Written by Jeff Vorva
I look at Ernie Banks a little bit in the same way I look at Jimmy Buffett.
These are two guys who have an image that’s hard to shake.
Buffett is the fun-lovin’ entertainer who is smiling and joking and singing songs about drinking and being in warm places. He is living the life a lot of us want to live. He is one big good-time guy.
Life is a great big party 24/7 for JB, right?
Few people are around him when he is out of the spotlight. We don’t get to see him when he is hung over, sweating out a fever or getting mad at the world because his Internet is acting up. We’re not around him to see human sorrow when he finds out the death of a loved one. The guy has been divorced and separated and we weren’t around to see him argue with either of his wives. And he has kids. We never got to see him have the pleasure of dealing with teenagers.
Nope, we just get so see the guy crooning about hanging around the beach and taking boat rides with some babes and rum drinks in tow. What a life.
That brings us to Ernie.
Banks is the popular Cubs legend who died Jan. 23. Most of us remember him smiling with an unbridled joy for life and baseball. He made the optimistic and enthusiastic line “Let’s play two today” famous. He had rhymes for how the Cubs would do in a certain year.
Everything was great with Ernie. That was his image and that’s how we want to remember him.
You got the feeling that if someone ran over his foot with a car, he would yell “Hey, Mister, is your tire OK?’’
When he died, he was splashed on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Everyone interviewed had nothing but good words to say about Ernie.
I purposefully didn’t write about Ernie after he died. Even though I covered the Cubs for 10 years, my dealings with the man were not all that fun. I tried interviewing him about Sammy Sosa once and, while he was nice, his mind wandered and he would get distracted a little too easily and I could tell things weren’t in top working order upstairs and I felt bad.
Once when the media gathered for a press conference with him, a media relations person had to talk to him like talking to a 5-year-old about how we were going to ask him questions and that he should pay attention to the questions and answer them.
It was sad.
I’m happy to report, though, that he pulled it off with flying colors and he was great that day.
I didn’t want to reveal those stories after he died because I wanted people to remember the smiling guy who was a friend to all and never had a bad day in his life. I was preserving the myth. That’s something I don’t like doing, but in this case I thought it was right to just keep my stories to myself.
But now his family is coming out and punching holes in his myth.
Look, we all know the guy was a real human being with real problems like the rest of us. He wasn’t a cartoon.
But now his family is fighting over money, property and somehow his dead body is lost somewhere. It’s becoming a tragic joke and now we’re going to have a different view of Mr. Cub.
It’s been brought out that he’s been married four times and I’m not sure I even knew that. It’s being brought out that he filed for divorce from his fourth wife because of mental cruelty.
To quote another baseball line “Say it ain’t so!’’
There is a part of my brain that doesn’t want to register all of this. I can’t picture Ernie involved in a domestic situation so ugly that it came to that. I don’t want to think of Ernie screaming and cursing at his wife. I certainly don’t want to think of one of Ernie’s wives doing something so cruel that it would reduce him to tears or depression.
I don’t know where the truth lies, but either way it’s an ugly truth.
This story is wretched and it’s going to get worse and we will find out that Ernie was not always the happy-go-lucky smiling ambassador for baseball and that that there was reality behind the legend.
Maybe a little too much reality.
In one way, it hurts to think of the bad things that have gone on in Ernie Banks’ life.
In another way, the fact that he could put all that behind him in public and stay the same man of joy he was to us all is pretty special.
Let’s write about two: Remembering Wendell Kim
One guy who was as despised as Banks was beloved was is Wendell Kim, who was the team’s third-base coach in 2003-04. He died Feb. 15 of Alzheimer’s disease at age 64. Kim haters might have a cruel field day with jokes about that one.
He was known to some as “Wavin’ Wendell’’ for aggressively sending runners home and when some of them were thrown out, it caused Cubs fans to turn purple and pull the hair out of their head.
I liked the guy. You can have that silver-haired guy in the beer commercials dubbed “the most interesting man in the world’’ but for my money, it’s Wendell Kim.
When I covered the Cubs for the Daily Southtown, we had a chance to talk about the fine art of coaching third base not long after I had to do it once for my son’s Orland Youth Association game.
To hear him talk about all the variables of who is running and where the ball is and trying to make an educated decision in seconds, this was not a dummy, even though that’s what many fans thought of him when Cubs were thrown out at the plate.
“Certain things you can’t control,” he said during a one-on-one interview with me in 2004 that appeared in the Southtown. “If a runner makes a wide turn and I’ve already sent him from second base — it’s too late. If he makes a sharp turn, he makes it by two steps. It’s not all up to me. I can just send him because I know the speed of the guy. But if he makes a wide turn, that’s tough. You’re losing two or three steps. That could cost you the game.’’
Once after a mistake against the White Sox for all of Chicago to see, he was asked about the pressures of being a third base coach and he brought up an incident that happened when he was in his 20s and a group of thugs thought he ratted them out to the cops.
“I’ve already had a .38 (caliber gun) to my head,’’ he said. “That’s worse than anything I’ve ever known. This is still a game.’’
I did a Q and A story with him and he was the most entertaining subject I interviewed in that format.
I found out he was a magician who was in great demand from players all over the league. He was genuinely disappointed after 9/11 when security put a crimp in his magic shows.
“I don't do it much anymore because when (Sept. 11) came up and when they were looking through my bags, they took my knives away’’ he said. “It's a hassle. When they go through a deck of cards, they can screw it up because some cards are already fixed.’’
He said the “Rocky” movies were his favorite because he identified with a lead underdog character.
“I've always had to prove myself,” he said. “Even in fighting. They always picked on me when I was in the minor leagues but once I broke somebody's knee or hit them in the throat...everybody knows that I really don't want to fight but I will if I have to. They picked on me because I was small. I'm still small.’’
And when I asked him if he was sensitive when getting heckled about his height, he said: “When they heckle me with that, I just turn away. It's not worth fighting about because guys will pull out guns now. In the older days you didn't have that. You might have a pocketknife or a knife but now they have guns.’’
With all the violence in his life, I truly expected Kim would die in some “Sons of Anarchy” or “Boardwalk Empire” style.
Hopefully his death was not too traumatic and that he can finally rest in peace, although there may be a few folks in the afterlife that better watch their tongues around him.’’