Ron Santo Diabetic Dog Foundation

A Big-League Hit


The ribbon has been cut and the Chicago Cubs are ready to "Play Ball!" in Cubs Park, their new Mesa home at the intersection of Loop 101 and Loop 202.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and Mesa Mayor Scott Smith were there, as were Thomas Ricketts, Cubs chairman; former Cub and Baseball Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins; and other dignitaries.

The Mesa Fire Police and Medical Honor Guard entered the stadium in full regalia, playing bagpipes, for the presentation of colors.

Among the crowd assembled for the festivities was Scottsdale resident Vicki Santo, wife of the late baseball great Ron Santo, also a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. As the Cubs prepare to move into their new spring-training home, Vicki has launched a project of her own, the Ron & Vicki Santo Diabetic Alert Dog Foundation. And she's every bit as excited about the Foundation as the Cubs are about their new training facility.

Baseball fans know about Santo's legendary 14-year career, the first 13 of which he spent with the Chicago Cubs. It was distinctive in several ways, the foremost being his accomplishments on the field – nine-time National League All-Star, eight consecutive seasons with 90 runs batted in, five consecutive Gold Glove Awards and many other history-making statistics. When he retired from baseball in 1974 after a season with the Chicago White Sox, he then became legendary as a WGN radio color commentator. Chicago loves Ron Santo.

For all of that, maybe what is most remarkable is that Santo played his entire career with Type 1 diabetes. Unfortunately, after his retirement, the diabetes necessitated the amputation of both legs below the knees. And in 2003, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer. It returned in 2010 with a vengeance. Santo died after just two treatments of chemotherapy.

Santo had two goals: the first was to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, which he accomplished, though posthumously. The second was to raise money to find a cure for diabetes and to help others live productive lives while dealing with the complications that come with the disease. From 1979 until his death, Santo endorsed JDRF's annual Ron Santo Walk to Cure Diabetes in Chicago, and raised more than $70 million for the organization.

LIVING WITH DIABETES

Things have a way of coming together, Vicki Santo says. Around the time of Santo's diagnosis with bladder cancer, they brought a new dog into their home. His name was Joker. After Ron had his legs amputated, Vicki began to notice that Joker would come to her and pant when Ron's blood sugar was low. As the three sat in the living room shortly before Ron died, Joker put his paw on Ron's knee. "He knows," Ron told Vicki. And Joker did know. Five weeks to the day after Ron died, Joker also died, his kidneys filled with cancer.

Vicki eventually acquired another dog and trained him to be a service dog. "I was in Best Buy one day," she says, "and the young man at the checkout said, 'Isn't it cool how they train dogs to serve people with diabetes?' "

That started her thinking. She supports the research of JDRF, but she also wanted to do something to make people's lives better as they live with diabetes. So she created the Ron & Vicki Santo Diabetic Alert Dog Foundation. A year in the making, the Foundation received its 501c3 status Jan. 31, 2013.

It's a one-man band right now," Vicki says. "But I am lucky to have the contacts through baseball that Ron had.

SUPPORT FOR THE CAUSE

Ned Colletti, general manager of the Dodgers, and Ron were close friends, and Ned has helped her connect with the Dodgers' fundraising organization. And she lists Derrick Hall, president and CEO of the Arizona Diamondbacks, as a valued partner. Fergie Jenkins (left), who was seated beside her at the Cubs training-facility opening, has offered his help. WGN plays public service announcements 10 times each day during prime time. Build it, and they will come.

Currently, the first two dogs are being trained. Each will cost $18,000. In addition, the first person to receive a dog has been selected: a 22-year-old Illinois man with Down Syndrome. "He's never been alone," says Vicki. "With his dog, he will be mobile, be able to take the city bus by himself."

Santo was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2012, and Vicki gave his acceptance speech. "Yes, it's a shame he wasn't there," she says. "But because he wasn't there, I was able to tell people about him. His legacy continues, helping people who live and struggle with diabetes."