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Starkey: Baseball perfection is theirs

| Sunday, July 17, 2011

Once or twice a week, 48 years after the fact, a gym teacher in California finds a memento in his mailbox.

Often it's a baseball or baseball card waiting to be signed. Sometimes, it's a replica scorecard from the Sept. 29, 1963, game between the Houston Colt .45s and the New York Mets.

The man, then 18, made his major-league debut that day. He went 3 for 3. He never appeared in another game.

He retired with a 1.000 batting average.

"I guess I'm immortalized, to a certain extent," John Paciorek says. "But I would much rather have played a long career."

Pirates bench coach Jeff Banister can relate. Like Paciorek, Banister played one game and was flawless at the plate. According to Elias Sports Bureau, they are two of 80 players currently not in the majors who own a 1.000 batting average. (Paciorek has the most at-bats.)

Banister, too, receives a steady flow of mail from fans and collectors seeking his signature or simply wanting to pay homage.

"A lot of people out there know the story," he says. "It's amazing."

Why the interest in such obscure players?

Must be the allure of perfection. What are sports, really, but the persistent and largely fruitless pursuit of it?

As Vince Lombardi famously said when he addressed the underachieving Green Bay Packers upon becoming their coach: "Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence."

On the rare occasion perfection is attained, we celebrate, whether it is a pitcher retiring 27 straight batters, a bowler rolling a 300 or a gymnast recording a "10" at the Olympics.

In this case, we have two baseball players sporting 1.000 batting averages that will live forever, and there is something magical about that. Something that makes people want to connect with them — though there is much more to these stories than a simple number.

The human beings involved are quite remarkable.

Hard times

John Paciorek grew up in a welfare family in Detroit. He and seven siblings — including future major-leaguers Tom and Jim Paciorek — shared three bedrooms.

Paciorek battled a chronic back condition as he shot through the Colt .45s' system. A strapping 6 feet 2 and 200 pounds, he was going to be the center fielder on a club that included promising rookies Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub and Jim Wynn.

Paciorek later learned that his condition, which would require spinal-fusion surgery and ruin his career, was caused by a birth defect. As an 18-year-old, however, he wasn't going to let a flare-up wreck his big day. He'd been recalled for the final game of the 1963 season.

"Nobody knew how much pain I was in," recalls Paciorek, who has been teaching and coaching at an elementary school in San Gabriel, Calif., for 30 years. "When they asked if I was OK to play, I said without hesitation, 'Yes, are you kidding?' "

Paciorek's physical problems were nothing compared to Banister's.

At 16, Banister was diagnosed with bone cancer in his left leg. After the fourth operation, as he lay in bed with a 104-degree temperature, doctors considered amputating from the knee down. Banister told them he'd rather die than lose a leg -- and he assured them he would play baseball again.

He was right. The fifth operation arrested the problem. The cancer soon disappeared, but Banister's horrors did not.

Playing catcher a few years later at Lee Community College near Houston, Banister suffered a broken neck and was partially paralyzed after a home-plate collision. He needed immediate surgery to relieve pressure on his spinal cord.

This time, the hospital stay was measured in months. Banister dropped from 225 pounds to 140. He could not feed himself. Surgeons could not figure out why the feeling would not return to his right leg.

Banister drew the shades for weeks at a time. Often, he did not know whether it was night or day.

"If I couldn't get out of that bed, I didn't want to see the outside," he says. "Really, truly, when I say I dreamt of being back on a baseball field, I did. This game brought me back to life."

A final operation brought his leg back to life. Banister rekindled his career at the University of Houston, and the Pirates drafted him in the 25th round in 1986. Five years later, he joined the team in the heat of a pennant race.

For one precious at-bat.

Glory days

Put them out of their misery. That had to be the feeling among fans when the pitiful Colt .45s met up with the only National League team worse than them -- the Mets -- on the final day of the 1963 season. Only 3,899 people showed up at sticky, mosquito-infested Colt Stadium.

