PHOENIX (AP) -Ron Santo has been walking around town with a big smile all week.
It's easy to understand why. His beloved Chicago Cubs are in the playoffs. And the New York Mets aren't, thanks to a spectacular September collapse.
``I'm very happy about it,'' said Santo, the Cubs radio analyst who loathes almost everything about New York, especially Shea Stadium and the Mets.
Santo has another, perhaps more important, reason to be happy. Despite struggling with diabetes, heart disease and cancer, he's healthy enough to work the Cubs' NL playoff series against the Diamondbacks, which opened with a 3-1 Arizona victory on Wednesday night.
That wasn't the case in 2003, when the Cubs came within five outs of the World Series. At the end of the regular season, Santo returned to his offseason home in Arizona to undergo an operation for cancer in his bladder.
He watched from Scottsdale as the Cubs beat the Atlanta Braves in the division series. Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood honored Santo by hanging the former third baseman's retired No. 10 jersey in the clubhouse during the playoffs. Wood also called from the celebration after the Cubs beat the Braves.
``That was very emotional for me,'' Santo said.
The Cubs then took what appeared to be a commanding lead over the Florida Marlins in the NL championship series. With ace Mark Prior on the mound, Chicago needed five outs to win its first pennant since 1945.
``When they were five outs away, I figured we were going to get to the World Series,'' Santo said. ``I called my doctor and I said, 'Can we wait for this operation?'
``It was cancer in the bladder that hadn't gone out,'' Santo said. ``He says, 'Yeah, we can wait.' So then I called (the Cubs), and they were going to send a plane for me to go back and do the World Series.''
Then came Steve Bartman, and the rest is part of Cubs' lore. The Marlins, not the Cubs, faced the New York Yankees in the World Series.
But next year is the Cubs fan's best friend. Four years later, Santo is basking in the spotlight as the Cubs take another shot at their first World Series title since 1908.
``It's me being here that is the happiest time of my life,'' Santo said.
Though he walks on two artificial legs, Santo seems as spry as he was during his 15-year major league career, nearly all of it spent on the North Side. A nine-time All Star, Santo batted .277 with 342 homers and 1,331 RBIs. Many Cub fans believe he belongs in Cooperstown, but the Hall of Fame has yet to call.
Ernie Banks, is known as ``Mr. Cub.'' But Santo has become the club's unofficial mascot, often mobbed by autograph seekers and well-wishers.
``He is the ultimate Cub and Cub fan,'' said Diamondbacks broadcaster Mark Grace, whom Santo befriended during Grace's long Cubs career.
The '69 Cubs won a lot of hearts even as they lost the NL East race with the Mets.
``When you think about the '60s, our ballclub, you look at '69 and you would think we won the World Series,'' Santo said. ``After 40 years, we're still remembered anywhere we go.''
Diamondbacks radio announcer Greg Schulte remembers watching Santo play in St. Louis.
``I grew up a Cardinal fan and I hated him with a passion because he used to beat the Cardinals,'' Schulte said. ``When I met him, he couldn't be a nicer guy. With all that he's gone through, he's an inspiration.''
Santo's popularity has helped drive his ``Walk for the Cure,'' which has raised more than $40 million for diabetes research since 1979.
Hours before Game 1 on Wednesday night, Santo wandered through the press box, greeting longtime friends. He couldn't have been more delighted to be working in October.
The loss to Arizona stung, but at least Santo wasn't in New York. As the pennant races wore on, Santo said he began to have the feeling that the Cubs and Mets would meet in the postseason.
That would mean a return to Shea, scene of some old but still painful memories for Santo. But the Mets fell apart, and Santo has been smiling ever since.
``I thought they'd be in it,'' Santo said. ``Let's face it: they're a heck of a ballclub. It was unbelievable that they didn't make it. All I'm saying is, what comes around, goes around, at times.''

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