It’s one thing to meet athletes as athletes, dressed in their heroic garb, as the people we see on TV.
It’s an entirely different, far more endearing situation when you actually meet the man/woman behind the myth.
A couple of years ago, I had the honor of meeting the late Ernie Banks with my friend Ricky while we were working a shift at the Bolingbrook Golf Club (where Ernie is an honorary member).
It was a rainy afternoon, and we hadn’t gotten much traffic on the tee box. Naturally, Rick and I started preparing to close up shop early. As we were about to finish up, we noticed two men walking around the corner towards the front door. Instantly we began our obligatory bitching and moaning – because despite the fact we weren’t technically open, we still had to interact with the customer. In hindsight, this bit of selfishness helped put the entire situation into perspective.
As the first gentleman approached the door, I did my best to try and remain out of sightline as possible. Eventually I unlocked the door and explained to him that we were closed due to inclement weather and I wouldn’t be able to let him onto the driving range.
He promptly let me know that he wasn’t there to golf. He didn’t even have clubs on him. It was at that time the second man, an elderly gentleman who was clearly moving a bit slower, strolled towards the door.
It was Ernie Banks.
The legendary Mr. Cub, standing right in front of me? In street clothes?
I was awestruck.
I recognized him instantly, as if I was slobbering over some mythical superhero. Ernie’s friend (clearly poking at our age) says, “Do you know who this is? This is Ernie Banks.”
Oh, I know. Let me just grab my jaw off the floor. “Mr. Banks, it’s a true honor. My name is Brian.”
Ernie’s friend explained that Mr. Banks had been a member of the course for many years (which I had known), yet he had never seen the Academy area of the course.
Now, the Golf Academy at Bolingbrook is a small, intimate setting. It’s simply a log-cabin designed building with the basic essentials.
Within these narrow walls, Ricky, Ernie, Ernie’s friend and I proceeded to talk golf and baseball for nearly an hour; with rain pelting the windows, it was my version of a page ripped out of a storybook.
It was just us four, huddled around, talking about the basics of the game. We didn’t ask about his career. We didn’t ask for pictures or autographs.
At that moment, for that one hour, Ricky and I were students of Mr. Cub.
Unfortunately, it was apparent that Ernie Banks wasn’t fully there. I mean, he was 81 at the time. But I’ll tell you, when it came to talking about his passions in life (golf and baseball), he couldn’t stop.
On that rainy, dreadful day, my hero Ernie Banks became more than just a legendary ball player. I learned in our short time together that he was first and foremost a legendary human being.
The world lost a piece of history Friday night, and Chicago baseball will never be the same.
Rest in peace, Mr. Cub.
(Featured Photo courtesy of White House Photographer)