Saturday, January 24, 2015

Mr. Joy departs

The mythmakers only got it half-right about Ernie Banks, who went to his considerable reward Friday at the age of 83. He was Mr. Cub, but that persona came wrapped in another, without which Mr. Cub would never have been Mr. Cub.

Call it this: Mr. Joy.

I met Mr. Joy in a suite at Memorial Stadium during a Wizards game one year, when he was in town to hawk replacement joints for a company out of Warsaw. If memory serves, he was lugging around a couple artificial joints himself by that time, given that he was getting on even then. It affected his disposition not in the slightest.

Simply put, the man was walking sunshine. People make a big deal now out of the fact he remained an unbreakable optimist even though he played for a franchise specifically designed to break optimists. But I suspect Mr. Joy would have been saying "It's a great day for baseball, let's play two!" had he been playing for the Mephistopheles Fightin' Brimstone in the Flames Of Perdition League.

A kinder, happier soul I never met, and the person doesn't breathe air who didn't walk away from a conversation with him -- it was always a conversation with Ernie, never just a word or two -- feeling lighter in spirit. The man could have made Bill Belichick crack a smile.

In 19 seasons with the Cubs he hit 512 home runs and played in 14 All-Star games, but of course that's hardly the reason he's so beloved. It's because not even playing for Cubs, who finished below .500 in all but six of his seasons, could wipe that neon smile off his face. The man loved baseball more than food, and it showed every day.  And that made you love it, too.

Today, his No. 14, the first number ever retired by the Cubs, hangs from the left-field foul pole in Wrigley Field. Outside, there's a statue of him. The inscription on it reads "Let's play two!"

Just now, as I write this, I'm looking out the kitchen window into my backyard. There are still patches of snow out there, but the winter-weary grass is a pale green. And for the first time in what seems like days, the sun has momentarily broken through the dreary gray overcast.

To heck with playing two.

Let's play three.    


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