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Sunday, June 9, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Larry Stone / Baseball reporter

Cubs legend taps memory bank

Ernie Banks doesn't bother identifying himself on the return phone call. He simply bursts forth, letting his exuberant Mr. Cubness speak for itself.

"The Cubs are in Seattle! They should have had red carpets rolled out. Did they have red carpets? Was Bill Gates at the airport? How about Paul Allen? Did we get a ticker-tape parade?"

Without stopping for breath, Banks holds forth on Mayor Greg Nickels, Vijay Singh's PGA victory at Sahalee, former governor Dixy Lee Ray ("a great lady"), former mayor Norm Rice ("my old friend"), the world's largest totem pole in Tacoma, the movie "Sleepless in Seattle" and its stars, Tom Hanks ("I met him at a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles") and Meg Ryan ("I met her, too. Very talented woman").

"Remember that song from "Sleepless in Seattle? You know, that guy with the big nose who kind of talked his way through it — yeah, Jimmy Durante."

And here Banks bursts into song: "Make someone happy — that's what the Cubs are going to do tonight! — Make just one person happy — me!"

"Who is that psychic in Yelm, Washington?" asks Banks suddenly. "J.Z. Knight. Have you heard of her? I was going to go to her once, but I never made it. I was going to ask her if the Cubs were going to win the pennant, and how many times. Everything is all planned out in our lives, you know. It's all out there; we're just playing it out."

Life has played out in spectacular fashion for Banks, now 71, all except for that elusive pennant by the Cubs, who have been waiting since 1945. After a Hall of Fame career that yielded 512 home runs and two Most Valuable Player awards, Banks has spent his post-baseball years being, well, Ernie Banks. Or, more accurately, Ernie Banks, Cubs ambassador.

The essential Banks quote, of course, is this: "Let's Play Two." Let's let him take it from there.

"You could play baseball in the daytime at Wrigley Field, and love at night under the moon," he says, not so much talking as crooning. "It was the best of all worlds. That's why I'd say, 'Let's Play Two': Baseball in the afternoon, and love at night.

"I think there's nothing more dramatic in baseball than the sun. I've talked to sociologists and psychologists, and they say memories are conducive to good health. I think when you see day games, you tend to remember things longer. Night games, you see them with things on your mind — traffic, the kids — and you tend to forget. But memories of day games tend to hang on longer. That's why people feel so deeply about the Cubs.

"Our logo is red, white and blue. It's like America. Fans are close to the players. Grandfathers, fathers, sons. It's just a whole tradition of fans connected to the Cubs, throughout the years."

For Cubs fans, there is a fourth "F" that resonates most profoundly of all — frustration, best epitomized by the '69 team. Yet the team is strangely beloved despite its collapse down the stretch that allowed the Miracle Mets to overtake them. Current Cubs catcher Todd Hundley, whose dad, Randy Hundley, caught on the '69 team, shakes his head at their enduring appeal.

"I told my dad, 'You had that big lead and blew it, and you still get treated like rock stars,' " Hundley said. "If we did that, we'd be booed out of this town. We couldn't walk anywhere. He said, 'It's the money you guys make. That's the difference.' "

Rather than being reviled, that '69 group is revered — Banks, fellow Hall of Famers Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins, the man all Cubs fans feel should be in the Hall, Ron Santo, plus Hundley, Don Kessinger and Glenn Beckert, among others.

"I can't understand 94 years," Santo said last week, reflecting on the Cubs' lack of World Series titles since 1908. "It's impossible for me to understand. Especially the ballclub we had from '66 to '73 and never won. But that's baseball."

Williams says rarely a day has gone by in the ensuing 32 years in which he hasn't been reminded in some way about 1969. Banks has experienced the same phenomenon, but also the tremendous bond of those '69 teammates.

"We're all still close," he said. "Our children are still close. We follow each other. When one of us loses somebody, we share their sorrow. When one of the kids gets married, we share that, too. We had fun together, mostly just playing — outright fun, singing and laughing and crying together, going through tense moments together."

When he was a player, and the Cubs would go into a new town, Banks said, he wanted to know everything about it — where the libraries and museums were, and where the prisons and slums were; who was the mayor, the police chief, and the social movers and shakers. He calls it "a thirst for knowledge" and says it continues to this day.

"I went back to school," he says proudly. "My whole thing is, I can't wait to learn something new. I'm not becoming cynical about life. There's so much you don't know."

Like whether the Cubs will ever win the pennant again. Only J.Z. Knight knows — or more accurately, Ramtha, the 35,000-year-old spirit warrior who channels through Knight — and so far they're not telling.

Larry Stone can be reached at 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.

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