Monday, January 26, 2015

Now Ernie will urge them to play two in heaven

“Let’s play two!” the kind, old gentleman said to St. Pete the other day.

 Perhaps as some folks speculate, they always play doubleheaders in heaven…. I’ll probably never find out for a variety of reasons, the least of which is poor hand-eye coordination …. I know that on that slice of Chicago green called Wrigley Field that’s all  the gentle and genteel first baseman wanted.  Doubleheaders.

“It’s a beautiful day. Let’s play two,” Ernie Banks would say often as he worked his bat (a slight enough guy, he did hit 512 homers), or whipped the ball around the infield as a shortstop and later a first baseman.

“Mr. Cub,” as he was known throughout baseball, died Friday night at 83 years of age.  I’m 63 now and the fact I can remember scores of games attended with Ernie at the plate or with his glove … and his smile …. Means I’m pretty old too….  More a relic of late fall than a boy of summer, for, after all …. Mr. Cub retired in 1971, almost 44 baseball seasons ago.

And I can remember like it was well, at least some hazy replica of yesterday (when all my troubles seemed so far away, etc.) when watching this almost dainty-footed ballplayer dance around the bases or throw across to Ronnie Santo at third to … most times … get some lousy Mets or Reds player out.  Rose wants to slide in head-first? Hit him in the face with your glove, Ronnie.

Wrigley Field has, of course, been deemed the trendy place to see ballgames in the last few decades. Except for the blasphemy committed when lights were installed, Wrigley’s sort of the pastoral, vine-walled diamond that time forgot and where the Cubs never really learned how to win.  For generations younger than mine, it is a great place to buy a $10 Old Style and a lukewarm hot dog and enjoy an evening without really caring who wins as long as your iPhone is charged.  These selfie-centered folks are there to be seen.

 Me, I rarely had time for the lukewarm hot dogs on those great spring and summer afternoons at Wrigley Field.  I was too busy keeping hope alive. It always was a beautiful day for a ballgame when I could stop by the players’ entrance on Waveland Avenue and get a greeting or a handshake from Ernie or from Ronnie.  Ferguson Jenkins (who spent some off-seasons with the Harlem Globetrotters). Billy Williams. Randy Hundley. Don Kessinger. Jimmy Hickman …

Remember the Twiggy Hartenstein-Don Drysdale pitchers’ duel on the front end of Billy Williams Day’s doubleheader? Perhaps the Koufax-Hendley rivalry a few years prior? Gotta love the Ghost, even if he was a denizen of Chavez Ravine.  

No need to sneak past armed security to ask for autographs, as these guys – in those wonder years of the pre-9/11 world – would stand among you and your buddies like human beings.

“Let’s play two!” we’d yell at Ernie as he arrived. Or as he left after the Cubs lost one. … Let’s play two. Get ‘em next time.

Hope. The final frontier, as far as I’m concerned.  Usually it is fruitless to hope.  But how could you not when this slender No. 14 with the seemingly oversized first-baseman’s mitt was around to spread optimism in the beautiful confines of Wrigley Field.

  It hurt when I learned that Ernie Banks had died Friday.  A lot. I mean, he was old and everything, but that single act assured one thing: The most-popular Cub of all time never would play in a World Series …. Or see his team play in one (depending on what the afterlife holds in store, of course).

Ernie almost made the World Series in 1969.  We all did. How many afternoons did Jimmy Hart and I climb into the old Falcon or take the train down to the neighborhood near Wrigleyville, park, walk a few blocks and pay $1.25 for a bleacher seat?

Left-field bleachers were not the territory of digital-technology millionaires and their arm-candy lackeys back then. It was where the guys went who loved the game but didn’t have a lot of money to spare.   

Another buck and half and you could, or at least so I was told, buy your first illegal beers at age 17. Or was that 14? No ID? No problem.  Or so I’ve been told.

It was back then that the Cubs were going to be World Series champions, almost destroying their myth.

There was no goat, Bambino’s ghost or anything to blame, but the Cubs always finished well down in the standings.  There was joy in Mudville… I mean Wrigleyville … that summer.  I’d go to the games to cheer my favorites, as in seasons past. But this was special.  Hope. Hell, they got it in the bag.  Don’t they?

Ronnie “Pizza Man” Santo -- with his heel-clicking dance to the locker room after yet one more Cubs victory – was really my all-time favorite boy of summer.   Jack Brickhouse, who like Santo and now Ernie is dead, was the announcer back in those pre-Harry Caray days.

“Hey hey and holy mackerel, no doubt about it, the Cubs are on their way,” he’d sing on WGN after each victory made it seem that the Wrigley dwellers finally were going to play well into the autumn of ‘69.  I’ve got that on 45 rpm around here someplace.

But, as the Mets proved by dismantling the Cubs’ near-insurmountable lead as the season waned, Ernie and Ronnie and the rest truly were Boys of Summer. Period. Not a single Mr. October among them.

 Disappointing, sure. But then so is life. And we learned to cope with that by being devoted fans of the North Siders.

Nowadays, of course, there also are a lot of fans who find it trendy to cheer for the more successful Chicago franchise, the South Siders, the White Sox.   For me, Comiskey Park was only a place to go if the Cubs were out of town.  Hell, I don’t even know what the name of the White Sox field is now.

I long ago lost track of my pal, Jimmy Hart, a year younger than me, but equally interested in sneaking off to the beach at Lake Michigan and puffing Swisher Sweets while sharing a pilfered-from-the-home-fridge Meister Brau.  We worked together that summer at the Park District – where I would try to get the Jeep to literally fly when I gunned it over the top of a hill.  Rat Patrol-style. If you’re old enough, you’ll understand that. If not, well, hell with it. Just read on.

