Before the Arizona Diamondbacks came into existence, I was a Cubs fan. One of the hardest things in my life was taking off my Cubs jersey and setting it aside for a purple and teal Diamondbacks jersey. I had grown up in rural Idaho but one of the few luxuries we had was WGN radio that would somehow traverse the atmosphere after dark. While the Cubs games were all finished for the day, we at least could hear the recaps of the games.
The first Major League Baseball game I ever attended was a day game at Wrigley Field where the wind was blowing out making a pitching duel impossible. Walking the crowded concourse and peering out at the ivy walls and the manual scoreboard it was the most perfect setting in the world and cemented baseball as a cornerstone of my life.
When I moved to Arizona I was most excited about cactus league baseball every spring. As often as I could I would get tickets to Hohokam stadium and stand along the Cubs faithful cheering on the team at a time of year when it still seemed like the Cubbies had a chance to be good.
The Cubs players always seemed more approachable than other teams. Maybe it was just a perception but it felt as though they had a connection with those buying tickets.
It wasn’t just the current crop of players that were that way. Some of the Cubs greats made themselves available. On spring day in Mesa as I was walking along the concourse looking for something to eat before the game I happened across a fellow Cubs fan (or so I thought). We began talking about the team, Wrigley Field, and our love for baseball. I couldn’t help thinking that this fan looked really familiar.
As we talked I noticed others pointing and waving to this fan. Suddenly like a bolt of lightning it hit me. This wasn’t just a Cubs fan; this was Mr. Cub himself. Me, a nobody from nowhere in particular was talking to Ernie Banks! My face must have been something because Mr. Banks began to chuckle at my realization.
For the next several minutes we talked about his playing days and what it was like to play among the greats. From his demeanor you would never have guessed he was a Hall of Famer. He was as kind and lovable as your next-door neighbor or your best friend.
It was one of the great memories I have and one that will stay with me my whole life. When I heard of his passing my mind went back to that day I had the pleasure of meeting a legend. His eyes sparkled like a magician as he talked about the game, the team, and the city he loved. His personality was infectious and you couldn’t help but love the game and the man once you met him.
I was just one of countless thousands whose lives were touched by brief encounters. He was more than a player, he was an amazing human being and the world has become a sadder place with his passing. Thanks Mr. Banks for the time you took those many years ago and making me appreciate the game and its players and who they are as people.