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Rising: Springsteen’s Tribute to Santo

There’s always a danger in writing about a Springsteen show. With so many things going on, some of them will have to be minimized, or even left out altogether. That’s unfortunate, because everyone in the crowd has their own idea of what mattered most.

For Friday’s first show at Wrigley Field, the young girl who brought a sign asking for “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day,” only to be brought onstage to sing the song into the microphone before being carried offstage by the master of ceremonies himself, obviously has her opinion of the show’s biggest moment. My friend, who has seen Pearl Jam dozens of times live and was treated to a surprise appearance by Eddie Vedder onstage, has his moment, too. And the fist-pumping adrenaline shot of “Born to Run” probably makes some people’s list as a high point, any time Springsteen plays.

But for me, and perhaps for a few others, “My City of Ruins” stood out as an example of how music can move people. It’s a song taken from The Rising album, and it’s buried deep inside its track list. While nobody goes to a Springsteen show to hear “My City of Ruins,” it got Friday’s show started for me, more so than the searing guitar work on the “Prove it All Night” opener.

The loss of Bruce’s long-standing saxophonist and musical journey mate Clarence Clemons in 2011 has been palpable. Jake Clemons, Clarence’s nephew, has stepped into the void, and he’s carried the Big Man’s mantle well. But death is an inevitable part of life, and Bruce set the song up by speaking of old ballparks and old cars and the ghosts that follow us throughout our lives. As he played the song, he asked if anyone was missing. He didn’t speak Clarence’s name, but I promise that’s who he was thinking about. All of us in the park at that moment had someone on our minds, and we answered Bruce’s question with that person’s name. It was a moving tribute for those who once walked the earth, but don’t anymore.

There was another, more esoteric tribute that was also going on while that song was played. Nobody called any attention to it, and it wouldn’t surprise me if most people in the park missed it. But from my vantage point, in what a scalper was calling “the dry section” of the park (thank goodness it never rained), I saw it all clearly. And as a Cubs fan, I feel compelled to point it out to anyone who might be interested.

The way that the Cubs honor players who have had their numbers retired is to fly a flag with the number, and the name of player who wore that number, from the two foul poles at Wrigley Field. Of those six players, five of them (Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ryne Sandberg, Fergie Jenkins, and Greg Maddux) are still alive. Ron Santo is the only one who is no longer with us, and during last night’s show, his flag flew alone at the top of the left field foul pole. The right field foul pole, for the interested, flew two Bruce Springsteen flags, which will undoubtedly become souvenirs for someone after these shows are over.

During “My City of Ruins,” the Santo flag was illuminated by a yellow light. I tried to capture it with my lousy cellphone camera, but all of the pictures turned out grainy and unrecognizable. But believe me, the Santo flag was lit up. Bruce never called attention to it, but it was unmistakably a tribute to the Cubs’ much-beloved player, announcer, and recent Hall of Fame inductee.

When the song ended, following several audience chants of “rise up,” the light went off. I wondered if it would be turned on again during the remainder of the show, but the flag remained in darkness, until all of the lights came up during the show’s encore. This was enough to convince me that Springsteen had indeed paid homage to Santo, just as he had done for Johnny Pesky when the tour came to Boston last month. Instead of calling out Santo’s name, and drawing attention to the shining flag, Bruce quietly carried out this tribute, and the Cubs fans in the crowd were none the wiser.

To celebrate life, it’s important to acknowledge death. We’ve all lost a loved one, or a colleague, or a classmate who made a difference in our lives. And who doesn’t take to their Facebook page to share the news of a celebrity’s passing? As Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg, it is for us, the living, to carry on in their aftermath. And Bruce Springsteen, who is probably not a Cubs fan, pulled off what might be the best example that Wrigley Field will ever see, precisely because nobody saw it. It, like the show that surrounded it, was nothing short of brilliant.

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