Sunday, January 25, 2015

The day my path crossed with Ernie Banks and a little known side of him emerged

The passing of Ernie Banks brings back lots of great memories of the man.  We all share the iconic image of the eternal optimist baseball ambassador, full of illogical cheer while toiling away through a bunch dreadful Cub seasons. I once met him in person and saw a side different of him few realized was there.

It was in a 10 kilometer race held in suburban Chicago after my freshman cross-country season in 1981.  A gun control group organized the "Run Against the Handgun" in the town of Morton Grove.  With little advance notice, it was announced Ernie Banks would appear and run the race.  At the time, I didn't think much of it.  But today, I realize the tremendous disconnect between the cheerful, popular apolitical sports personality lending his name and support behind a controversial, polarizing issue.

Taking stands on political and social issues was not something Ernie Banks was known for. However, he ran unsuccessfully for Chicago alderman in 1962 and after retiring from baseball, formed the "Ernie Banks - Live Long and Beyond Foundation" to benefit disadvantaged youth and elderly, described as focusing on social welfare, and well as eliminating prejudice and discrimination among ages, groups, and races.  One of the things African Americans of his generation instinctively learned growing up was being outwardly cheerful while keeping quiet on difficult subjects like race and politics. This was often a wise path in an era when people of his race got into real trouble whenever they become too outspoken.

My Dad and I were both fans of the Cubs and supported gun control, so we eagerly arrived in the small park that late October morning with about 200 other runners. It took a while to find Ernie Banks. The was no press and little clamor about his presence.  He wore plain cotton track suit, looking pretty much like any other middle aged guy about to go on a run that cool, clear morning.

My dad and I lined up behind him, and with a bang of a gong (no starting pistol!) we were off.  Ernie Banks, clearly a much better baseball player than runner, broke into a slow shuffle.  I quickly maneuvered around him and my dad put his hand on his back, I think he wanted to touch him, before passing him as well. With that, we left Ernie Banks behind.

For the first half of the race, my dad and I ran together.  I remember it being a pretty challenging pace but at the turn-around, I decided to push even harder, pulling away from my father.  I started passing large packs of runners at first, then a few individuals as the runners continued to spread out. At around 4 1/2 miles, I passed one runner breathing really loud.  All I could hear from this guy as I passed him was a loud "HUUUHH-SSSHHHHHH,  HUUUHH-SSSHHH" filing my ears.

By that point, I was pretty exhausted but there was no way I was going to let the heavy breathing monster catch me.  Driven by an irrational fear, I pushed with everything I had along the twisted path lined with barren trees over the last mile trying to get away from the loud HUUUHH-SSSHHH's, which slowly diminished in intensity as he started falling behind. I staggered across the finish line with no energy left in a time 39:38, setting a personal record and braking the 40 minute 10k barrier for the first time in my life. I could barely stand up when my dad came across the finish a couple minutes later.  After he recovered, Dad spotted a McDonald's across the street and cheerfully said  "I'll race you to McDonald's for breakfast," taking off running across a field.  I literally could not lift my feet to chase him.

As for Ernie Banks, he was gone, apparently never finishing the race, disappearing just as quietly as he arrived.

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