Friday, December 10, 2010

SPORTS>>Meredith, Santo won in booth

By todd traub
Leader sports editor

It seems oddly fitting the Dallas Cowboys won on the same day a legendary former quarterback reached the ultimate end zone.

And it  seems somehow proper the Chicago Cubs lost one of their most beloved figures in late autumn and not when the season is full of life and Cubs fans still think their team has a chance.

Farewell to Don Meredith and Ron Santo, who found second homes in the broadcast booth and made televised games all the more enjoyable. Meredith, Dallas’ quarterback from 1960-68 died Sunday — game day — at age 72 and Santo, the Cubs’ third baseman and veteran broadcaster, died Dec. 3 at age 70.

As the Cowboys (4-8) won their third game in four tries, Meredith, who died of complications with emphysema and a brain hemorrhage, was being remembered as a fun-loving gunslinger who revolutionized broadcasts of the game he once played.

Santo, who died of complications from bladder cancer, is remembered as a one-time player whose love for his team bubbled over when he went on the air.

The Chicago Bears originally drafted Meredith but traded him to Dallas, where he helped the Cowboys begin their growth from a bumbling, expansion product into America’s Team, though I don’t recall voting on that.

Meredith passed for 135 touchdowns and helped Dallas to three playoff appearances before he retired in 1969. Like baseball great Dizzy Dean, Meredith had a knack for making his folksy style work in the broadcast booth.

It was Meredith, sparring with the verbose Howard Cosell or singing Willie Nelson’s “Turn Out the Lights” when a game was winding down, who helped give Monday Night Football the off-kilter appeal it has since tried to recapture. Meredith’s first stint on MNF was from 1970-73 and, after ABC tried ex-jocks Alex Karras and Fred Williamson in his place, Meredith returned for a second run in 1977-84.

In its efforts to recover the edge it had in the Meredith-Cosell-Frank Gifford era, MNF attempted a few ill-fated experiments. Who can forget the work of comedian Dennis Miller or conservative blowhard Rush Limbaugh?

I’d like to, but it was so horrible I can’t.

Santo was a nine-time all-star who batted a career .277 with 2,254 hits, 342 home runs, 1,331 RBI and five Gold Gloves. He was a member of one of the better Cubs teams of his era, the 1969 club that blew a nine-game National League East lead to the New York Mets.

Santo played the last of his 15 seasons with the Chicago White Sox, but is forever linked to the Cubs.

Santo did games on radio and television for 21 years and wore his loyalty on his sleeve as he openly rooted for the Cubs or despaired of their failures. His allegiance endeared him to fans, and the Cubs honored Santo in 2003 by raising a flag with his jersey No. 10 on the left field foul pole next to the No. 14 worn by “Mr. Cub” Ernie Banks.

As players, Meredith and Santo never won the biggest prizes.

Meredith was just 1-3 in the playoffs and was the losing quarterback in one of the NFL’s greatest games — the 1967 NFL championship in Green Bay called the “Ice Bowl” because it was played in minus 13 degrees. Meredith was long gone when Dallas won the first of its five Super Bowls in 1972.

Santo never even got to the postseason but came closest in 1969, the year of the Cubs’ epic collapse.

In an infamous photo from that season, Santo stands in the on-deck circle during a critical September game at Shea Stadium while a black cat released by Mets fans circles him. When the season ended, the Cubs had gone from nine games up to eight games back while the Mets went on to win their first World Series, an event the Cubs haven’t won since 1908 or reached since 1945.

Santo continued to come up short in his sad quest for acceptance into the Hall of Fame. His disappointment as the hall denied him each year and his battles with health problems like the diabetes that cost him part of both legs, further led Cubs fans to open their hearts.

Santo called his post-playing life with the Cubs “therapy” and said his broadcast career may have prolonged his life. He once arrived at the Cubs’ spring training park in Arizona with one prosthetic leg wrapped in team colors.

Meredith and Santo could have died unhappy and bitter over their disappointments as players. Instead, each time one of them entered the booth, he brought some part of the young man within who simply loved the game — and they made us love it a little more.