Claire: Mr. Cub tells club to relax

Claire: Mr. Cub tells club to relax

Ernie Banks has a one-word answer to help solve the problems of his favorite team: the struggling Chicago Cubs.

"Relax. That's what these players have to do, relax," said the man known as "Mr. Cub" -- the most popular player in the history of the franchise.

I caught up with Banks on Tuesday by telephone, because I wanted to get his thoughts on the latest blow-up by a Cubs player, pitcher Carlos Zambrano.

"You know, Carlos is a great athlete and he is a very spiritual guy," said Banks. "He really is just a big kid, but I think it's very hard for him to pitch for the Cubs and particularly at Wrigley Field.

"There are times when he's pitching at Wrigley that I'm sure it feels like everything is closing in on him. The fans are so close to the field that you can see their eyes. You have to get over that part of playing at Wrigley, because it is such a special place to play the game."

It was the home field for Banks for his entire career, from 1953-71, and he won the hearts of the Cubs fans with his Hall of Fame career and his expression of love for what he termed "the friendly confines of Wrigley Field."

No player has captured the hearts of the fans better than Banks, but he was candid in his conversation with me about just how tough it can be to play at Wrigley Field.

"If I could get out a message to the Cub players today, it would be to relax and enjoy the experience of playing your home games at Wrigley," said Banks, who continues to play an active role with the team as a goodwill ambassador.

At this point of the season, there is little relaxation in the Cubs' clubhouse or in the front office. Or in the stands at Wrigley Field, for that matter.

The Cubs defeated Pittsburgh, 3-1, on Tuesday night at Wrigley, but remain nine games under .500, and most of the discussion surrounding the team was focused on Zambrano having been placed on the restricted list after his meltdown in a game against the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field on Friday.

It was just the latest episode of a Cubs player losing his cool and once again it was a high profile team member drawing a big-time salary.

Last season the Cubs player in the spotlight and on the hot seat was newly-signed Milton Bradley, who was booed by Cub fans for not running out a ground ball in his first start of the season and then refused to talk to the media.

Bradley was sent packing to Seattle after one season with the Cubs.

"You know, a lot of guys don't realize all that goes into playing at Wrigley. It can be the greatest place in the world to play or it can be one of the toughest places to play. Even some of the great Cub players had trouble adjusting to playing at Wrigley," said Banks, who has been a team member or followed their play over the past 57 years.

"I remember when Billy Williams joined us and he was a very talented, but a very tense kid. He would get down on himself, but we would keep telling him how great he was and he became one of the all-time great Cub players."

Banks recalled a player named Vic Harris, who had trouble adjusting to Wrigley Field after he came to the Cubs in a trade with Bill Madlock that sent Ferguson Jenkins to Texas in 1973.

"Vic used to tell me how nervous he would get playing at Wrigley because the fans seemed so close and said that when he was with Texas it felt like there was no one in the ballpark," said Banks, a two-time National League Most Valuable Player and a member of the Major League All-Century team.

"I know one thing about Chicago and Wrigley Field and that is we have the greatest fans of all. You have to embrace Wrigley Field and all of its atmosphere. I played with a mindset that there was no one there but me playing a game I love."

Banks said he has spoken to Cubs general manager Jim Hendry about speaking to some of the leaders on the team and sharing some of his experiences.

"I want to go through the proper channels and Jim told me that would be great," said Banks.

"I want the players to know how fortunate they are to be playing for the Cubs and to be playing at Wrigley."

Banks wants to see more fun and less friction with his beloved Cubs.

And, most of all, he would like to see a world championship banner waving in one of the great ballparks of all time.

If ever a man deserved to be a part of that Cubs celebration it would the young-at-heart Banks, an accomplished and relaxed man at 79.

Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as executive vice-president and general manager. He is the author of "Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue." This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.