Keep Going: Jeff Banister Named Rangers Manager
Written by: Robert Sable
Friday morning marked the beginning of what I would expect to be an offseason consisting of large overhaul for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but I just can’t help but smile. After 29 years with the Pirates organization, Jeff Banister has been named the manager of the Texas Rangers.
Banister’s name seemingly surfaced as the frontrunner for the Rangers job just a few days ago, as most expected Tim Bogar to receive the offer. Bogar served as interim manager for the Rangers following Ron Washington’s departure. The Rangers may have finished with the worst record in the American League this past season, but adversity is nothing new for Banister.
The 49-year-old played his high school baseball at LaMarque high school in Texas. As a junior, Jeff suffered what appeared to be a routine ankle injury, which led to the discovery of cancerous cysts in his right ankle immediately requiring multiple skin grafts. The cancer spread to just above his right knee and Banister was advised to amputate his leg. He refused.
“I don’t know what I’d do without baseball… I talked to my dad and we cried and I told him I’d rather die than lose my leg.” Banister told the Bulletin.
He spent six grueling months in the hospital and had seven surgeries, but, in the end, Banister was able to keep his leg. He would return to the field and play well enough to earn a spot on the Lee junior college baseball team in Baytown, Texas as a catcher.
The dice of life continued to fail him when just 3 years after overcoming cancer he suffered a broken neck during a home plate collision, crushing three vertebrae. He was paralyzed for ten days and was warned of the strong possibility that he would never walk again. Banister remained resilient and underwent three more operations, along with a full year of rehabilitation in an effort to walk again. Not only did Banister walk again, but he played baseball as well.
Following his rehabilitation, Banister battled and found himself on the University of Houston baseball team. Despite having two more knee surgeries, he caught the eye of major league scouts and was subsequently drafted in the 25th round by the Pittsburgh Pirates. This was an honor that his father, grandfather and doctor were not able to witness due to their passing all within three weeks of each other while Banister was still in college.
In his first season with Single-A Watertown, Banister managed to only hit for a .145 batting average. His dream to become a major leaguer was very much in jeopardy.
But Banister managed to do what he’s always done: persevere. He moved his way up the minor leagues, and on July 23, 1991, his sixth professional season, Banister received the call to the majors. In his first at bat, his only major league at bat, Banister beat out a ground ball to the shortstop for a single. He hit 1.000 for his career.
He played one more year of minor league baseball but could not hang up the cleats just yet. He immediately began working for the Pirates organization as a minor league coach and eventually became a minor league manager. He then worked as a minor league field coordinator for almost a decade before being offered the opportunity to be the major league bench coach in 2010 following the firing of Gary Varsho. Banister retained that position up until his hiring as manager of the Texas Rangers.
After 29 years, the Pirates organization says goodbye and thank you to one of the greatest members they have ever had the honor of employing. In 2013, the New York Times questioned Bob Nutting on Jeff Banister.
“Jeff really is a remarkable person and a remarkable story. The character that he demonstrates everyday, in his own life, makes everyone around him a little better. I think that’s true in the clubhouse and throughout the organization. I love Jeff.”
From a baseball perspective, this no doubt will hurt the Pirates. Banister was a key factor in the resurgence of this franchise in recent years, but that won’t stop me from feeling great joy for this man who has overcome so much in his life.
Banister beat cancer, beat the threat of paralysis and beat the odds of becoming a major leaguer. If he can accomplish all of that, he sure as hell can beat the American League West.
The Bulletin, July 24, 1991: Cancer, broken neck can’t stop Buc’s Banister
New York Times, Oct. 9, 2013: In Dugout, a Grinder who Never Gave In