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This already has been a tough year, sportswise, with the passing of Stuart Scott on January 4. And now, before the first month of the year is even in the books, the Chicago Cubs — and the game of baseball — have lost one of their great ambassadors. Ernie Banks, who will forever be remembered as Mr. Cub, died Friday at the age of 83.
A memory I’ll cherish forever happened in the summer of 2013, when Pearl Jam played a concert at Wrigley Field. A storm blew in after the band had played six or seven songs, and everyone cleared out to wait for the rain to pass. As the rain continued to fall, and the beer flowed from the concession stands, the band tweeted out their intention to return to the stage. So we all kept waiting while nature did its thing.
A few minutes after midnight, the band returned to the stage and Eddie Vedder swung for the emotional fences. He was wearing a Jose Cardenal jersey, and he had an acoustic guitar around his neck. He told the story of how he came to write his Cubs anthem “All the Way” at the suggestion of Ernie Banks. The way that Ed put it, “When Ernie Banks tells you to do something, you do it.” Summing up the experience of being a Cubs fan was a daunting task, but the result is a powerful concoction of love and hope. And Ernie Banks lit the match that brought that song to life.
Just when I thought that singing that song out loud, with Eddie Vedder and 40,000 like-minded people on a summer night while standing inside Wrigley Field couldn’t possibly get any sweeter, it did. Ernie Banks himself was introduced, and an outpouring of love and respect ensued.
That night, Ernie Banks received a lifetime achievement award, of sorts. He was once the leader of the Cubs on the field, and then he became the standard bearer for the entire franchise. He didn’t have to prove anything to anybody and yet there he was, inspiring generations of fans to love the game and the team in the same way he did.
Ernie Banks thanked everyone for coming out to “his house,” and then joined in the singing of a few bars of the song that owes its existence to him. For about three minutes, I told myself that if heaven does exist, it couldn’t be any better than what I was experiencing in that moment.
Go ahead and point out that Ernie Banks never won, or even played for, a World Series title. I know that, and he knew that, and everyone in the ballpark that night knew that, too. But it didn’t matter one little bit. His love for the game still burned strong, and his hope that “Next Year” would arrive some day endured, just like it always had before.
I’m sad that Ernie Banks passed away before his beloved team — the only one he ever played for — finally goes “all the way.” But I’m very grateful to him, and to Eddie Vedder, for reminding me that baseball is about so much more than winning a championship.
Godspeed to you, Mr. Cub.