Jeff Banister never let challenges get in his way. From being diagnosed with cancer in his left leg and suffering a torn up knee during his high school career to breaking his neck in junior college and then spending 29 years in pro ball waiting and wondering if he'd ever get a chance to be a big league manager.
The opportunity finally came. A man with one Major League at-bat and one hit -- he beat out a ground ball to short -- was given a chance a season ago to manage the Texas Rangers, taking over for the player favorite Ron Washington.
The Rangers last season were a mirror of Banister's life. It was a struggle early on, but the team didn't give up. Texas won the American League West.
Banister discusses his approach to life in this week's Q&A.
MLB.com: To go through everything you've gone through, in terms of time spent in the game as well as the physical challenges of your youth, did you start to wonder if you'd ever get the chance to be a big league manager?
Banister: Internally, to be honest with you, there was a point where I came to the conclusion that it might not happen. Still, in the back of ... my mind, deep, dark crevices, the dream was still there. I felt I had the skill set -- and I obviously had the desire.
MLB.com: But then I guess you always have believed you could accomplish things, even when others doubted. Like being told your sophomore year in high school you had cancer in your left leg.
Banister: I'd been in that hospital bed, in that same room, for so long that I'd kind of developed the ability in my brain to compartmentalize the fear aspect of it all. I got tired of being scared. I got tired of seeing fear in everybody else's faces. I got tired of seeing the sadness. The only thing that I could really hang on to is that word, "No." No you're not [going to amputate], because I'm going to be in control of this. I didn't know how. I didn't know even if I could be, but I'm lying in a hospital bed, in a gown, seeing nothing but masks, gloves and aprons, the same four walls, hearing the same sounds every night, every day, fighting that fight. In my own mind, I was putting myself outside that room, out on a baseball field, where I would spend my days. I wasn't going to let somebody else or let an infection or a disease take that away from me.
MLB.com: Do you live in fear now of a return of the cancer?
Banister: I don't live in fear because, not long after that, when I was in junior college, I was laying in the hospital bed again, can't move and facing another set of issues with a broken neck from a collision at home plate. Again, I fear for other people and things that might happen to other people more -- my own kids, my wife, my family, these players. I think that side of it is I kind of fear for them more than I fear for myself. Maybe a curse? A blessing? When I get up every morning and I put my feet on the floor -- and I feel the carpet or I feel the hardwood or the tile, and I see the sun shining or I see the lights outside -- I take that first morning breath, it's a great day for me. I can't wait for the next 24 hours.
MLB.com: With three broken vertebrae in your neck, I guess you were lucky you were not paralyzed?
Banister: I was paralyzed for a while. That was a whole other canister of fear.
MLB.com: But you did come back, making all-conference the next year and winding up going to the University of Houston. Where did you find the strength to not give up?
Banister: I think that is because of two parents who worked extremely hard. Dad was a high school football coach, Mother was a hardworking teacher. They are both giving people. We lived by the rule as athletes and students to give everything you have ever single time you are on the field or in a classroom. That's the responsibility when you have the opportunity to do something. You give back. There are people affording you the opportunity, and there is an expectation that comes from that side, too. I just feel like ... I've been given so many opportunities that I've got to culture that and hold that. They're fragile because I think that was instilled in me.
MLB.com: Can you recall that one big league at-bat you had?
Banister: Absolutely. Never forget it. Prior to the at-bat, I'm scrambling -- looking for my helmet and my bat. They decided to hide everything. I eventually found my helmet. I grabbed Cecil Espy's bat. I walked up. I really don't have much time in the on-deck circle. Dan Petry [was on the mound]. I always told myself the first pitch, I didn't care, I was going to swing. I didn't want a check swing. [I] swung and missed.
The next ball was kind of up and in. Backing off. The next ball might've been a little slider. I got the barrel on it. It went to the six hole. Then, the race was on. I remember it being a close play. I remember looking as I was running down the line. Out of the corner of my eye, I knew that Jeff Blauser had gloved the ball. I knew that it was going to be close. I hit the bag. I could hear the smack of the ball in the glove. I saw the umpire give the safe sign and I knew that there was going to be a line in the record book.
MLB.com: I guess you can say that your determination, that when you finally got the chance to be a big league manager, you used that history to motivate the Rangers after the slow start last year.
Banister: Yeah. It's incredible how the whole year played out. I think [I was] the right guy in the right place at the right time. A team that was hurting. A group of guys that were hurting. They were questioning who they were. Were they still the team that they were before? New manager. A whole set of challenges. A guy that they'd believed in was no longer in charge. Here's this new guy. Not young, but full of energy and really giving them a message of strength. Trying to give back to them that, "Hey, you are a good team."
I had heard all these bad things that went on the year before. There was no fun. Nobody had any fun. I had the video guys chop up video. They put together this long video of all these things that happened that really showed these guys really had some fun times the year before. It reminded them of that. I said, "What I know about slumps, I learned from a really good hitting coach. He kept saying for every hitless at bat when you're in a slump, you're one at bat closer to being hot." I said, "For each one of these losses that we keep piling up, the game of baseball is going to afford us the opportunity to win baseball games. We have to be attentive and pay attention to every single one of them. We have to be ready when the time is right. You can't fall into that groundswell and build dungeons for yourself and think, 'Oh well, here we go again.'"
They believed in that message. They stayed attentive. They kept showing up. They kept grinding away. I believe that it's a special group of guys. We just unlocked what they already had inside of them.