It was a frigid, late mid-April evening in Chicago in 2002. As I hopped off the L train on the Northside, my heart leaped. A Cubs fan since elementary school, I was beyond excited to finally visit Wrigley Field.
However, I was also on a mission. I was a sports writer for the Pine Bluff Commercial, and as a condition of my five days of working vacation, I was asked by my editor to write a column.
The Cubs granted me field access with the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field, and my plan was to write about the showdown between sluggers Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa.
I wasn’t naive enough to think I could get an interview with either superstar, so as I walked down the concrete steps onto the freshly manicured grass behind home plate, I tried to find a neutral party that would have a good take on both superstars.
My eye caught Joe Carter behind the cage watching the end of batting practice. Carter, a one-time Cubs player and hero for the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1993 World Series, was then a color commentator for the Cubs WGN-TV broadcasts. I sauntered over to him and introduced myself. He made it apparent that he wasn’t interested. “I have to get ready to go up to the booth,” he said. Then, he turned to another friend and talked about making a golf tee time the next day.
I owe Carter big time because he did me a favor with the cold shoulder. As I regrouped, I noticed Ernie Banks, “Mr. Cub” himself, chatting with a Japanese television crew. I knew my window was closing as pregame activities were winding down. I finally made my move. Banks greeted me with a warm smile and cheerfully agreed to an interview. “Can we do it in here?” Banks asked, motioning toward the Cubs dugout where several heaters were positioned to keep the players warm as temperatures were expected to dip below freezing.
We retreated to the dugout where Banks carefully maneuvered his large frame down the dugout steps. Even in his 70s, his legs, which helped power many a home run, were bulging. From the beginning, his kindness and enthusiasm stood out. His answers were thoughtful and articulate. He made me feel like it was a privilege to be interviewed by me.
While I had no idea I’d be interviewing Banks, I was prepared. Years of reading baseball history books prepped me for this moment. I knew most of Banks’ stats and career highlights by memory. He took me back to July 3, 1969, when Chicago was in the middle of a heatwave. As temperatures hovered over 100, Banks entered the clubhouse to see a room full of uninspired teammates. That’s when he said he yelled, “It’s a great day, let’s play two!”
His eyes lit up as he told that story (he told four different versions of the popular catchphrase’s origination to different sources). As he delivered the punchline and pumped his fist, a couple of young, freezing clubhouse attendants looked at the old man like he was nuts.
We covered a lot of subjects in that 20 minutes, which seemed like two hours. From his love of the Cubs organization to modern players’ attitudes to the high-priced salaries and more. To his credit, Banks never wrapped me up, looked at his watch or hurried me along. But I noticed the batting cage was being pushed off the field and knew the players would start reluctantly trickling into the dugout, so I started to end the interview. That’s when Banks said something to me I will never forget and earned my adoration forever, if he didn’t already have it.
“Man, that was fun! Let’s do it again sometime,” he exclaimed loudly with a big grin.
“Sure,” I said. And with that, we shook hands, and he made his way up the dugout steps. I took a moment and just sat in the Cubs dugout, staring at the large old-time scoreboard in center field. I could hardly believe what had happened. After grabbing some gum and sunflower seeds, I, too, left the dugout bench. I stood on the top step in time to see Sosa emerge. I snapped a picture, and he scowled at me angrily as he saw the flash go off. I hurriedly left the field and found my seat. I found it ironic that one of the greatest players of all-time gave me an extended interview but Sosa was pissed that I took his picture. That’s exactly the kind of attitude Banks and I had discussed with about the modern-day player.
As you can imagine, I was melancholically learning of Banks’ death while surfing the web late Friday night. I wasn’t alone. He made such a big influence during his time in Chicago that the entire city was in mourning, Cubs fan or not. Really, his influence was felt all around baseball. Banks, 83, was a great player, but as I found out that night, he was a better person, and that is why he will be greatly missed.