ST. LOUIS, Mo. (BaseballStL) -- It was one of those blessed moments of fate that has followed me forever. It was the summer of 1978. I was home from college, and headed to Wrigley for the weekend. Sitting in the bleachers with some friends, and I hear noise being made behind me. I turn and look and here comes a group of people hollering.
“Make way for the mayor. Make way for the mayor."
It appears Chicago mayor Michael Bilandic and his security staff are planning to catch a few innings in the bleachers with the regular folk. Bilandic was not popular at the time, and the people in the bleachers were not happy about making room. Boos were raining down as Bilandic moved in. I started to scoot over.
And then everyone started cheering wildly.
I grew up with the Cubs of the late 60's. By that time, Ernie Banks was well past his prime, having moved from shortstop where he won back to back Most Valuable Player awards, to the more comfortable first base. He still batted cleanup for the Cubs, surrounded by Billy Williams and Ron Santo. Who knows what motivates a 9 year old, but my Cub was Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks. Kids used to gather and play ball in fields back then. My T-shirt had a big 14 written on it. Ernie used to stand up straight in the box, and wiggle his fingers before the pitch. Of course, I also had to stand up straight, and wiggle my fingers. Ernie would never argue a call with the umpires. He wouldn't even turn to look at them. In a gentlemanly act, Banks would simply step out of the box if he thought the ump called a strike that should have been a ball.
So of course, when little league rolled around, and my home plate ump called a strike that was clearly outside, I didn't turn and say anything. I stepped out of the box.
"What are you doing?" hollered the ump.
"I didn't like the call," I mumbled.
"Get back in the box now," he grumbled.
And on the next pitch he punched me out.
People kept cheering. I turned my head to see what the commotion was. And then my eyes bulged. It was Ernie Banks, in the flesh, making his way down to sit with the embattled mayor. I remember thinking that Bilandic better hope that Banks never runs for mayor. They kept moving people around, and there was a space right next to me, to my right, and, oh my GOD, Ernie Banks walked over and stood next to me.
"Young man," he smiled, "do you mind if I sit next to you for a few innings?"
I'm sure I both nodded in the affirm, and tried to mumble something. And then, plopped right down next to me, was Mr. Cub.
"It's a great day for baseball," he hollered to the crowd that was quickly gathering around. "Let's play two!"
And then he stuck his hand out.
"I'm Ernie Banks. It's nice to meet you. Hey, I like your outfit."
I was wearing a Cub jersey. The number 14 jersey.
He hollered to the crowd, "The Cubs will be great in '78!!!!"
And everyone roared.
It wasn't easy growing up a Cub fan in Chicago, because one in every 10 kids was a Sox fan. Of course, Cub fans paid them no heed, which infuriated Sox fans even more. I'm not sure why I even gravitated towards the Cubs (clearly, I wasn't jumping on any bandwagons). The first time I went to a baseball game, my uncle, a Sox fan, took me to old Comiskey Park. I keep racking my brain, trying to remember after all these years, why the Cubs? Why not the Sox? And I keep coming back to Ernie Banks. At a young age, he was my first hero, and I'm not sure I've had any since.
Banks was the second oldest of 12 children. His high school didn't have a baseball team. He never played minor league baseball, and was the Cubs first African American player. I learned everything I could about Banks to fight fire with fire with my White Sox friends. And when the Cubs were at Wrigley, I would rush home from school, turn on WGN, and catch the final innings of every home game. And I would wait and watch for Ernie Banks to come to the plate.
"So, tell me about yourself, Bob."
Did I hear right? Ernie Banks was asking me a question?
"Come on now, don't be shy."
"Well," I said, "I'm a college student, just making my yearly trek to Wrigley."
"A college student? I wish I could have gone to college. When I was your age, I was in the Army, stationed in Germany."
I tried to make conversation, but my brain was standing in the way. Finally, I got something out.
"Germany?" I said. "I hear they have good beer."
With that, Ernie Banks tilted his head back, smiled wide, and roared with laughter.
As I grew older, the years of frustration with the Cubs kept building. I tried to distance myself. There was just no reason to keep putting myself through this. I got a job, got married, began raising a family, and moved on in life to things like Michael Jordan and the Bulls. Oh, about that family: I really didn't care if the children were born boys or girls. I just wanted them to be healthy. And I wanted them to be named after Cubs. And there was no better Cub than Mr. Cub himself.
As years went by, I would tell my son tales about Ernie Banks.
"You know, he hit 41, 43, 44, 45, and 47 home runs, playing shortstop!"
"The man played in 14 All-Star games. 14!"
"One year, he hit five grand slams!"
