My moment with Ernie Banks

That smile.

When it came to Ernie Banks, it always started with that smile.

Thousands of baseball fans have their own story of the time they came face-to-face with “Mr. Cub’s” grin. The people who watched him play ball at a time when ballplayers were heroes. The supporters who cheered for the Cubs alongside him after his playing days were long gone. The people who saw him out on the street. The people he would see out on the golf course.

Everyone has a story. My story took place in the Cubs dugout on a sunny summer afternoon in 2007.

I was an associate reporter for MLB.com and was covering the Cubs, my hometown team, the team I grew up cheering for and agonizing over. I was 22 years old. It was a dream job.

On this day I got to the ballpark several hours before first pitch, as most media members do. It was a relatively quiet news day, and after completing the pre-game work I needed to do, I found myself with some free time. I was up in the Wrigley press box and the Cubs were just starting batting practice on the field. So I went down to the field to get a closer look.

Now I confess there are countless sports experiences I haven’t been able to take in, but for a guy from the North Side of Chicago, there are few things more magical, more majestic than walking out of the Cubs clubhouse and into the team’s dugout before a day game on a bright summer afternoon. The field is almost at eye level and just feet away from you, that short distance separating you from the history — or misery — that’s taken place on that field. Over the years, the Cubs’ legends took this very same walk. Santo. Sandberg. Williams. Jenkins. Maddux. Banks.

On this day I was walking in their shadows.

I took a seat just to the right of the entrance to the clubhouse, out of the way of the players going in and out but still with a clear view of home plate. I was working on a few ideas for feature stories and wanted to get a better feel for the batting practice experience. So for a few minutes, I sat back and watched as one player after another took their turn at bat.

I noticed someone sit down to my right but I didn’t immediately look over, assuming it was another media member with similar intent. After a few seconds, though, I discovered that assumption was wrong — well, at least part of it. It wasn’t a journalist. It was, however, a gentleman who understood taking in the beauty of the game perhaps more than anyone else alive.

As I looked up at my new seat mate, I was greeted by the smile of “Mr. Cub,” Mr. Optimistic, Mr. “Let’s Play Two,” Mr. Ernie Banks. The greatest player in the history of the Cubs organization sat grinning as he looked out across the field. His field. This was the field he called home for his entire career in the Major Leagues. The field that now had his retired No. 14 flying from the right field foul pole.

He wasn’t here to talk about history, though. He just wanted to say hello. A Hall of Famer, one of the greatest ambassadors the game has ever known, wanted to talk with an intern. Why?

Because that was Ernie Banks.

He asked a couple of questions about me. We talked baseball for what felt like hours, but I’m sure was only two or three minutes. Then Ernie reached in his pocket and started fumbling with his cell phone. Sufficiently frustrated, he handed the phone to me and complained about the size of the phone’s buttons.

“Will you call my wife for me,” he asked.

“Sure,” I remember saying, still lost in the moment. He gave me the number and I dialed it for him. He talked for a couple of minutes, then hung up and said he had to be on his way. He thanked me for talking to him, gave me a smile and then walked to the other end of the dugout.

Thinking about it today, it seems so funny he thanked me. I should have been thanking him. Thanking him for taking the time to talk with me. Thanking him for all he did for the game. But more importantly, thanking him for showing us how we all should live our lives.

I ran into him a couple more times that season. I don’t know that he remembered our brief encounter — I can’t imagine that he did. After all, he had these types of interactions with thousands, maybe millions of people over the years. But that moment is one I will always treasure, and I think that feeling is common among just about anyone who ever interacted with “Mr. Cub.”

I learned a lot during that internship, but some of the most important lessons I learned were unspoken ones from Ernie Banks. Lessons that apply to everyone, no matter your personality, profession or interests.

Have fun.

Enjoy what you do.

And most importantly, keep smiling.