News of Ernie Banks’ passing Friday night shocked me.
Nobody that relentlessly upbeat could be part of such a bummer.
I never thought Ernie was immortal to the point he would be saying “Let’s play two’’ until the planet exploded into a trillion pieces, but I never thought he would die.
Weird parsing of human capabilities, I know. But that’s the way it felt with Ernie, no matter that Death remains undefeated.
Along with the shock Friday night came sadness and regret.
Guilt because I thought his glorious personality was an act. Maybe not entirely an act like Sammy Sosa’s “Flintstones vitamins’’ manure, but I first thought Ernie was milking it.
I mean, nobody could be that full of ebullience and that absent of guile, right?
Yeah, that’s me, the cynic. The guy who says the No. 1 Rule in Life is Follow The Money. Covering the actors and schemers and cheaters in sports will forge that kind of outlook.
I’m not saying that’s a healthy outlook, but it’s mine and it’s pretty irreversible.
From afar, then, Banks and his “Mr. Cub ‘’ persona looked like a profit center.
The operative phrase is “from afar.’’
For whatever reason, I never had reason to interview Banks or even share a Wrigley Field dugout bench the way I had with his former teammates Billy Williams and Ron Santo.
I certainly knew his numbers, especially the 512 home runs and two MVPs as a shortstop. I’m a Willie Mays guy, and here was Ernie winning back-to-back MVPs when Mays was the best player in baseball and Hank Aaron was leading the Braves to consecutive World Series.
I had seen Ernie on TV and heard him on radio. I had a pretty good idea what he was going to say. We all did, give or take the choice of song he invariably would break into.
There was a lot of schmaltz, and that was fine. That, in fact, was necessary. That’s what the ambassador for the banana republic of Cub Nation is supposed to provide.
And then out of nowhere and out of context, I walked into my Ernie Banks moment.
It came many Christmas seasons ago in Los Angeles as I was leaving a golf course with my former father-in-law. Here came Ernie with a friend, hauling his clubs, older than me and in better shape by a lot.
I went tourist. I just blurted it out: “Ernie Banks.’’
Like he didn’t know who he was.
And then I found out who he was, and it was legit.
He could have kept going. Maybe offered a “Hey’’ and kept walking the way I’ve seen some “names’’ big-time the public. He had nothing to gain by being nice. He was a Chicago icon, and this was L.A. Who would know if he blew off a couple mopes? Who would care?
But Ernie immediately stopped and put down his bag, a move that suggested this might take a while. He asked how we were doing, how our golf game went, how about this wonderful weather in December.
I told Ernie I was from Chicago and it was surprising to run into him in Southern California. He said he needed to get his old bones somewhere warm at that time of year, but he would be back in Chicago for baseball season. He expected a big year from the Cubs. Of course he did.
I glanced at Ernie’s golf partner, looking for a sign of impatience. Nothing. Whoever accompanied Ernie knew the deal. Ernie worked a room, and it was always his room, I was finding out.
Reading back on those last several paragraphs, it looks thin. Insubstantial. That’s my fault. I cannot do literary justice to that feeling. I didn’t get played; I got Ernie’d. I experienced him.
It doesn’t matter whether Ernie knew you, because Ernie knew you.
There have been a lot of people writing memories of Banks this weekend. It will continue, and it should. Banks’ exuberant manner is all about the retelling.
Many people have far more memories of the Cubs legend than I do. I hope those people appreciate how lucky they were.
I felt lucky getting just that one moment. Thanks, Ernie.