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Majors or not, the game of their lives

| Saturday, March 29, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
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A Fineview sand-lot semi-professional baseball team — George 'Mose' Atkins is in the second row, second from the right.
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A program from the 'old timers' game at Fineview Field in 1935. Eight of the players were locals who played in the major leagues, and five played in the farm system.
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Pittsburgh Pirate Jeff Banister in 1990 when he played for the Buffalo Bisons, then a Triple-A farm team with the Pirates, before he got called up to the majors.
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Jeff Banister in 2013 during the first playoff season for the Pirates in 21 years. He is the current bench coach for the Pirates.

When he got The Call, Pittsburgh Pirates bench coach Jeff Banister thought it was a joke.

He'd just returned to the apartment in Buffalo, N.Y., that he shared with another player for the Bisons, then a Pirates Triple-A farm team.

“The phone rang and my roommate said, ‘Hey, it's Terry Collins, he needs to talk to you.' I figured it was my wife, and my roommate was pulling a joke,” Banister said.

“How long have you been waiting for this phone call, Banny?” Collins, the Bisons' coach, nearly shouted into the phone.

Banister didn't answer.

In high school, he was told his leg would be amputated up to his knee. At age 17, after nearly a year in the hospital, battling cancer and a bone infection (the first three months with every visitor in a hospital mask and gown, to guard against germs), the star athlete finally got back into the game just in time for his senior year.

But the new coach had different plans; the night before tryouts, he said Banister wouldn't make the team. Banister pleaded for one more day, one more chance.

“Coach told me it would not make a difference, but out of respect he would give me my day.”

Banister went on to make the team, then to play in college. There, he had a home-plate head-on collision that paralyzed him from the neck down. He still vividly recalls the stricken looks of his mother, father and sisters as he lay on the field, unable to move.

He was told he'd never walk again, let alone play ball. He told everyone that didn't fit into his plans.

Unlike Banister, George “Mose” Atkins never got The Call — but that never stopped him from playing the game. He played ball for Fineview in a semi-pro sandlot league in the 1930s, '40s and early '50s.

The league dominated the local newspapers' sports sections and attracted local greats Steve Swetonic, Cy Rheam, Jack Miller and Archie Shaw, Pittsburgh men who'd been “called up” at least once in their lives.

Honus Wagner, arguably the greatest man to play the game, also could be found playing in those games; the bowlegged “Flying Dutchman” played semi-professional baseball in the Pittsburgh system until he was well past 50.

“My dad grew up in Troy Hill, Deutschtown and Fineview,” explained Mose's son, Tom Atkins, an iconic character actor who lives here. “He was a terrific player ... good outfielder ... hit good, batted right-handed, a slap hitter, singles hitter. Not a power hitter, but he could put the ball anywhere he wanted — opposite field or into left or up the middle ... really fast and savvy baserunner ... .”

Mose had a tryout with the Pirates sometime during those years, but his trick knee gave out at an inopportune moment.

Atkins said his father loved baseball and, despite never getting The Call, never held that against the game.

“We moved from Fineview in the early '40s, over to Knoxville, right up over the hill” from the J&L steel plant, he said. “One of my favorite memories is laughing at my dad running like hell down to first base in his black wingtips, having come right from work at the mill.”

On July 23, 1991, Jeff Banister stepped up to the plate at Three Rivers Stadium for arguably the best team in baseball, the Pirates, who were playing the Atlanta Braves.

“The first pitch was a slider, I swung and missed,” he said. “The next pitch was a fastball over my shoulder. The final pitch was a fastball — I barreled it and hit it deep in the hole between third and short. When I ran to first, I carried a trailer of people with me.”

He never played in the majors again.

Baseball has been his one constant in life: “It kept me going when there were nights with no sleep in hospital rooms, with demons all around me, and all I could think about was playing ball when I got out.

“For me life is like baseball, a daily constant battle to truly try to do your best. It is the only sport in which you get to go home,” he said.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320-7879 or szito@tribweb.com).

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