Rangers skipper refused to be derailed after long road to big league job
By Richard Justice
PHOENIX -- Jeff Banister had come too far for this to be happening again. If cancer had returned to his body, it was going to have to take a number.
"I'd waited so long to get where I was," he said.
Banister was terrified. He will admit that a year later.
"It scared the living bejesus out of me," he said.
Because the pain was so agonizingly familiar -- lightning bolts through his left ankle, fever and chills racking his body.
Banister had been 16 years old in 1981, the first time he had those symptoms, and the doctor thought they might need to amputate his left leg. But with dreams of the big leagues, Banister persuaded the doctor to try to save his leg, and he ended up spending five months in the hospital and undergoing seven operations on his left leg and ankle as he overcame bone cancer and osteomyelitis, an infection caused by bacteria eating away at bone marrow.
Fast forward to last year, when Banister willed himself past the pain.
The Texas Rangers had offered the chance of a lifetime, and he'd waited 29 years for someone to believe in him the way Rangers general manager Jon Daniels had.
Banister had spent 25 of those years in the Minor Leagues, doing an assortment of thankless tasks, making little money. As a manager in Pittsburgh's system, he'd been passed over time after time as the Pirates changed skippers again and again. Finally, Bucs manager Clint Hurdle promoted Banister to his big league staff in 2011.
And then, after the 2014 season, the Rangers telephoned -- in part because Hurdle offered an emphatic recommendation. During the interview process, Daniels asked Banister how he would handle things when the Rangers had their first six-game losing streak.
"I've gone through worse," Banister replied, smiling.
So, 48 hours before he was going to manage his first regular-season game as a 51-year-old rookie skipper last season, and Banister thought he was being tested in a way he hoped he would never be tested again.
"I decided to be stubborn," Banister said.
Last April, when the Rangers returned from Spring Training to Texas for an exhibition game against the Mets, Banister felt awful.
"About the third inning or so of the game, I look over at [Rangers bench coach] Steve Buechele and say, 'I don't know if I have the flu or what,'" Banister remembered. "Something hit me.
"I stepped down onto the steps in the dugout and had excruciating pain in my ankle. After the game, I went inside and my ankle was swollen. I started having streaks [of discoloration], familiar streaks."
Banister told no one -- not the team's medical staff or his wife Karen.
"I was worried," he said. "I was stubborn, too."
The next day, Banister showed up at the ballpark intending to catch the team flight to Oakland for Opening Day.
"I went in and laid down on the couch in my office," he said. "I was in all kinds of pain."
That's when two Rangers coaches -- Tony Beasley and Buechele -- found Banister and summoned the team's medical staff. And then?
"I never told the doctor what I thought I had," Banister said. "I was going to wait and see what they thought. They gave me antibiotics and sent me to bed for 24 hours. The next day, I got up and joined the team in Oakland."
Fortunately, the meds took, and what Banister feared might be a recurrence of cancer turned out to be an infection that was knocked out by the antibiotics.
That opening week was the beginning of a wild ride, one in which Texas started 8-16 and didn't clear .500 until the end of May. When the Rangers finally got healthy and rolling, they won 33 of their final 50 to win the American League West.
Along the way, Banister inspired his players again and again with his communication skills and power-of-positive-thinking chats. One of his tools was brief videos highlighting all the good things the Rangers were doing -- even during the toughest times.
"I told them before every series, 'We're getting closer,' and that myself and the coaching staff believed in what they were going to do," Banister said. "Not what they've done, but what they're going to do. They needed to continue to hang onto that. We would continue to learn who they were and find the best way possible to put them in position to succeed."
How does cancer change a man? Banister shrugs at a question like that. He may not even be sure. One of his enduring memories is of his father, Bob, sitting beside him in his hospital bed in Texas City, Texas. Banister's aunt -- his father's sister -- died of cancer during Jeff's hospital stay.
Jeff remembers his dad passing up his sister's funeral to remain at his bedside.
"I'll never forget his head resting on my chest while I'm attached to all these tubes and machines," Banister said, choking on the words.
Jeff got out of the hospital and eventually back on the baseball field for his senior year at LaMarque High School outside Houston.
"If you want to call it playing, I did play," he said. "I hit something like .180. But that's where I wanted to be. The idea of being outside and on a baseball field was what drove me. I'd laid in a hospital bed and dreamed about it. That was the motivation that got me through the days."
Banister recovered enough to play at Baytown Junior College and the University of Houston. The Pirates took him in the 25th round of the 1986 Draft. Banister put in eight seasons in the Minors, and reached the Majors ever so briefly as a player, getting a hit in his only big league plate appearance for the Bucs on July 23, 1991. Two years later, he transitioned from player to coach.
As for that left leg, which is still discolored with a quarter-size hole, Banister said, "It hurts every day. Not a day goes by that I don't get a reminder of where I've been."
His father, Bob, died of a heart attack at 48.
"Jan. 13, 1988," Banister said.
Jeff knows that every chapter of his life has contributed to what he is today -- the 2015 AL Manager of the Year Award winner -- and someone who believes almost anyone can accomplish a little bit more than they probably think is possible."
"You never forget some of this stuff," he said. "How does it change you? It surely does change you. I'm not sure I'll ever know how."
For one thing, it may add perspective. For another, balance. Banister begins his second season as the Rangers' manager optimistic about his players and his own ability to lead a group of men.
Banister remains grateful to Daniels and the Rangers for giving him this opportunity.
"There's a sense of responsibility that comes with that," Banister said. "There were so many years of feeling like you're doing certain things right, feeling like you're learning, you're being challenged. You're just not getting a chance. You try to educate yourself on every aspect of the game. What would you do if you ever got the shot? To be able to put a lot of those things in play and have them work out, there's a huge sense of fulfillment and joy."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.