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This Old Cub

(2004) *** Unrated
86 min. Emerging Pictures.

From the "labor of love" file comes Jeff Santo's documentary This Old Cub, a feature-length tribute to the filmmaker's father. Oftentimes such projects come off self-absorbed or precious, but Santo's father happens to be a hero to generations of baseball fans. Ron Santo anchored the Chicago Cubs for fourteen years at third base and, in what could hardly be termed retirement, continues to represent the Cubs organization as a radio announcer traveling with the team, ambassador present at every Spring Training and Fantasy Camp, and unofficial cheerleader. The rub is that Santo has done all of this while weathering a brutal case of diabetes which eventually claimed both of his legs.

Santo discovered he had juvenile diabetes early in his tenure with the Cubs. Though he kept his condition a secret for years (initially telling only the team doctor), Santo amazingly regulated his body to his needs. Even in rare crises, Santo pulled out victory; he tells an amazing yarn of fighting off a diabetic reaction during a game. A bigger blow for Santo was the forearm injury which sidelined him late in that crucial '69 season.

The director hangs his narrative on a Hall-of-Fame bid (and absurdly overplays the supense), but This Old Cub focuses on what Santo means to the Cubs organization and the bleacher bums, and what the team and the fans mean to Santo. Jeff, who stays off camera, rounds up a gaggle of celebrity Cubs fans (Bill Murray and his brothers, William Petersen, Dennis Franz, Gary Sinise, Dennis Farina) and a handful of sports experts to put Santo and the celebrated 1969 Cubs in perspective. Murray even shows his imitation of Santo's swing. Joe Mantegna (who wrote the play Bleacher Bums) narrates and co-produces the film.

This accomplished, he also puts an endless stream of Santo's colleagues and baseball legends in front of the camera to say that Ron is important and nice. Here, the director should have been more selective, but it's tough to cut stars like Willie Mays and Johnny Bench out of your movie, even though their blurbs about Santo seem distracted (besides, who's going to say a bad word about the father to the son?). Reading fan mail strains interest, but when the film lags, the director pumps things back up with energetic use of pop music.

As Jeff Santo shows us, loss of limbs barely breaks his father's indomitable stride. Ron asserts optimism: "I feel like I've beaten it." Turning his horrible setbacks into opportunity, Ron proudly sponsors the Walk to Cure Diabetes for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. He tosses first pitches, hobnobs with the fans, and cracks wise with co-announcer Pat Hughes, who points out that Ron "has time for anybody." In the end, the Hall of Fame question finally comes to a head, and Ron gets his own Pride of the Yankees-style speech on the field. Score another one for #10.

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