The Chicago Cubs have had a spring training presence in the East Valley for nearly 60 years, and on Saturday, the city of Mesa and the Cubs will celebrate one of the team's most storied players who has been part of the team's history for five decades.
From 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on the third base patio of Hohokam Stadium, 1235 N. Center St., the Cubs and the city will host "A Celebration for Ron Santo," former third baseman from 1960 to 1973 and WGN broadcaster for the Cubs since 1990. The event is free.
During his playing career, the nine-time all-star hit 342 home runs, amassed 2,254 hits, had 1,331 RBIs and collected five straight Gold Glove awards for his defensive play - all while playing with Type 1 diabetes.
Santo's accomplishments battling the disease that eventually caused him to lose both legs have been as legendary as his accomplishments on the field. Since its inception in 1979, the Ron Santo Walk for the Cure held every year in Chicago has raised more than $40 million for diabetes research with $5.6 million being raised in 2006 alone.
As Santo's gravelly voice from the broadcasting booth at Hohokam and the friendly confines of Wrigley Field nears the beginning of its third decade, the Cubs and Mesa are campaigning to keep the team's spring training home in Mesa for another 30 years.
On Nov. 2, Mesa voters will vote on Proposition 420 - a measure to decide whether to allow city leaders to spend more than $1.5 million on a new spring training stadium and complex. The $99 million project would also include a privately funded baseball-themed shopping and entertainment plaza, Wrigleyville West.
Robert Johnson, spokesman for the Keep the Cubs Campaign and project manager for the Mesa Historical Museum's Play Ball: Cactus League Experience Exhibit, said the timing is right to honor Santo in Mesa.
"We've been wanting to do something to honor Ron Santo for a long time, and this gives the community an opportunity to come out and celebrate his all-star career," Johnson said. "He definitely deserves our admiration. Players like him remind people in Mesa - young and old - that the Cubs have been a part of the community for more than 50 years. Tradition and family means a lot to people in Mesa, and players like him remind us that they are a part of that."
The celebration for Santo, who turned 70 in February, comes six days after Mesa is scheduled to unveil plans for the new spring training location proposed at the city's Riverview Park.
"This comes at a time when we want to remind people of the presence of the Cubs' impact in the community and the need to keep them here," Johnson said.
When Santo arrived in Mesa at the age of 18, his first time out of his native city of Seattle to play in the Cubs Rookie League, the players slept in a barracks-like area under the bleachers at Rendezvous Park, a long gone relic of a ballpark with wooden fences and cups of ice-cold Coca-Cola for a dime.
"Mesa was mostly dirt roads then, but it was a lot of fun," Santo said. "Rendezvous Park was a Major League spring training park. I had arrived."
"We had a curfew," Santo added. "We all had to be in by midnight - that's the time they locked the doors. I slept in the stands a couple of times, but that was OK. The weather was great, and didn't have all the rain we had in Seattle."
Santo also has fond memories of the nightlife in nearby Scottsdale where he frequented the Pink Pony Steakhouse and Saloon - once named the best baseball bar in America - and JD's, where he saw a young Waylon Jennings perform country music.
"The Pink Pony was a special place," Santo said. "I remember it had those hitching posts for horses, and the swinging doors to the bar. I remember when I walked through the doors, I used to picture myself coming in, carrying two guns like the new guy in town. Mesa and Scottsdale were real western towns to me."
Santo has lived in Scottsdale for 10 years.
"It'll be a fun day to be honored," Santo said about the upcoming celebration in his honor. "Cubs fans come from all over the world, and that is what has helped us remain the top draw in spring training. The Cubs would like to stay in Mesa, and we're hoping that will happen."