Meet Ernie Banks, Jr.
He bats right handed and has good power.
His home field?
The Friendly Cornfines, of course.
Banks is the starting first baseman for the Normal CornBelters of the Frontier League. He is no relation to Mr. Cub, although he’s been part of the Baseball Hall of Famer’s parallel universe for all of his 26 years.
“People always ask me,” Banks said last weekend before the CornBelters beat the Rockford RiverHawks at a stadium called the CornCrib, just off of I-55 in Normal. “Sometimes I tell them yes, sometimes I tell them no. I have never met him, although someday I would like to.”
His mother Tanya’s side of the family is from 85th and King. Tanya was born on Sept. 20, 1953, the day the other Ernie Banks hit his first major league home run (off Gerry Staley of the St. Louis Cardinals.)
But Ernie Banks, Jr. has never been to Wrigley Field.
“My Dad was named after the Ernie Banks, the ballplayer,” he said. “My father loves baseball. He never played, but he taught me how to hit.”
The younger Ernie Banks, the minor-league ballplayer, stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 250 pounds.
He never played shortstop.
On this cool August night in the middle of nowhere, Banks, Jr. went two for four and stole a base, leading the CornBelters to a 6-1 victory.
The other Cub connection came in the fourth inning when CornBelter third baseman Randy Wells (no relation) knocked in Ernie Banks, Jr. to give the team a 1-0 lead. The team mascot, Corny (billed as The World’s Only Cornosauras), incited the 2,000 fans on hand to a rather normal cheer. The Illinois Corn Marketing Board own’s the team’s naming rights.
Ernie Banks, Jr. attended Norfolk State University for three years before being chosen in the 44th round of the 2007 major league amateur draft by the then-Florida Marlins. In 2008, he hit .300 with 6 HR and 51 RBI in 243 at-bats for Jamestown of the Low A New York-Penn League.
“I got released on the last day of (2009) spring training,” he said. “It’s been tough. This will be my third full year in the Frontier League. I played in the American Association. It’s been a tough road, but it’s been a nice road.”
Banks landed in Normal last month after the league’s all-star game. CornBelters manager Chad Parker acquired the slugging first baseman from Laredo. Parker had managed Banks for the 2009 River City Rascals when he was named the Frontier League’s Manager of the Year.
“He’s a presence in the middle of the lineup,” Parker said after the game. “He is something we were missing all year.” The CornBelters were a very Cub-like 27-54 last week. Parker reflected, “From the clubhouse standpoint, he’s a lot of fun and we needed that. We needed somebody to loosen things up, and he’s done that.”
Parker said most of his players are too young to have much of a connecton with Ernie Banks, the Cub. Ernie Banks, Jr. was playing in River City (near St. Louis) when he had his closest encounter with the Hall of Famer. The two appeared together on a radio interview.
Now, the younger Ernie Banks displays some of the same equanimity and charm associated with his not-quite namesake.
“Whatever didn’t feel right in the game the day before, you work with it early the next day,” he explained. “Baseball is mental and I’ve learned that as I got older. Even guys in the big leagues struggle. But they’re there for a reason. The guys in the big leagues make adjustments pitch by pitch. Guys in the minor leagues make adjustments at bat by at bat. I’m trying to learn how to make adjustments pitch by pitch. I’m getting there.”
He tells the younger CornBelters to keep their heads up.
“You can’t get down on yourself because you have one bad at bat’,” he said. “You still have to play defense. You gotta’ cheer your teammates. Once that at bat is over you have to clear your head.”
He loves the game and has heard the refrain “Let’s Play Two” many, many times.
“I’m going to play as long as I can,” he said. “I will always have the drive. I probably would like to be a hitting coach. I hung out with (ex-Cub) Jacques Jones (now the hitting coach with the Midwest League’s Fort Wayne TinCaps) when I was with the Marlins.”
Earlier this season Banks chatted up former Cubs infielder Lenny Randle, who was coaching first base for Washington (Pa.) Wild Things. Of course the other Ernie Banks came up in conversation and Randle told the younger Banks that Mr. Cub was traveling in Singapore. Randle also does international scouting (he was the first former major leaguer to play in Italy). “I told him I would love to go overseas,” Banks said. “Maybe he can work his magic.”
Ernie Banks, Sr., 56, grew up in a baseball family around Norfolk, Va. and has fond memories of watching the World Series after school.
Of course he never saw Ernie Banks the ballplayer on that stage.
“I did see him on TV because all the games were on Saturdays,” Banks, Sr. said from Chesapeake, Va. “My father’s name was Charlie but I guess he loved baseball so much he named me Ernie. It was a no-brainer for me to name my son Ernie. He grew up loving baseball.”
Ernie Banks, Sr. is a supervisor at the Portsmouth Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Va.
He, too, gets questions about Ernie Banks the legend. “People always ask me if I am his son,” the elder Banks said. “I make a joke out of it sometimes and say, ‘Yeah, that’s my grandfather’.”
Tanya Banks is a registered nurse in Chesapeake. After the CornBelters season ends Sept. 2, Ernie Banks, Jr. will return to Chesapeake and work in a hospital and officiate middle school and high school basketball games.
Though professional baseball has not always been easy for him, Ernie Banks, Jr. still rolls through life with a smile on his face. He and the other Ernie Banks have that in common, too.
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DAVE HOEKSTRA is a Chicago-based writer whose most recent book Cougars and Snappers and Loons (Oh My!) is a field guide to baseball’s Midwest League. His upcoming book is about Midwest supper clubs. Learn more at www.davehoekstra.com.
STORY ART: Main image made in-house; photos courtesy Dave Hoekstra.