My youth baseball career ended before it began. It was early summer in the late seventies, and I remember my dad driving me to our first practice. I was nervous, and couldn't muster the courage to join my would-be teammates. I'm sure my dad encouraged me to get out there and play and have fun, but in the end we left without ever exiting the car.
I didn't regret that day until much later in life, where I was the dad and my son was the player. He was born with a baseball in his hand, so my encouragement was never necessary. However, as a sometime coach and assistant coach for both my son and daughter, I certainly saw many kids whose first steps on the diamond were filled with anxiety and fear, and I had the opportunity and responsibility to welcome them to the team and make them feel comfortable. As a coach, I tried to inspire and lead my teams by focusing on core principles such as "doing your best", and "respecting the game," as well as the most important goal of "having fun." It was only through teaching and guiding these young players that I realized what experiences I had missed so many years ago.
I was reminded of these moments this past Saturday, my dad's 88th birthday. He shares his day with Ernie Banks, aka Mr. Cub, who tragically passed away earlier in the week. January 31, 2015 was instead filled with a moving tribute to the greatest Cub ever. His memorial service was broadcast live on WGN and was attended by multi-generational baseball greats and dignitaries not often or easily brought together. Hank Aaron, Tony La Russa, Reggie Jackson, and Fergie Jenkins were among those on hand and helped eulogize the former all-star shortstop. It was Billy Williams, Ernie's late 60's teammate and mentor, who best summarized Ernie's spirit when he said: "The experience I had with Ernie, some of you had a lot of experiences with him, and we [are] going to remember this guy because as it was said, you go out to Wrigley Field, the sun is shining bright. And you might, you might, you might see this guy walking out and saying 'let's play two' because that's the way he was."
Joe Torre, who also spoke, truthfully remarked that “Ernie Banks was truly living proof that you don’t have to wear a championship ring on your finger in order to be a pillar of baseball and a champion of life. Ernie Banks made the confines of Wrigley Field friendly. He made the Cubs lovable. And he was one of the pivotal people during a vital time in our history who made our great game worthy of being our national pastime.”
While Ernie Banks was a Hall of Fame player, a two-time National League MVP and a perennial all-star who hit 512 home runs in his 19 year career (all with the Cubs), his impact transcended baseball so much that in 2013 president Barack Obama granted Ernie Banks the highest honor our country can bestow on a civilian, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
For those who never met Ernie Banks, never got to see him play, or never heard the stories of his magnanimous and relentlessly positive personality, it might be difficult to understand how a former ballplayer could garner so much attention and so much respect from the world outside of baseball.
I had the privilege of meeting Ernie just a few short months ago, and his generosity of spirit was immediately omnipresent. "Is that your wife?!" burst from his lips as my turn in the autograph line came up. He had just met the rest of my family, including my son who was recovering from knee surgery, and Ernie had thoroughly inspected my son's knee brace and range of motion. At first we were taken aback by Ernie's interest and care for a family he never met, but, that was Ernie. "What do YOU do?" was his next question to me, and although there was a long line of anxious autograph seekers behind me, I had the opportunity to tell the greatest Cub of all time about Gameday Radio and my thoughts on youth baseball. It was a moment I'll never forget.
The celebration of the life of a great player, man, and ambassador of kindness lingered into the evening of January 31 as I attended a commemoration for Brad Balson, another great person, friend, and youth baseball enthusiast who had lost his long battle with cancer about a year earlier. Hundreds of Brad's friends and family gathered to honor his life and to raise money for the Welles Park Parent Association where Brad and I met while coaching his son and my daughter over many seasons. Brad, like Ernie, had an enormous heart and love for baseball. His infectious spirit and enthusiasm for providing a safe and supportive environment for kids to learn not just baseball skills, but also life skills was always evident.
During our dinner, a few of Brad's friends rose to speak about Brad, his life, his family, and his legacy. When Brad's mantra, "It's about the kids, not the score" were uttered, the meaning of the day and its connection to my work and my life suddenly became evident.
Through its internet broadcasts of youth baseball games, Gameday Radio hopes to connect today's youth players with the history of baseball, and the history and magic of baseball on the radio. For over 150 years, baseball has been played on the sandlots and parks across the country and has produced many great people just like Ernie Banks and Brad Balson. Rob Manfred, the new MLB Commissioner, said in his recent letter to fans that "Baseball is a game firmly rooted in childhood experiences, and its vitality and growth rely heavily on giving young people from all backgrounds the opportunity to play and watch baseball." This belief is core to the mission of Gameday Radio and we are thrilled to be a part of rejuvenating the great game of baseball and imparting the spirit of men like Banks and Balson into the kids playing today.
Brad's strength of character through his life and death serves as a beacon for how to live your life, and how to play the game, and the vibrant personality of Ernie Banks' that guided him through the desegregation of baseball are truly shining examples of what it means to 'Do your Best' and 'Respect the Game' all while 'Having Fun'. These principles, while meant to build strength and success on the baseball diamond, are actually lessons about what it takes to be good people and to lead worthy, fulfilling lives. While I didn't learn these truisms with a bat in my hand, I can only think that they came to me through the values and work ethic instilled upon me by my father.