"I get embarrassed sometimes when I hear what I said," he said. "But this is being a Cub fan."

Ron's diabetes grew worse. The All-Star who used to click his heels in the air had to have his legs amputated, and heart and eye surgeries. But he continued to work, laugh and stay late at the ballpark to sign any scrap of paper any kid ever held out to him.

"What else am I going to do?" he asked. "Cub games are like therapy for me."

Ron Santo died Thursday, at the age of 70—quite a few years more than what doctors once gave him, and a testament to the enduring power of friends, family, and dreams, good times and teammates.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.