Executive Chairperson-in-Chief via Proxy cum Laude slash Editor’s note: I offered the chance to pick a post topic in exchange for American Idol results. Emily came through for me and picked the topic “Santo!” I found it to be a perfectly timed suggestion. Thanks, Emily, for not forcing me to compromise my already discredited journablogistic integrity.
I’ve heard it said that heart cannot be measured. I call BS. I can measure heart. I can see it on display. I can admire it in ample quantities. I can even put a number on it: 10.
How much explanation do you need for this? When Cubs fans talk about heart, we can agree almost universally that Ron Santo is the gold standard. He was the epitome of toughness, courage, loyalty, resilience, and enthusiasm—all the elements comprising that ethereal quality we call heart. Cubs legend Ron Santo had it all. On the scale of heart, Ron Santo was a perfect 10.
We can agree without much debate that Ron Santo had heart, but before we go measuring this or any other player or team on the Santo scale, let’s be clear about Ron Santo’s accomplishments in the field of gutsiness.
Ron Santo was a gifted athlete. He put up monster numbers, Hall of Fame worthy numbers (as mb21 states eloquently and convincingly). Ron Santo being talented really doesn’t have much to do with heart. He was, as the saying goes, good at sports. Ron Santo excelling at a Hall-of-Fame level while battling diabetes at a time when not a whole lot was known about treating diabetes? That shows heart.
Ron Santo tirelessly working to raise money for JDRF, even after he passed the point when diabetes research could no longer help him? That’s heart. Continuing to face every day with a smile even as diabetes robbed him of his legs, bit by bit? Diabetes may have shortened his career, it may have taken his legs, and it eventually took his life, but as long as he lived, Ron Santo never allowed diabetes to diminish his heart. His love for life. His love for people. His love for the Cubs.
He gave of himself to help people who suffered like he did, whether they suffered from diabetes or just suffered from wanting the Cubs to win. But let’s not confuse those two struggles, okay?
I say that because it happens way too often. People say it takes heart for a team to keep trying their best when facing the adversity of three-run deficit in the eighth. I enjoyed the Cubs’ comeback today as much as anyone, but the threat of losing an April game to the Dodgers isn’t adversity. It isn’t hardship. And the Cubs’ comeback didn’t exhibit heart of any great measure. Let’s do some comparisons, shall we?
What would last year’s team have done? Let’s say for the sake of argument that last year’s team would have lost this game. But why? If they faced a three-run deficit, would the hitters have stopped trying to get hits? Would they have choked with runners on base? And is that because they would have given up or tried too hard or played too selfishly or uptight or would they have just gone through the motions . . . or complained about the other team scoring too much (oh, crap, that was yesterday’s team)?
I don’t see it. Scoring runs while trailing in a game shows normal levels of heart shared by virtually all professional baseball teams. Every team that has ever mustered enough heart to come back from a deficit has also shown the lack of heart necessary to prevent the other team from building a lead in the first place if, in fact, it’s heart that determines (or even remotely affects) a player or team’s ability to outscore their opponents. Does it, though? Come on. You know the answer is no. Every team tries to win every game. Trying to win a game isn’t special.
For frame of reference, let’s draw another comparison: what takes more heart, trying hard when your team is losing or resolving to keep playing the game of baseball while suffering from a life-threatening disease that prevents your body from regulating its blood sugar levels (with no assistance whatsoever from a medical professional)? Well, let’s see . . . one is something hundreds of baseball players do every day and one is something only Ron Santo did, something that maybe one hundredth of one percent of the population would dare to do if given the same opportunity.
On a scale of 1 to Santo, I’d rank trying hard while losing as the definition of 1 on that scale.
Let’s rate something else on that scale, shall we? How about keeping a positive attitude even though your teammate is mean to you? Let’s compare that to being the most positive person anyone knows even though the God to whom you pray didn’t see fit to answer your prayers for a cure. Hmm . . . the latter is a 10, for sure. Does it seem silly to rank the former as high as a 2? Why yes, yes it does.
So is there anything any baseball player not named Ron Santo can do to move up the heart scale? Sure. When Ryan Dempster continued to do his best to focus on his job and be a leader on his team while he and his wife Jenny also saw their daughter Riley through treatment for 22q deletion, a disorder that reduced her ability to feed and swallow normally, that demanded more than a 1 on the Santo scale. Playing baseball was probably the easiest thing Dempster had to do in 2009. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t take heart. Still, starting the Dempster Family Foundation to help other families facing the disorder was a much more important exhibition of heart. A minimum of 8, I reckon.
Let’s take a strictly baseball-related example: David Eckstein. He’s the butt of a lot of jokes in the scrappy white guy genre, but Eckstein has heart. I’m sure that, based on his physical . . . um . . . prowess, a lot of people told Eckstein any dreams he may have had of playing Major League Baseball were unrealistic. Does he try harder than Alberty Pujols? Probably in the same way Salieri tried harder than Mozart or Chris Farley tried harder than Patrick Swayze in that Chippendales sketch. I’ll give credit to anybody who pursues their dreams despite long odds against their fulfillment.
But let’s be honest. To credit Eckstein’s MLB success to heart is to insult his actual baseball talent. Is it fair to say that Eckstein got major-league results out of AA talent? It’s a great tribute to his heart, but I don’t think that’s fair to him as a player. Eckstein impressed people with how hard he worked, the evidence of his heart exceeding the size of his body (as it were), because it looked like he was trying really hard. It looked like he had to try extra hard. But the reason that hard work paid off was because David Eckstein was actually pretty talented as a baseball player. I give him a 2 on the Santo scale. Maybe a 3 if he really did suck that bad.
These are all my personal judgments on this scale based on what I’ve observed. Your ratings would probably differ somewhat. Maybe you give Starlin Castro a 6 for trying hard to learn English so he can conduct interviews without an interpreter. Maybe you give him a -3 because he still hasn’t learned to slide into bases properly. You might give Marlon Byrd or Reed Johnson an 8 for their obvious grittiness. You might give them both a 2 for writing Cubs blogs. I don’t know, I’m sure you have your reasons. But you do have reasons. There are things about every player’s personality, work ethic, heart, whatever that you feel warrant your admiration or dismay. But you can measure it.
You probably won’t measure it with spreadsheets, but it registers in your emotions and affections. You might like guys who get their uniforms dirty or take extra infield or support worthy causes or give good interviews or hail from your home city, state, or country. Or maybe you just like players who have heart.
I hope you do. I do. But when you evaluate a player’s heart, I also hope that you do so from an honest perspective. The ability to come back from three runs down isn’t indicative of heart. The ability to come back from tragedy (see Joey Votto‘s struggle after his father’s death) or to fight through physical debilitation (Jim Abbott, anyone?) or to look death in the face and smile (I’d say Ron Santo, but you probably know someone personally who fits this description and who inspires you and who registers a 10 on the Santo scale of heart. I’ve known a few. My father-in-law was one. Here is another).
Someone, I’m sure, will argue that you can’t really measure heart. But you can see it in action. And even if you’re not comfortable placing a number on it, the number 10 works just fine for me.