A lot of our time also was spent lining the ballfields for Little League games. No Dixie Youth up there, folks.  I had not yet made the Land of Cotton my home.  It was a simple process back then.  You’d put spikes from where the corners of first were and the corners of second and third and down the foul lines to the home.  Then you’d tie string to each spike, to form a diamond.  And then use that string as your guide while rolling the little pail filled with lime around the field.

I think there are more precise methods now. But I have to admit that lining the fields was my favorite part of my park district job. That and driving the Jeep to the bakery for the daily donut run.  Two bucks an hour and all the donuts you could eat. A great way to live, partly because we went to work before 6 a.m. and got off in the early to mid-afternoon those summer days.  Those summer days…. Wrigley Field was perhaps 25 minutes away.

Catch the last few innings. There were no bastard lights at Wrigley back then.  Baseball was (is?) meant to be played in the sunshine.

That’s where Ernie would be, basking in the sun, a trickle of sweat on his brow, when he’d say “It’s a beautiful day. Let’s play two.”

I know that reality set in when that summer ended… prematurely … with the “Ya Gotta Believe” Mets -- led by singer Tim McGraw’s illegitimate father -- playing successfully through the autumn. The feat by gentlemanly Gil Hodges’ team helped prove that Leo “the Lip” Durocher was wrong. (Does anybody else remember how much fun it was to have “Nice Guys Finish Last” Durocher helming the Cubs while Eddie Stanky managed the Chisox?) Talk about kicked dirt and epic manager-umpire squabbles.  Screw you. Screw me blues.

 I was sad… as usual, I suppose… when the Cubs swooned.  

When that summer ended, I went off to college, to Iowa State University, where I studied hard and had a lot of fun.

Anyway, I was off on the great adventure of growing my hair and hanging out with National Guardsmen and radicals, attending Panther meetings and reading Muhammad Speaks.  Enjoying a late-night philosophic discussion with Allen Ginsberg after he performed most of “Howl” straight through, concert style at C.Y. Stevens Auditorium. Of course I had, as I pointed out, a fair amount of fun, especially at Tork’s. You had to be there when the call for quarters rang out at our table. Jocko. Titsy. Nardholm. Carpy. Dogshit. Schultzy. J-Dub. Eggman.Captain Kirk. Those were among my companions at various times over those years.   Uncle Moose usually had to go home on weekends to tend to the hogs.  Moose is dead now. I have remained in touch with Carpy. And Captain Kirk just sent me an airbrush T-shirt dedicated to a man we all know as “Flapjacks.”  Hear from Nardholm and Titsy’s wife occasionally.

Still, the days of the carefree summers when Jimmy Hart and I would go down to see Ernie Banks and Ronnie Santo play were done. Jimmy “had” to get married that fall. Back then that was what they said when a young woman and a young man made that life-changing “mistake.” Great girl. Great friend. Pretty baby.   Last time I heard from Jimmy he was a social worker in Tampa and his dad had a gas station in Winter Haven. Of course Jimmy was divorced.

So, by the time I got home the next summer, 1970, Jimmy Hart was folding diapers and I was on my own. A complete unknown. Letting my hair grow and hanging out backstage with Vanilla Fudge.  Sometimes shaving at least one side of my face.

Sure, there would be more stealthy trips to Wrigley, where pigeons always seemed to use me for target practice, before I uprooted common sense and made Nashville my forever hometown.  See me wasted on the sidewalk in my jacket and my jeans….to paraphrase my good friend Kris Kristofferson.  Or perhaps “once my future was shiny as the seats of my pants are today….” 

Still that summer of 1969, when the Cubs should have won it all, but faltered, remains among the best summers of my life. Partly it was because I could go see these ballplayers and shake their hands. Partly it was because of the optimism of seeing Billy Williams tag one to left field or Randy Hundley catching the fiery fastballs of Ferguson Jenkins.

Partly it was because it was the summer after I graduated from high school and I’d already been dumped by the girl I took to prom. I didn’t know she had a boyfriend who was away at college. So it was kind of a shock to go to her house the week after I graduated, three weeks after we saw Modern Jazz Quartet on Rush Street after the dance was ended, to see the boy friend. (Yes, that was a good thing. That cunning cheerleader became a high-profile, Bush-appointed Republican judge in Florida, so I think our ideologies would have separated us anyway.)   I mean, all I was saying was Give Peace a Chance. Still am saying that, you know.

What that previous paragraph means, I’m not sure. Perhaps it was just that it was during that summer, that wondrous time of hope, I had to come to terms that life offered a box of chocolates filled with caramel hope and red cream despair. 

The summer of 1969 was when reality began to settle in. When the optimism of Mr. Cub almost was realized.  Emphasize “ALMOST.”

It was Woodstock and ‘Easy Rider’ and an era when I was glad I was going to be a college student and wouldn’t have to join big strong men in Vietnam.  "Lay down your books and pick up a gun, we’re gonna have a whole lot of fun," Country Joe McDonald would tell me on my record machine.  The future is plastics, the fat guy told Benjamin Braddock.

I went 1A in the draft after the first “lottery.”  I felt safe, but still war threatened my quiet world of academia (as some might define my rambunctious years). Later in life when I needed something to make me feel better, I always have cheered for the Cubs and believed in hope and dreams. 

I mean it. I still do.

 Ernie Banks always said: “It’s a beautiful day. Let’s play two.”

He’d also say: “Wait ‘Til Next Year.”

Hope always stands a chance as long as this great man, Number 14, brings out his bat and occupies … momentarily at least…  a portion of my mental bank of memories. 

Now he’s dead.  Hell. Let’s play two.


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