My dad passed away in 1996 at the age of 51. I was 27 years old. It was the most difficult experience of my life. There were some dark times, but I made it through. Now I'm a Dad and I talk about him as much as I can to my boys so they can know my father without ever having met him.
Passionate. One of the best adjectives I can pick to describe my father. If he believed in someone or something he was extremely passionate about it. His faith, his family, and music were among the many things he loved in life. He also loved baseball. I picked up on this very quickly as a kid. About this time of year I always began to inquire about Little League and when we could sign up and begin practicing. My dad taught me long division by teaching me how to calculate batting averages because of my love for baseball. His passion trickled down to his son, particularly about baseball.
Growing up in central Illinois, around Peoria, baseball allegiances were split right down the middle. You were either a Cubs fan or a Cardinals fan, since we were about halfway between the two cities. As I always like to say, my Dad brought me up right and we were a Cubs family. I loved listening to Cubs games on WGN. I’ll always be a Jack Brickhouse guy (over Harry Caray) because of hearing his voice so often as a kid. We didn’t have cable television where we lived so we relied on the radio. On Sunday’s the local CBS station would show the WGN feed and we hurried home to watch them after church. Obviously, judging based on my birth year of 1968; my formative Cubs fan years were pretty slim. There were a couple of years where they started out strong and players like Bill Buckner, Manny Trillo and Bill Madlock gave us hope for the future. Alas, it never panned out.
My Dad was also a fan of history. He made sure me and my brother understood the history of the Cubs. It didn’t take much convincing on my part. I devoured any information I could get about baseball and the Cubs. I loved to hear stories about the 1969 Cubs and even though they didn’t win the pennant, my Dad spoke so lovingly about that team. His favorite player was Ron Santo, but he still glowed about Banks, Williams, Jenkins, Beckert, Hundley, etc.… It was clear Ernie Banks was the de facto “guy”. His nickname was Mr. Cub, for crying out loud. I soaked up all the information I could get my hands on about the Cubs. I wanted to play CF for them, or at least broadcast their games on the radio as an adult. My love for the Cubs is unbounded.
Fast forward to 2015. In speaking with many others who have lost loved ones, the most common theme is “it gets easier over time”. And while I agree with that, it is still a wound that can be opened up depending upon events in life that hit you directly in that spot. For example, when Walter Payton died I was devastated. Yes, he was my hero. But it also reminded me of all the time my father and I sat and watched the Bears together as a kid. My knucklehead brother became a Rams fan, so Bears games were special time with just my Dad and me. It was those memories that made me sad that my hero died but also that my Dad wasn’t around to grieve with me.
Ron Santo’s death was very difficult for me. As I stated earlier he was my Dad’s favorite Cubs player. And as we watched Ron fight through Diabetes and leg amputations, we knew his time was short. When I got the news that Ronnie had passed it was a punch to the gut. I felt numb. And all of those recollections of my Dad came flooding back. I cried doubly hard, some for Santo and a lot more for my Dad. These were the times the wound of death was reopened and the pain and hurt returned. Granted it was never as great as it was at the time of his death, but it hurt nonetheless.
The difference between Ron and Ernie was we knew Santo’s time was short. Ernie resembled the father of the relationship. He was immortal. One of the hardest lessons I’ve ever had to learn as an adult? My parents were mortal and wouldn’t live forever. As Cubs fans, we felt the exact same way about Ernie. He was Mr. Cub. He’d endure and be present when the Cubs won the World Series. It would be epic.
RIP Ernie. I’m going to go cry a little more and try to heal my wounds.
I miss you Dad.