Banister's survival instinct instilled early

Rangers' manager recovered from bone cancer, paralysis at young age

October 5th, 2015

ARLINGTON -- After losses on Friday and Saturday threatened his team's chances for a division title, Rangers manager Jeff Banister refused to show his concern.
"From great challenges come your greatest victories," Banister said.
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Banister knows great challenges from growing up in the Houston area with a fierce determination to play in the Major Leagues. As a high school sophomore, he developed bone cancer and osteomyelitis in his left ankle. A doctor said amputation offered the best chance of full recovery, but Banister begged them not to crush his dream.
Banister underwent seven operations, achieved full recovery and ended up playing baseball for Baytown Junior College. He was an undersized catcher and was involved in a devastating collision at home plate, crushing three vertebrae in his neck. He was paralyzed for 10 days before he began another long, agonizing and ultimately successful recovery.
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The dream refused to die. Banister played college baseball at the University of Houston and was drafted by the Pirates as a light-hitting, defensive minded catcher in the 25th round of the 1986 First-Year Player Draft.
His greatest victory came on July 23, 1991, when the Pirates finally called him up to the big leagues. He pinch-hit for pitcher Doug Drabek and beat out an infield single to shortstop. It would be his only at-bat in the Major Leagues, but his dream had been fulfilled.
"I carried a whole truckload of people with me down the line," Banister said. "I'm still carrying that. I think, as a kid, each one of us has dreams. Then there are some things that happen [that] life just throws at you that you have no answer for.
"To be able to walk into a Major League game when everybody told you that you wouldn't, you couldn't, you shouldn't, go pick another occupation, go do something else -- now you get an opportunity to do it. It happens and you are on top of the mountain for one day, one moment in time, you carry those people with you and it is the best thank you that you can give, that's what it meant."
Banister spent 29 years in the Pirates organization as a player, coach, field coordinator and Minor League manager. Then the Rangers hired him as manager a year ago, and he has achieved another great victory.
The Rangers wrapped up the division title with a 9-2 victory over the Angels on Sunday. The first-year manager with a dream that never died is taking his team into the postseason.
Welcome to the Jeff Banister Show. Now all of baseball gets the chance to see and understand who the Rangers' manager is, what he has overcome to get to this point and how he has led a turnaround for a team that lost 95 games in 2014.
"Banister always made us believe this could happen, so we never thought it wouldn't," designated hitter Prince Fielder said.
The Rangers refused to quit this season even though they started off 8-16, were four games under at the All-Star break and eight games out of first place on Aug. 2.
They seemed to take their lead from a manager who knows better than most what it takes to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The lessons Banister learned in his recovery from bone cancer and from almost permanent paralysis are something he'll carry with him forever.
"The impact is, I don't take any day for granted," Banister said. "When I wake up every morning and put my feet on the floor ... I thank God that I've got another day. I understand perseverance, I understand what hard work means, that pain is one of those things we are given to let us know we are alive from time to time."
Banister said he owes much to his parents. His father, Bob, who passed away in 1988 of a massive heart attack, was a football coach; his son wears a tattoo in his father's memory. His mother, Verda, was an algebra teacher who is still his biggest fan.
"My two parents instilled in me that you survive, that you push and you endure, because the other option is not what I am looking for," Banister said. "My passion for baseball runs so deep [that] there were nights, laying in a hospital bed knowing that I wasn't going to get up, that one thing I could do was I could dream, I could think about and I could challenge myself when I got out of the hospital, I would continue to play the game of baseball because it gave me joy at a time when there was no joy.
"It gave me something to think about that made me strive in days I really didn't care to go forward. So that burning desire, that internal fire that burns inside of me to have success to pass on, to push forward, was melded a long time ago in a couple different hospital rooms."
When Banister was in high school, he used to drive up from LaMarque, Tex., to the Astrodome to watch the Astros play. Because his father was a football coach, he knew his way around the world-famous facility. So he got into the games for free by walking through the loading docks with nobody ever asking any questions.
Now he walks through the front door as manager of a division championship team.
"All those men around you, and all those players around you, had everything to do with it," Banister said. "This coaching staff, everything that they believed in, they just took a Texas boy out of Pittsburgh and said, 'You know what? Lead us somewhere, take care of us and we'll do the rest.'"