Starkey: Banister personifies Pirates' resiliency
Another night, another champagne-soaked Pirates clubhouse.
How many more?
General manager Neal Huntington wore the smile of a proud papa as he fielded that question just before midnight Tuesday. Huntington stood on the perimeter of the room as players and coaches — notably manager Clint Hurdle — danced like nobody was watching. Or maybe like everybody was watching. It didn't matter.
So how many more?
“We've got three more,” Huntington said. “Three more … It's a great feeling. I can only imagine what it's going to be like to be the club that wins it all at the end. That's what this club is driven to do.”
Driven is the ideal word — and nobody personifies it more than the man who was standing to Huntington's right: bench coach Jeff Banister, a Pirates lifer with the scars to prove it.
Six years ago, shortly after Huntington was hired, he sat down with Banister to discuss Banister's long history with the team.
The way Banister remembers it, he finally looked at Huntington and said, “You know what? I want the opportunity to celebrate in the middle of that field, when we all have the chance to raise the trophy together.”
Most of you know Banister's general story. Twenty-eight years in the organization. One major-league at-bat (on which he legged out an infield hit). Adores the city, which adores him back.
Did you hear the thunderous ovation Banister received in pre-game introductions Tuesday?
He sure did.
“Oh, you know what? It made me feel good,” he said. “I love these people. When my wife and I first came here, these people embraced us. They've pulled for me. I pull for them every day. I walk around this city from time to time. I know how much they want to have a championship team.
“We've pulled at their heart strings for a couple of years now. We've kicked their heart a number of times, built them up, kicked them again, but they showed up for us. When we walked out there and saw a sea of black … wow. I've never seen anything like that. I've never heard anything like that. What a special town. What a special group of people.”
So you know Banister gets it. You know he's a gamer. But do you know how far down and out he's been? Forget 20 years of losing. This man has seen much worse.
When he was 16, Banister was diagnosed with bone cancer in his left leg. After four operations, doctors told him they might have to amputate from the knee down. Banister told them he'd rather die. He vowed to play baseball again.
He did play again, approaching every game as if it were his last. A few years later, it nearly was.
Banister was a catcher at Lee Community College near Houston when a home-plate collision left him partially paralyzed with a broken neck. Surgery relieved the pressure on his spinal cord. Banister lost 85 pounds. He could not feed himself. His right leg stayed numb. He pulled the shades and stayed in his hospital room for weeks at a time.
Recounting that period a few years ago, Banister told me, “If I couldn't get out of that bed, I didn't want to see the outside. Really, truly, when I say I dreamt of being back on a baseball field, I did. This game brought me back to life.”
The last of multiple surgeries worked. Banister went on to star at the University of Houston. The Pirates drafted him in the 25th round in 1986. Five years later, he joined the team in the heat of a pennant race.
He wouldn't see another one for a very long time.
Many of the Pirates' current players developed under Banister's guidance. He was the team's minor-league field coordinator from 2003-10. Still cut like a middle linebacker, he lives in constant physical pain thanks to the 13 operations his body has endured. Not that you'd know it. Banister, 48, prepares each day as if he's still playing. He's always ready with a handshake and a smile — like the extra-wide one he sported during champagne bash No. 2, late Tuesday night.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.