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The Story of Jeff Banister

Brett Barnett

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Image retrieved from Sports Illustrated

The journey to Major League Baseball is a long and arduous one for many, but only a select few even get the opportunity. The small towns, long bus rides, packed schedules, and cramped quarters make for a challenging life in Minor League Baseball.

But for Jeff Banister, the most difficult part of the journey came perhaps before he was ever even drafted.

Banister was born in Weatherford, Oklahoma, on January 15, 1964. Weatherford is a small college town in the more westerly part of the state, home to Southwestern Oklahoma State University. As of 2018, it had an estimated population of 12,028.

Eventually relocating to the southeastern part of Texas, Banister attended La Marque High School, a school that bears the name of the city where it’s located, about 40 minutes outside Houston.

Like many athletically inclined high schoolers of the day, Banister was a three-sport athlete, playing baseball in the spring, football in the fall, and basketball in the winter. It would be during a seemingly routine medical check that Banister’s trajectory — and life — seemed seriously in jeopardy.

According to a 1991 article by John Perrotto, then with the Beaver County Times, Banister had noticed swelling around his ankle. He thought he had injured it during football practice. That’s what triggered the visit to Dr. Lockhardt, a family physician. That’s when it was discovered that Banister had bone cancer. That same article also claims that Dr. Lockhardt told Banister that if he didn’t have his leg amputated, then he likely would die.

But that wasn’t the end of the awful news that day. Cysts had formed up Banister’s leg, which resulted in osteomyelitis. The decision had been made to go forth with the amputation — a decision that wouldn’t see the light of day.

On the night before the scheduled surgery, Banister and his father sat down to talk. Banister said, “I was an athlete and it was my whole life.” He continued, “I told my dad I would rather die than lose my leg. We hugged each other and cried. Baseball was everything to me and if I couldn’t play, I didn’t want to live anyway. He said it was my choice and we would live without the outcome” — literally.

Ultimately, Banister did overcome the complications surrounding the cancer, but it took seven operations and almost a year in the hospital.

During his senior year in high school, Banister suffered another injury — this time to his knee — that almost ended his baseball career. He was nearly cut from the team because he simply didn’t have the same mobility he had prior to the injury. His dad suggested he change positions to become a catcher. That’s what he did.

Eventually, Banister made his way onto a college baseball field at Lee College, a community college in Baytown, Texas. But in 1983, tragedy struck again. There was a play at the plate, and the baserunner attempted to hurdle Banister, which caused his knee to strike Banister’s head.

That collision not only broke three of Banister’s vertebrae, it also paralyzed the young ballplayer for three days. In the Perrotto article, Banister is cited as saying, “I thought I was dead. I thought it was all over.” Perrotto also notes that any sudden movement could have impinged Banister’s breathing, resulting in near immediate death.

In an Associated Press article featured in The Victoria Advocate on July 28, 1991, Banister spoke more on the injury. He said, “I was real critical. A doctor told me they’d never seen a neck before that bad. The Lord must have reached down and held my neck in place.”

In order to heal, it took Banister three operations plus a year of rehabilitation before he was able to consider playing baseball again. After playing an additional season at Lee, and being named a Junior College All-American, Banister transferred to the University of Houston to play on the Cougars baseball team — he was on scholarship for the 1986 season.

In June of 1986, the Pittsburgh Pirates selected Banister in the 25th round.

He started his professional career in the New York-Penn League with the Watertown Pirates, a short season Single-A team. He played in 41 games and struggled, slashing only .145/.225/.177. The following year he spent the full season in Single-A Macon, where he performed better, slashing .254/.316/.378. In 1988, Banister was again moved up, and again he spent the full season in one place, this time in Double-A with the Harrisburg Senators.

Banister would stall a little bit at this stage in his development, spending most of three seasons in Harrisburg plus a splash of Triple-A baseball with the Buffalo Bisons.

In 1991, at age 27, Banister was about to get his first shot in the major leagues. When Don Slaught was placed on the disabled list, it was Banister who got the call to fill in as a replacement catcher for a game at Three Rivers Stadium, where the Pirates were taking on the Atlanta Braves.

For a moment, never mind how Banister performed in his short major league stint, think of how miraculous it was that he was even there. This was a man who, as a kid, had been diagnosed with cancer, and when asked to choose between losing a leg and ending his career or keeping his leg and possibly dying, he chose baseball. Then, after overcoming that, he suffered a blow to the head so severe that he was unable to move for over a week — not only was he unable, had he involuntarily done so, he likely would have died.

In a game Pittsburgh would eventually win, 12-3, Banister only batted once. He got a pinch hit appearance in the bottom of the seventh inning, subbing in for Doug Drabek. With the count 1-1, Banister made contact with a Dan Petry pitch, shooting it on the ground between the third baseman and shortstop. A single into left field.

All of that time spent rehabbing, all the highs and lows that baseball provided, culminated in that one moment.

He spent the rest of the season with Triple-A Buffalo. After that, another injury plagued Banister, this time an elbow problem that required surgery. He missed all of 1992. Then, in 1993, after playing in only eight games with the Double-A Carolina Mudcats, at age 29, Banister was through playing baseball.

But that’s when Banister’s second act began. He moved into a role that suited him well. At age 30, he became the manager of the Welland Pirates (Short-A) before also spending time managing the Augusta GreenJackets (Single-A), the Lynchburg Hillcats (Single-A Adv.), and the Mudcats.

Between 1999 and 2002, he was the major league Field Coordinator for the Pirates before becoming minor league Field Coordinator from 2003 to 2010. After being a finalist for the Pirates managerial opening — a position Clint Hurdle eventually won — Banister served as bench coach to the club. In a 2014 article for Grantland, Ben Lindbergh noted that this was a time in Banister’s career when he started to become more savvy analytically, taking lessons from former Pirates’ quantitative analyst, Mike Fitzgerald.

Banister took over as the Texas Rangers’ manager in 2015, spending nearly four seasons at the helm before Texas parted ways with him before the conclusion of the 2018 season.

Banister is now back in Pittsburgh, serving as a Special Assistant in the Baseball Operations department.

As Levi Weaver noted at The Athletic, Banister is a fighter. He was then. He is now. Weaver mentioned how Banister is consistently mired in “conflict,” — a sentiment Banister disagreed with — but whatever the case may be, I’m sure the Pirates are happy to have him back.