Friday, May 18, 2012

Baseball and Ernie Banks

I grew up idolizing Ernie Banks. In the basement of my three-story apartment building on the North Side of Chicago, I would practice his stance, his swing, his stoop at the shoulder. I would imagine how the number 14 would look on my back, how his cleats would feel on my feet. I would stand in the batter’s box, gripping the bat with the barrel pointed straight to the sky, fingering the neck with a loose flutter of anticipation while the pitcher looks in for the sign. I would stand there, practicing my stance, gazing at the imaginary hurler, waiting on the fastball. I would adjust my uniform (usually my pajamas, but they did the trick), hunch my back and crane my neck out slightly, just like Ernie. “The Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field.” , “It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame, let’s play two.” His demeanor was so embracing and warm; he was the only player I have looked up to as a human being, not merely as a ballplayer. A few years ago, I saw him interviewed on a talk show. The interviewer asked him what his most memorable experience was in baseball. Ernie told him that in July, I think 1967, he had hurt himself and been pulled out of the lineup for a couple of days. On this particular day, he was invited to watch the game from the press box, and he accepted. The Cubs had been last, perennially, throughout the years. They had been proclaimed “the doormat of the National League,” and every year, the Cubs lived up to their reputation. They were competitive, but never winners, and had not been in first place in years (I own a shirt says, “World Champion Chicago Cubs, 1908.” It’s my favorite shirt, but that gives you an idea…). Well, during this stretch in that July, the Cubs had been tied for first place. Their best pitcher, Ferguson Jenkins, a Hall of Famer, was on the mound. If the Cubs won, and the team they were tied with lost, the Cubs—the embattled, always lousy Chicago Cubs—would be in first place for the first time since God made dirt. Fergie pitched beautifully, and the Cubs won handily. For the first time in years, the Cubs were in first place. The Cubs’ flag, finally, was hoisted to the top of the pole over the scoreboard, signifying their climb into first place in the National League. Ernie said that he stood in the press box and watched the fans in the stadium. He noted that they all had stayed. They stayed to watch that flag go up the pole, to watch something that hadn’t been done in decades. The fans watched as their team ascended the mountaintop, and they all let out a thunderous roar when the Cub pennant finally took its place above the rest. Ernie told the interviewer how proud he was, and how he became so filled with emotion, sharing this moment with the rest of the stadium. Right then it occurred to me, as also noticed by the interviewer, that the Great Ernie Banks had just described his greatest moment in professional baseball. And he didn’t play in the game. His greatest moment in baseball came during a game that he merely watched but shared with the thousands of spectators in the ballpark. How wonderful that Ernie, a Hall of Famer himself, in reflecting on the finest moment of his career, chose as his greatest experience seeing his teammates and the fans in the park share this unforgettable moment together. In the absence of ego, great joy is born. The heart of this game is embodied within him, and this spirit is held within my love of baseball, and the Chicago Cubs.

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