My Ernie

My Ernie

“Baseball, it is said, is only a game.  True.  And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona.  Not all holes, or games are created equal.”  – George Will

I never thought about being a Cub’s fan.  It was as natural to me as being a girl.  I just was.  My dad and mom were Cub’s fans and baseball was as much a part of summer as kids squirting hoses at each other in order to cool off on particularly hot days.  My brothers played little league and going to games and swinging on the looped saddle strap swings at the play-ground, all while waiting for the pop to be served up out of the coolers in the back of my parent’s station wagon when the game was over, was just what we did. 

Suburban Chicago had its rules about baseball team loyalty and you either were north side or south side, which pre-determined that the Cubs were our team.   Games on the radio occupied every afternoon at our house and a shriek of delight or a groan of disappointment punctuated the back-ground noise of life.  Baseball was played in the day-time and you could go into any gas station or diner and hear a baseball game on the radio.  Even though it would not have occurred to me to pick a team, I did pick a player and mine was Ernie Banks.

My Dad loved Ron Santo because he was a bit of a tart.  He was built like my Dad, sort of fire-plug frame with a fierce determination that could be seen as Ronnie took his stance at third base just daring the hitter to crash a grounder his way.  Santo’s joy was exuberant though when exhibited, and he took to clicking his heels as he ran from the field to the locker room at the end of a game.  It was this spit and swagger that drew my Dad.  Ernie wasn’t like that at all. He had no swagger but rather a love of baseball that just seemed palpable to me, so I had dibs on Ernie.  

I memorized Ernie’s stance at the plate and would wiggle my fingers on an air bat whenever he was up.  I couldn’t wait to see the mechanics of a swing that I would later learn was odd, but as a girl thought perfection – his loopy long legs and an almost casual stance with a big bat swing that was effortless.  Home-runs that were more line drives than high arcs, made every Ernie Banks at-bat a moment of copy-cat anticipation.

My grandmother, also a baseball fan, made me an Ernie Banks doll that was complete with jersey and belt and I would take it to games, riding the Addison bus from Cumberland to Waveland with my brothers and later with my high-school girl friend Karen.  I would stand at the dug-out during batting practice, something you didn’t miss if you were a kid, and I would wave the doll at Ernie and scream his name over and over again:  “Ernie, Ernie, Ernie” waiting for the grin.  I got it one time.  A bright flash of teeth and a smile I’ll never forget, as Ernie locked eyes with me as a waved my doll over my head.  He ran off the field to get ready for the game and I was absolutely certain that he would play that game for me.  The game was against the ‘lousy rottin’ stinkin’ Mets’ and if you don’t know why then you were not a Cub’s fan back then.  We won.  Oh glorious day!

     You could say that players like Ernie Banks are becoming rare these days.  Loving a sport not because of your ego, or your fame, but just loving the game, but I think you would be wrong.  Baseball is as primordial as George Will has pointed out.  A man stands on a hill and hurls a rock toward a man with a wooden club.  They are both daring each other to do something – ‘Come on Meat – bring it.’ as Kostner whispered in ‘Bull Durham.’ Baseball is patient and long with a burst of energy and wait for it and a crack and a pounding of hooves and a catch and a slide. Calculation and chess-like strategy that deserves our respect born of joy of the game is what Ernie Banks made visible.  He wore it in his eyes, his smile, his interviews, his at-bats, his easy fielding of a grounder to first or the stretched out grab of a liner. I could feel this when I was five.  

     Baseball fans love the patience of the game and the intelligent science of collaboration mixed with individuality.  And as much a game of wits and geometry as whomp and crrrack, the parlay of ball and glove and arm and stride is just plain elegant to watch.  You learn to love baseball at a young age – and this is nurtured over time. An appreciation of the game is hard to explain to latecomers.  Hasn’t every baseball fan heard the words boring, tiring, and slow used to describe a game that they don’t understand or appreciate?  How do you explain the touch of the arm or the sidelong glance, or the slow motion slide and tag and the flash from the outfield or the second baseman’s signal or the sound of ball to glove or the sweat dripping while waiting for the hurl toward the batter that could kill him but he doesn’t move or the dig of the dirt and the sudden sprint or the long lazy run and the think and the brawn all in a pin striped uniform with cleated shoes.  Loving baseball is like good wine that has aged – I learned to love it as a little girl because my brothers strapped balls into gloves at night to soften the leather while they got ready for the next game. 

 I can still see the flash of Ernie’s smile in my direction on one hot summer day of my childhood.  Thank you Ernie.  It is indeed a beautiful day.    

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