I met Ernie Banks at a Ronald McDonald Children's Charity golf tournament when I was eleven. Michael Jordan was hosting the tournament over Labor Day weekend in 1992, and he invited an elite group of fellow athletes. My neighbor worked for Waste Management and got me a job as a trash collector for the weekend. I basically got paid to watch celebrities tee off or putt (depending where I was working on a given day) and collect autographs. Occasionally, I had to change the liner in the trash can when it got full.
The second day of the event I worked one of the greens on the back nine. When Michael Jordan got to this green, he was surrounded by hundreds of spectators. No one was allowed to get near him, though, and he wasn't signing autographs until Labor Day. I could barely get a good look at Air Jordan because there were so many people around, and I was a little kid.
When his group left, there was a break in the action. The next group to tee off wasn't scheduled to show up for another half hour. I checked my schedule and saw that Ernie Banks was up next. A few weeks earlier, my uncle had given me an Ernie Banks 1968 Topps baseball card for my birthday. I had the card with me and was preparing to have to fight through a swarm of onlookers to obtain Mr. Cub's signature. I thought that if Michael Jordan had a hundred people following him, Ernie Banks would have at least a thousand.
When I saw the next group of golfers on the horizon, lining up their shots and hoping to reach the green, I was confused. There were about a half dozen people on the fairway, so I figured it wasn't the group with which Ernie Banks was golfing. It couldn't have been. Where were all the Cubs fans? I asked one of the supervisors if Ernie Banks was in that group. He looked at his schedule and said, "Yeah, he should be."
The group got to the green and sure enough, Mr. Cub was with them, the biggest smile I've ever seen stretched across his face. I froze. I didn't say anything to him when he finished his putt. He walked past me and smiled, his cheeks puffed like two doughnut holes. He tipped his cap and walked to the next tee. I kept still.
I had told the supervisor about the baseball card I had brought. He came up to me and asked if I had gotten it signed. I shook my head, and he asked me why I hadn't. I shrugged. I was still in complete awe of having been in the presence of Ernie Banks, Cub legend. Mr. Cub had acknowledged me!
The supervisor took me by the hand, and we jogged to the next tee. Ernie Banks had just hit his tee shot, and the group was preparing to walk the fairway to retrieve their golf balls. The supervisor asked Ernie if he'd be willing to sign my baseball card. Ernie turned around, that friendly smile still on his face, and said, "Of course!"
He asked me how I was doing (I nodded), if I was a Cubs fan (Of course!), if I played baseball (yes), and what position I played (third base).
"Ah, the hot corner!" He said. He signed my baseball card, shook my hand, and told me to have a great day. And I did. I had an ear-to-ear smile for the rest of the weekend. When he spoke to me, he seemed like he could have been my neighbor, or someone from church. He was a regular person, not a Hall of Fame baseball legend.
When I started writing this, the Cubs were in a rain delay. I re-watched the pregame ceremonies here and was going to simply post the video, not knowing how long the delay would last. The video is an unveiling of the new Ernie Banks statue outside of Wrigley Field. I can't wait to go back home and see it this summer. I just hope that Wrigley Field is still named Wrigley Field when I finally do get back.