Mr. Cub throws out first pitch

Banks, Santo relish playoff atmosphere

CHICAGO -- Ernie Banks and Ron Santo are two of the greatest players in Chicago Cubs history, but neither got to do what the 2007 Cubs did Saturday -- play host to a postseason game at Wrigley Field.

That's why the Cubs' matchup against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game 3 of the National League Division Series was extra special for the two, whose retired jersey numbers fly together from atop the left-field foul pole. Banks threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the game, and Santo was scheduled to lead the lively Wrigley crowd in singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch.

"It's really exciting to have this great honor to throw out the first pitch and start the playoffs here at Wrigley," Banks said. "I did it in 1984 [when the Cubs were NL East champions], and unfortunately, we didn't make it that year, so I'm hoping that throwing it out this year will help the Cubs get to the next round."

Santo said there was no better person than Banks to open Wrigley's first playoff game since 2003.

"I think it's beautiful," Santo said. "Mr. Cub, no doubt about it -- it should be nobody else other than him."

Banks walked out to the field to a standing ovation from the crowd, and calmly tossed his pitch from in front of the mound to pitcher Sean Marshall. Banks spent his entire 19-year career with the Cubs, and Santo played 13 seasons in a Cubs uniform, but neither got to taste the postseason as a player.

"It's very special for all of us who played here, and come here and follow the team," Banks said. "It's been four years since we got in this position, and it's pretty exciting to be in contention for the playoffs, and to go to the next round. We're all a little nervous about it, I know I am."

Banks' nervousness stems from the Cubs losing the first two games of the best-of-five series. Since the Wild Card was established in 1995, no NL team has come back from being down 0-2 to win the series.

What do the Cubs need to do Saturday to keep their season alive?

"Just be a little more aggressive, that's the key factor in these type of events," Banks said. "Arizona is that way, they're just playing aggressive, Colorado is just playing aggressive, Philadelphia's playing aggressive. I think they all understand it, and we're looking forward to seeing that [Saturday]."

Santo is looking for the Cubs offense to be more aggressive after scoring five total runs in the first two games.

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"There's no doubt in my mind that the most important thing we need to do is score runs," Santo said.

The 2007 playoffs have an added significance for Santo, who missed the team's 2003 playoff run because of bladder cancer. Santo is currently in his 18th season as color commentator for WGN Radio.

"I feel that these [playoff] games are just like regular[-season] games with our fans," Santo said. "It's been like postseason the whole year. What I love about Wrigley Field and the fans, it's all baseball. It's not about having a big video up on the [scoreboard], and music, it's all about baseball, and you've got to love coming here and watching a ballgame. And the electricity is unbelievable.

"Everytime I sing, I'm very excited about it. I just hope we're ahead when I do it."

Expected to join Banks and Santo at the game were a handful of longtime Cubs fans, from actors Jim Belushi, John Cusack and Jeff Garlin, to former Notre Dame basketball coach Digger Phelps. Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., Hall of Fame sportswriter Jerome Holtzman, and former Northwestern University running back Darnell Autry were also at the game.

"I've had three children, and I was excited for each one," Belushi said before Saturday's game. "This is like having a fourth child."

In 1995, Autry was one of the leaders of the Northwestern football team that went 10-1 and made its first Rose Bowl appearance since 1949. Autry was at Wrigley on Saturday, hoping to not only see a Cubs victory, but the first in what needs to be three in a row if the Cubs are to advance in the postseason.

"I think it's rather exciting, it's been a long time coming," Autry said. "I'd love to see them win a game, but we'll see what happens. I'd love to see them go on beyond this. I've got faith. They've just got to hit."

As for the big names at the game, Autry was not surprised.

"Chicago is one of the greatest cities in the country," the former running back said. "People want to be here, people want to be a part of the Cubs."

Marc Zarefsky is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.