Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. And I have a person I'd like to honor.
But first I need to set the stage.
In the 1950s, Brigham City my hometown had more diversity than people realize. The Intermountain Indian School brought in students from a dozen tribes. Out in the valley many prominent farmers were Asian. It was a good, healthy mix. Still, for many years, the only black faces I saw were the ones on my baseball cards. But I saw those faces more than I saw my own uncles. They became, in my mind, old friends.
Ernie Banks was one of those faces.
I was not a big Banks fan. He played for the Chicago Cubs, and I was all Chicago White Sox. But I admired him much the way, I suppose, BYU football fans admired Eric Weddle of the Utes. And I admired Banks for the same reasons. I not only admired how he played the game but how he carried himself when he played and carried himself when he wasn't playing. His team never went to the World Series, but his attitude was always the same: positive, encouraging, upbeat. He'd show up at Wrigley Field, look at the bright skies and green ivy and say, "Let's play two." He was Mr. Cub.
Now, fast forward 30 years.
It's 1990. I'm 42, and Banks is 59. By dumb luck I end up with press credentials to cover the All-Star Game at Wrigley Field. There's an "old timers" game the day before, and Banks starts at shortstop. I remember thinking, "I can now tell people I saw Ernie Banks play at Wrigley Field." I took a bunch of photos of him.
The next day I'm standing in the press box looking down at the field. There's a phrase printed on top of the dugouts that reads: "Welcome to the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field." It's another Banks line.
I'm mulling all this when I look left at the guy next to me. He's reading the top of the dugouts, too. And like me, he's mulling it over. The guy is Banks. We chat for a moment me in my twangy Utah accent and he in his soft, Texas drawl. I'm wearing a white ball cap I got in the gift shop. I'm also wearing a press tag with the words "No Autographs" printed on it in big, black letters.
I think long and hard. I think about ethics and professionalism. And then I think about my childhood and all of my black friends on those baseball cards. I take the cap off and ask Banks if he will sign it for me. He looks down at my press badge, sees the words "No Autographs," then takes the cap from me and takes out his pen.
"They sure do have some wonderful caps these days, don't they?" he says as he signs.
Then he hands it back to me with a big wink.
Yesterday, when I was thinking about writing this column, I dropped by a bookstore and thumbed through an illustrated history of the game. I was looking for Banks. I found his picture. It was in a section of the book called "Spiritual Courage." I knew then the book was worth buying. It held the truth.
Today, as I write this, I'm 59, the age Banks was that day at Wrigley. He's 76.
And, yes, they sure do have some wonderful caps these days.
I have one at home.And I will have it until I'm 76 and beyond.
E-mail: [email protected]