Today, the baseball world is abuzz with the news of the passing of Ernie Banks. With all due respect to the great-in-so-many-ways Ron Santo, there is only one person who was known as “Mr. Cub”. And, although it would be nonsense to compare my one experience with the memories that he brought to countless Cub fans over the years – if for no other reason than the fact that I never actually saw him play – I can honestly say that Ernie Banks was a part of one of my most memorable days of baseball ever.
It was the spring of 1994, and my brother-in-law Phil was coming up from Kansas for a few days…and one of the things he suggested was the possibility of a trip down to Chicago to take in a Cubs game. Donna and I had only been to Wrigley once, and we thought that a return trip would be a very good idea indeed. I called in a ticket order for “the best seats you have”, figuring that if Phil was going to make just one trip to Wrigley, we might as well go all-in. And so the three of us drove to Chicago (or, more accurately, Skokie; the Skokie Swift line and its subsequent connection to the Metra Red Line is definitely the wiser way to go for any cheeseheads invading Wrigley from the north).
It was a beautiful, sunny day when we arrived, if a bit on the cool side…about as good as you could ask for in early May. As for the seats…directly behind home plate, with the players’ wives seated just a couple of rows in front of us…yeah, that good. Inasmuch as the Cubs, one month into the season, had yet to win a game at home, it was apparent that the locals may have already started to give up hope. Anyhow…as we had some time to spare, we decided to take a walk around and explore the Friendly Confines.
As we worked our way around the stadium, we could hear a ruckus outside the ballpark. Looking outside, we saw a clean-cut if rather rowdy group of young men leading a goat wrapped in a blanket bearing a Cubs logo; the guys – who turned out to be a group of seminary students from Wisconsin – kept chanting “We got the goat! We got the goat!” (A point of reference for anybody out there who does not follow baseball: Legend has it that the Cubbies’ woes can be attributed to a long-ago curse laid upon the team by a fan upset over Cubs management and their refusal to admit his pet goat to a game.) And then, a couple of moments later, a different chant arose from the same group: “Ernie, save the Cubs! Ernie, save the Cubs!” Of course, being at Wrigley, the single name “Ernie” could only refer to one person – and, sure enough, we saw Ernie Banks chatting with the group a moment later. Whatever the guys said to Ernie must have been highly persuasive, though; a little while later, the goat and his handlers were parading around the field. Funny stuff – and, apparently, it worked, as the Cubs won their first home game of the year.
But, for me, there was one more memory of that game, and it was just as vivid. As I have noted, we were seated directly behind home plate – and the screen that is designed to protect the fans from those lightning-fast foul tips that fly straight back off the bats of the players. So, of course, the chances of a foul ball coming our way were pretty much nil.
I do not remember who was at bat. I do remember a foul ball flying off the bat and taking an odd bounce off of the metal facade on the third-base side. And, Holy Jesus, it is coming straight at us! Instinctively, I knew my best chance of catching it based on where I was would be to hope it hit the floor and then to snag it on the bounce. That part of the plan was a good call. The bounce back up was not quite as high as it could have been, though, so I shot my hand straight down to pin it to the concrete.
I could feel the ball under my hand. Unfortunately, part of the ball was covered by human fingers. I had been beat, fair and square. I kept my hand on the ball, probably a second or two longer than I really needed to, before I finally let go. Looking back, I saw two giggly teenage girls, giddy with their sudden good fortune. And I immediately turned away; I did not want them to see the look that was surely in my eyes. I had never before come anywhere near snagging a ball at a ballpark – and, for that matter, I have not done so again to this day. Yes, the Cubs won, and yes, I had a lot of fun that day…but for all that, I was still pretty glum as I boarded the train a little while later.
One of the things I have always loved about baseball to this very day is its capability to bring out the little kid in me – both by its highs and its lows.
Somehow, I think Ernie would understand.