He fought bone cancer, osteomyelitis, fractured vertebrae, paralysis, multiple surgeries and grief. He was told—twice—that he might never walk again. But Jeff Banister, the rookie manager of the Texas Rangers, wouldn’t quit baseball.
His first health crisis began with a simple twist of his ankle while playing in a football game for La Marque High School in Texas in 1979. Banister stayed home with flu-like symptoms and agonizing ankle pain that caused him to collapse. The teenager had developed bone cancer and osteomyelitis, an infection of the bone or bone marrow, which had spread to below his knee. After surgery and several weeks in the hospital, Banister got the devastating news that, during a follow-up surgery, his leg might need to be amputated.
The leg was spared, but his condition went from bad to worse after returning home. The flu-like symptoms recurred. Seven more operations and weeks of recuperation followed. “I was given an opportunity to lie in a hospital bed and think about all of the things I would do when I got out of the hospital,” Banister, 51, says in a video on the Texas Rangers website. “For me there was no choice other than to push forward.”
He surprised everyone by returning to baseball, going on to play for Lee College, a community college in Baytown, Texas. And that’s where Banister would face a terrifying new injury.
He wasn’t originally penciled into the lineup for the last game of the 1983 fall season, but New York Yankees scout Deacon Jones wanted to evaluate Banister, so his coach, Rod Soesbe, agreed to play him for five innings. In the fifth, a base runner sprinted toward home plate, where Banister was playing catcher. As the runner tried to hurdle Banister and score, his knee slammed into Banister’s head. As Banister writhed in pain, Soesbe placed a catcher’s mitt on each side of his neck to stabilize it until paramedics arrived—an action that may have saved his life. The collision fractured three neck vertebrae and paralyzed him for 10 days. Banister underwent two more surgeries.
Eighty-five pounds lighter when discharged from the hospital, the young athlete asked his doctor, Lee Roy Lockhart, when he could play baseball again. “Jeff, you’ll never play baseball again,” Lockhart responded. “You get hit like this again, and they’re not going to repair you. They’ll just bring a bag out, put you in the bag, zip it up, and we’ll put you in the ground.”
Banister smiled as he told Lockhart, “Doc, I will play in the big leagues.”
Banister channeled Lockhart’s dire prediction into a motivating force. He relearned to walk during a year of rehabilitation. In 1985 he resumed playing baseball for Lee College, well enough to earn a scholarship to play for the University of Houston. And in 1986, the Pittsburgh Pirates selected Banister in the 25th of 28 rounds of the MLB Draft, the 621st pick.
He would face tough times again as a minor leaguer: His grandfather and his 48-year-old father died a few weeks apart in 1988. His father, on the last day of his life, told Banister that people would want to know his story—words that have echoed in his ears throughout his coaching career. Banister does share his story, but his style also includes an appreciation for what his players have gone through.
As Eric Nadel, the Rangers’ National Baseball Hall of Fame radio announcer, says, “He seems to have the ability to get to people and motivate people. He wants to go to great lengths to get to know each guy as a person rather than as a baseball player, to know what makes these guys tick. With all he went through to get to the major leagues as a player, he has a very special inner strength that some people don’t have. He didn’t need somebody to motivate him.”
That drive led Banister to prove his doctor wrong. At 27 years old—an elderly rookie by baseball standards—Banister was called up from Triple-A Buffalo to play for the Pirates against the Atlanta Braves.
He made it to the big leagues on July 23, 1991.
Banister was not in the starting lineup, but manager Jim Leyland used him as a pinch hitter in the eighth inning. He hit a ground ball that Atlanta shortstop Jeff Blauser picked up and fired to first base. Banister said it seemed like forever as he “fought like hell” sprinting down the first-base line, counting every step. He beat Blauser’s throw by a fraction of a second. He had fought for—and achieved—his hit just as he had battled to reach the major leagues.
That single would be his only hit in his only at-bat of his only major league appearance. Banister’s stint in Major League Baseball would last five days before he was sent back to the minors. But he will forever hold a perfect major league batting average of 1.000: one hit in one at-bat.
Banister stayed in the minors a couple more years before ending his playing career and joining the Pirates organization as a minor league coach in 1993. He spent 29 years with the Pirates as a player, minor league manager, major league field coordinator and major league bench coach.
Last October the Texas Rangers signed Banister to a three-year contract as manager. At his introductory news conference, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said Banister’s experience, work ethic and attitude made him the ideal manager to right the struggling team.
His attitude has carried over from his playing days into his coaching career. Banister’s Twitter page is filled with motivational quotes, such as, “Focus on the only two things you can control. Your attitude and your effort.” He signs his tweets with his hashtag “#nevereverquit.” The phrase is the slogan for the Rangers’ 2015 season, adorning everything from their website to commercials and even apparel.
“I’m not going to show up at 7 o’clock every night and go, ‘Well, we’re down two in the first [inning]. We might as well throw in the towel and walk away,’ ” Banister told fans at an event earlier this year. “The game’s not done until it’s over. You’re focused in until the last out is made. That’s my never-ever-quit attitude.”
Rangers fans and players have bought into his philosophy. “Every time I hear him talk, I want to kill someone,” 28-year-old pitcher Derek Holland jokes. “Sorry, I’m not going to murder anybody, no. He’s just got that voice. He’s a strong leader. He’s very passionate about what he wants to do. He’s one of those guys that I’m very excited to come in and play for. This guy is into the game.”
Veteran starting pitcher Colby Lewis agrees: “Once he started to talk, I was just locked in,” baseball-ese for being totally focused.
Banister carries his work ethic from the field to his home. His wife, Karen—whom he met when he was playing for the University of Houston—shares a story with fans about a night when they were watching TV, and she admired the painted walls in an infomercial. She casually mentioned the possibility of painting their daughter’s room. When she came home the next day, the walls were perfectly outlined with tape. Banister told his wife to pick the colors. (Karen Banister adds that he’s also handy at building things and doing yard work.)
Banister believes it’s important to stay humble and work hard in life and in baseball. “I’m still learning this game. I’ve had a lot of great teachers in the past. I believe that if you’re not learning, you’re not growing. If you’re not growing, you’re dying.”