Critics can't douse empassioned Banister's fire

Critics can't douse empassioned Banister's fire

Critics can't douse empassioned Banister's fire
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Jeff Banister could be the face of any baseball team.

The sun-dried skin. The dry wit. The robotically precise batting-practice pitches and fungo hits. He could have stepped out of an Iowan cornfield, or off a silver screen flickering with "Bull Durham."

But Banister is the face of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and not only for those obvious reasons.

Since 1993, the other faces have all changed. Six managers. Dozens of coaches. Hundred-plus players. Only the team's fortunes have not changed, the Bucs huddled in their foxhole beneath the .500 mark.

Results: March 28 | April 4 | April 5 | April 6
Complete coverage
Sign up for MLB.TV | Get At Bat 12
Opening Day videos

And Banister's address. From Minor League coach to Minor League manager to Major and Minor League organizational field coordinator to Clint Hurdle's bench coach, he is the only member of the organization who has been here for all 19, for every time "wait till next year" turned into the same year.

"The toughest part," Banister says, "is listening to people, the experts, continually call us 'irrelevant.' That's been a tough pill to swallow.

"We are relevant. We always have been. Yeah, we haven't had winning seasons, but still there are always guys playing relevant baseball. Call us 'irrelevant,' and I'll throw down a line in the sand between us."

Banister will also tell you to not hold your breath for 20. And he will go far beyond that.

"One thing you've got to understand," the Bucs' bench coach says, "is that I understand the number, I respect the number and all the people who hang on that ... but, truly, loudest in my mind is that our quest is not to end this streak, but to win the division.

"The goal is to win the division and play meaningful games in October. So that's our focus -- and if that happens, it will end the streak, no?"

That would be a pretty good bet. Banister's windmill is not as outrageous as it might sound. Break the depression, and you can break through. At the end of 12 consecutive losing seasons, the Detroit Tigers landed in the 2006 World Series. After nine straight losing seasons, the Reds crashed the 2010 postseason. The year after ending their streak of 14 straight losing seasons, the Brewers were in the playoffs.

That's the inspiring track record of teams not only getting off the floor, but leaping off it all the way to the ceiling.

"And it translates into other sports, too. You can look it up," Banister says. "There is a core group of guys who hold that thought very close. It burns in their guts, and they feel it in their hearts. Believe me, they want to be part of the group that gets talked about like [those other rebound teams].

"They don't want to be another notch in a book somewhere in the future. Like Clint says, 'We're not showing up to play for second place.'"

Banister looks around the clubhouse and is certain his optimism is not misguided. In the clubhouse, one doesn't see speed or power or untouchable pitches. One sees fire in the eyes, hears the beat of hearts.

"Those players ... the drive, the passion, the pride, the work ethic, everything these guys have put in to get better -- collectively as a group ... You can't end anything without a team effort, and each one of these guys has bought into it, they want to be a part of it, they want to have a piece of ending that streak," Banister said.

"My belief is in all these guys and in the leaders they have in place and the talent pool they have to draw from. Every one of them will tell you the same thing, because they believe it."

Banister has been back in a big league uniform only since Aug. 8, 2010, when he became John Russell's interim bench coach before Hurdle entered and made him his regular sidekick. But that couldn't strengthen his commitment and feeling of responsibility, which have always been at a maximum.

"If I was an extra coach at the Gulf Coast Level," he says, citing the lowest rung of the Pirates' Minor League ladder, "I would have the same attitude. But you are judged as an organization by what you do at the Major League level, so there are a lot of people who depend on me and everyone else who puts on this uniform to do whatever we can to win.

"When I was on the player-development side, we would always talk and daydream about one day holding up the World Series trophy. Everyone is as committed as I am to the whole process that can make that happen."

As a daydreamer, Banister is batting 1.000. Literally.

He and his roommate with the 1991 Buffalo Bisons, Jeff Richardson, would joke every night after games on their way back to the hotel that when the phone rang, Buffalo manager Terry Collins would be on the other end of the line sending them to the big leagues.

And one night, the phone did ring, Richardson answered, and it was Collins, asking him to put Banister on the line.

Pittsburgh catcher Don Slaught had gotten hurt, and the next day Banister walked into the clubhouse at Three Rivers Stadium and saw a No. 28 uniform with his name on the back hanging in a locker.

In the bottom of the seventh, with the Pirates holding a 10-3 lead over the Braves, pitcher Doug Drabek's spot in the batting order came up, and Banister heard manager Jim Leyland call his name.

Banister stepped into the batter's box against Dan Petry.

"I was always saying," Banister says, "that if I ever got the opportunity, the first white thing that crossed the plate I would take a hack it, try to put it over the fence. I swung and missed."

Petry next buzzed the eager youngster, then delivered a slider low and away, which Banister drilled into the hole between short and third. Braves shortstop Jeff Blauser backhanded the ball, put on the brakes and pegged to first. Safe. Banister beat it out for an infield single.

Two days later, Bob Walk got hurt one inning into his start in Houston. The Pirates needed a pitcher, and Banister found himself back in Buffalo.

That winter, while having a terrific Dominican Republic Winter League campaign the 26-year-old felt would finally launch his permanent big league career, Banister suffered an elbow injury "that needed reconstructive surgery and sent me into managing."

Banister will always have that one Major League at-bat, that 1.000 lifetime batting average. One hit. Holding up that World Series trophy one time. Are these things too much to ask for?

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.