Paciorek walked in his first at-bat against Larry Bearnarth. He beat out an infield single on his second chance. None of his three hits reached the outfield in Houston's 13-4 victory.

"The gods must have been with me," Paciorek says. "I remember my last time up, people gave me a standing ovation."

Never again would Paciorek hear such cheers. He battled through several more minor league seasons, but his back crippled his chance of returning to "The Show." He retired in 1969.

Paciorek's one-game stat line, in order of at-bats, runs, hits and RBI: 3-4-3-3. Baseball historians consider it possibly the greatest one-game career on record. Paciorek did not keep any souvenirs, which is why he so enjoys those trips to his mailbox.

Asked whether he has ever met Banister, Paciorek says, "Jeff who?"

That's probably what a few of the 21,664 fans at Three Rivers Stadium were saying July 23, 1991, when Pirates manager Jim Leyland summoned Banister to pinch hit for pitcher Doug Drabek. The first-place Pirates, crushing the Braves in the seventh inning, had promoted Banister from Triple-A Buffalo because catcher Don Slaught was injured.

Unfortunately for Banister, teammates had hidden his bat and helmet. He wound up grabbing Cecil Espy's bat as he went to face reliever Dan Petry. (The Braves had just made a move, too, inserting obscure utilityman Francisco Cabrera at catcher.)

On a 1-1 pitch, Banister hit a ground ball to the hole between short and third. Shortstop Jeff Blauser fielded it on his backhand. Banister -- running on a left leg that had nearly been amputated and right leg that had been paralyzed -- ran to first as if it were Game 7 of the World Series.

Base hit.

Today, that ball sits in his 9-year-old son's room in Houston.

"I wouldn't change a thing," Banister says.

Goal to go

Still built like the football player he was at La Marque (Texas) High School, Banister, 46, has been working for the Pirates in various capacities for 26 years. He lives in constant pain, though not because of 18 consecutive losing seasons.

Rather, it's on account of the 13 operations his body has endured.

Players talk about the scars on the front and back of Banister's neck, but most don't know all of his harrowing story. They only see the boundless energy he brings to the ballpark.

"Jeff knows a lot of us on a very close level," second baseman Neil Walker says. "I know he helped me when I was in some tough spots in the minors. He's such a humble person that he would never go out of his way to tell us his whole story — but if people did know, they'd probably look at him a little differently."

Banister doesn't get emotional when he speaks of his hit. The emotion flows only when he is asked what his 26-year tenure means to him.

"It means everything," he says. "I've been around this city a little bit, and I know the passion. I understand the passion. I understand the frustration as well. To see what is going on right now, seeing these players give all they can give ... I know we still have a ways to go, but ... "

The eyes well as he continues: "When (general manager Neal Huntington) first came in, he was asking me the same question. And I 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.' "

Talk about a perfect scenario.

Randle El's incredible mark

A baseball player with a 1.000 career batting average makes for a compelling story, but football players can retire immaculate, too — and we're not talking about Franco Harris.

No fewer than 52 NFL players have retired with a perfect 158.3 passer rating, according to Elias Sports Bureau. They are mostly running backs, such as Curtis Martin and D.J. Dozier, and punters. One of those punters was ex-Steeler Josh Miller, who completed the only pass of his career — an 81-yard touchdown to safety Chris Hope against the Baltimore Ravens in 2003. (While we're at it, Miller's only tackle wasn't bad, either: He upended some guy named Deion Sanders on a return.)

The record for most attempts with a 158.3 rating is held by punter Brian Hanson, who played for five teams from 1984-99 and was 3 for 3 for 45 yards and a TD. Of players who have attempted 10 or more passes, Steelers receiver Antwaan Randle El owns the all-time best rating of 156.1. He is 22 for 27 for 323 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions.

Not perfect, but pretty darn close.

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