The Big Mac Blog

Meeting Ernie Banks

This is the ball Ernie Banks handed me in May of 2001. Mr. Cub died last night. He was 83.
This is the ball Ernie Banks handed me in May of 2001. Mr. Cub died last night. He was 83. Star-Telegram

The back of the media credential is clear - it always, 100 percent of the time states that the bearer of the special badge is not to be used for the sake of autographs. There are, however, exceptions, especially when it's Ernie Banks.

One of baseball’s most cherished and celebrated names died last night. The forever face of the Chicago Cubs is gone from us at the age of 83. He had a great run.

Even though I was never raised a Cubs fan, it is hard not to be a fan of this man. Of his smile. Of his kindness. Of his optimism. Of his decency. I’m not much for autographs because I don’t know what to do with them, but this one ... this one is special because it reminds me of this story.

In May of 2001, I was covering the Texas Rangers on a road trip to Chicago against the White Sox. It was a cold morning as the teams took batting practice, and there in a mostly vacant White Sox dugout was Mr. Cub himself. I had to think of a reason to talk to him.

The chance to talk to Mr. Cub was too good to pass up, and he gladly spoke with me for about 10 to 15 minutes. Just the two of us in the White Sox dugout. There are people whom you interview, and then there are people who engage you and actually talk to you as a person, not just face holding a microphone. Banks was engaging, and playful.

At the time, Alex Rodriguez was in his first season with the Rangers and all of us local hacks were collecting fawning words from players current and past about A-Rod’s talents.

I asked him about A-Rod and he said, “God created heaven and earth, and God created Alex Rodriguez for [shortstop]. He has the intelligence, the range, the look and the moxie to do it. I keep up with all the shortstops because if you were to give an IQ test to every player, the shortstops would have the highest score. They're the most intelligent players on the field. It's like Bo Jackson said about Tiger Woods, 'He plays in a different world.' That's Alex.”

I asked Banks about a player again hitting .400.

“I think that is something every major-league hitter dreams of doing,” he said. “It's a little bit like a miracle, because it's going to take one to do it.”

I asked Banks about A-Rod breaking his single-season record for home runs by a shortstop, which he did later in that season.

“He can do anything he wants,” Banks said. “He can break any record he wants."

And then, unprompted, Banks said: “He needs a wife; I wish he would marry Tyra Banks, so everybody would think he married my daughter.”

At this point, Banks then proceeded to verbally jab me for several minutes about marriage. He would not let up. Apparently, he did that to everybody. I mean, he would not  let up. He kept saying, “You need to get married. You need to get married.”

First pitch was coming soon, and it was about time for me to go when a clubhouse guy came up to Banks and handed him a tray of 12 new baseballs. He said to me, “Mac, how do I spell your name? It’s with a ‘K’ right?”

I said: “Mr. Banks, I can’t do that. I do appreciate it, but I’m not allowed to do that.”

He waved his hand dismissively at me, and proceeded to take two baseballs.

The first he wrote: “To Mac: Get Married Soon. Ernie Banks. Mr. Cub”.

The second he signed, and he handed them both to me.

Who was I to tell Ernie Banks no in Chicago?

He expressed his appreciation for the interview, and that was it. I never saw him again. I grabbed a small bag from a White Sox souvenir stand to conceal the signed baseballs, thus hiding the fact I violated a sacred media policy of no autographs.

Ernie Banks is gone, but the impressions he made on so many are forever and for the right reasons, even if a few were against the rules.

Mac Engel, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @macengelprof