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Movie Review: "This Old Cub"

Ron Santo is really a remarkable human being.

To have played major league sports for 15 years with diabetes, in an era when they didn't have the diagnostic tools they have now (Santo's remedy for low blood sugar during games was to "feel" how he felt and eat a candy bar), and at the high level he did, makes it even more of a crime that baseball writers who have never even picked up a ball or bat, never elected him to the Hall of Fame, and now that such decisions are in the hands of his peers -- well, don't get me started.

This documentary is a labor of love from Ron's son Jeff, an aspiring documentary filmmaker, and is being exhibited in digital video at several theaters in Chicago, and at one screen here in the Phoenix area, since there are so many Chicagoans like me here in the area for spring training.

The film was shown in a very small theater, only about 80 seats (about 2/3 full) and three teenage boys were messing around in the front, apparently trying to sneak into an R-rated movie through the front exit. Management caught them and escorted them out. Good to know that someone's watching these things.

As a young filmmaker, Jeff Santo does make mistakes. I think he went overboard on the "Let's Go Cubbies" chant that is omnipresent for the first few minutes of the film -- I found myself thinking "Enough already!" But seeing some rare footage of Santo playing back in the 60's, and a clever use of cutting-and-pasting of black-and-white photos, brings Ron's playing career to life.

I also hate it when filmmakers use songs incorrectly. At one point Rick Nelson's "Garden Party" is used during a scene when Ron is, in the song's words, "reminisc[ing] with my old friends" -- but the film wants to use it in a sentimental way, while the song was originally written by Nelson with great bitterness toward a concert at Madison Square Garden that ended in a near-riot. It's like the people who think Bruce Springsteen's "Born In The USA" is a patriotic song, or Green Day's "Time Of Your Life" is about nostalgia (it's about a guy who just got dumped by his girlfriend).

It was also disconcerting when a big buildup was made over the impending announcement of the Hall of Fame vote in February 2003, with TV cameras in Ron's home, only to cut away for half of the 2003 season, then 20 minutes later, see the conclusion, which of course we all knew anyway, that Ron wasn't elected last year and must now wait till 2005.

But I'm nitpicking.

This is a love letter from a son to his father, and Ron Santo truly has tremendous courage. You are almost shocked when you see this former athlete with closeup shots of his amputated limbs, and see what he has to go through just to get to work each day, and he does so with good cheer and with a kind word for all his family and friends and "just fans", people who he sees every day on his way to the ballpark.

And of course, you shed a tear when the film ends with the retirement ceremony of Ron's #10, last September 28, and I'm still absolutely amazed when I think of that day, so emotional for all of us, a cloudy and cool day -- except for about fifteen minutes during the ceremony, when the clouds parted and the sun shone on Ron Santo.

There are the requisite celebrities, but this time they are not there just to show off -- people like Dennis Franz, Gary Sinise, Bill Murray were really there as Cub fans, growing up with Ron Santo as one of their heroes, and Jeff Santo doesn't hit you over the head with them, just shows you that in their love of the game and of this man, they're just like us. Joe Mantegna, another lifelong Cub fan, does a nice job with the narration.

The film reminds us that Ron couldn't make the broadcasts during the playoffs last year, and just like the rest of us, he too was crushed when the Cubs came up short of the World Series.

Ron Santo was part of my childhood and as such, this film was indeed a nostalgic trip back to those days when baseball players were larger than life, and somehow seemed more dedicated than they are today.

AYRating: *** 1/2