"And he was winning Gold Gloves!"
"MVP in 1958. And 1959. First National Leaguer to ever go back to back!"
I had the Banks story down pat, just as I had Jack and the Beanstalk and the Three Little Pigs. It was required bedtime reading.
"So what are you studying in college?" Banks asked me.
"Broadcasting," I said.
"Really? What do you want to do?"
I was in much better form now.
I want to be at the mic when the Cubs win the World Series."
There went the head, here came the smile, and now he was really laughing.
"Well, you're young enough, where you might just see it happen."
I laughed. If I only knew how long it would take.
"Why don't you show me what you've got?"
"Huh?" I asked.
"Give me a little play by play. Come on now."
I glazed at the field, and took a deep breath.
"Ray Burris toes the rubber. He checks the runner at first, and gets the sign from the catcher. Here's the pitch. Swing and a long fly ball to left. (I paused. Was it possible that the one pitch I was calling would be the Cubs giving up a home run? This could not be.) Kingman is back at the track. He's got it! Burris pitches out of the jam! We head to the bottom of the 5th, tied at three."
With that, Ernie Banks didn't tilt his head, and he didn't laugh. He just smiled.
It was Opening Day, 2014. The Phillies were in town. I was busy at work when my phone rang.
"Dad, are you watching the Cubs?" my oldest son asked.
"No, not yet," I said "The game doesn't start for a half hour, and besides, I'm working (as if that would stop me)."
"Stop what you are doing, and turn it on now."
I walked over to the television area, and turned on the Cubs.
And there they were. Banks, Billy Williams and Ryne Sandberg, together on the mound, arm in arm, throwing out the first ball.
I rushed back to the phone.
"Call your brothers," I said. "We may never see this again."
"I already have dad. They wanted to make sure I called you."
I hung up the phone and looked at the television. Where had all the years gone?
"Well, I guess it's time to go Bob. It sure was nice visiting with you."
Ernie was now standing. I realized at that moment there was so much I would have liked to say, but I was incapable of it.
"Mr. Banks, I just wanted you to know, just wanted to tell you....."
But then he was being whisked away. I stood and stared. People mobbed him as he walked up the bleacher steps. He turned one last time, looked my way, and we both waved.
And as I stood there, I realized I had just spent 15 minutes of my life that would stick with me forever.
I was driving my son home from college just before Christmas when we heard on the radio that Ernie Banks would not be attending the upcoming Cubs convention. Instantly, the chills went thru my body. How old was he now? My mind started racing. Ernie never missed one of those conventions. He lived for them.
I turned the radio off. The car was quiet for a few miles.
"What do you think, Dad?" my son asked
"I think I'm not ready for this yet," I said.
We kept driving. "Dad, the Cubs need to do it soon. Ernie Banks isn't getting any younger."
"None of us are son," I said. "None of us are."
My son is right. This is on the Cubs now. We've lost Santo. We've lost Banks. An entire generation of Cub fans leaves this world every day. If the Ricketts family isn't prepared to do whatever it takes to get the Cubs into the World Series, they should sell the team to somebody who is. They always say Chicago is a Bears town. Let me tell you something: The '85 Bears can be the greatest team of all-time, and millions of fans will turn out in freezing temperatures to watch a parade pass the Sears Tower. The Bulls and Michael can roll up six NBA titles and party in Grant Park until the wee hours, and the Blackhawks can play Chelsea Dagger until the cows come home, but nothing, NOTHING, will compare to the day the Cubs sit on floats and parade through downtown Chicago. You want to know why Jon Lester is in Chicago instead of Boston, or Frisco, or Hollywood? Because he understands what all Cub fans understand:
Winning the World Series with the Cubs is the Hope Diamond. It is the biggest and most sought after trophy in the world. The players that ride on that float, on that day, will forever be immortalized.
Ernie Banks needed to be on that float, smiling. And now he won't be. The clock is ticking.
I got the news about Ernie Banks passing from my son, the one who bears his name. He happened to be in Chicago for the weekend. It was late night, and I walked downstairs where I have Cub memorabilia hanging on my wall. The house was quiet. I looked around and smiled, feeling a little sad, and a little old. Before I left, I picked up some of my grandson's toys to put in the closet. I opened the door, turned on the light, and began putting the toys away, when I saw it out of the corner of my eye. The one baseball I had saved all these years. A sparkling white rawlings signed by my friend for a few wonderful minutes, Ernie Banks. Like many other keepsakes, I had tucked it away, and not seen or thought of it in years.
I tilted back my head, smiled, and laughed out loud.
Bob Cyphers is a life-long Cubs fan and contributor to the upcoming "Cubs Tracker" app.