THE GUY WALKING into Fenway Park at 12:45 p.m. on Tuesday, July 5, looks like an older college student: plaid shirt, jeans, backpack.
In actuality, Jeff Banister is the manager of one of the best teams in the American League, a job that delights but hardly defines him. He's a dutiful son and a doting father of two, a former major league catcher (1-for-1!), a presumed Pirates lifer, a Texan through and through, and a survivor of both bone cancer and a temporarily paralyzing home-plate collision.
He's also a man who's liable to open the daily media briefing in his office this way: "OK, what's your favorite song?"
That question, asked on this arduous 10-game road trip, elicited a little head-scratching by the writers and mic holders, then a variety of responses: songs from artists ranging from Train to Kris Kristofferson to Nirvana to Tommy James and the Shondells ("Crystal Blue Persuasion"?!). When Banister was pressed for his own choice, he said, "I'm tempted to go with the theme from 'The Good, The Bad and the Ugly,' but my wife would kill me if I didn't choose Restless Heart's "I'll Still Be Loving You." That was our wedding song."
Was there a motive in opening his briefing that way? "Not really. I just like to connect with people, learn a little something about them."
Turns out Banister is a student -- of people, of baseball, of life. As befitting the son of two educators, he likes to ask questions, and even if he already has the answer, he wants to hear yours. To borrow a baseball term, he has range, a sense of humanity that is reflected in both the standings and his @Bannyrooster28 Twitter account. (It's worth checking out if only for the photos of the team's star-spangled ensembles for the trip to Boston.)
Given his AL Manager of the Year Award in 2015 and the Rangers' 5½-game lead in the AL West at the All-Star break, there is one nagging question that clings to the 52-year-old Banister: Why did it take so long for him to become a major league manager?
"Good question," says Jon Daniels, the Rangers' 38-year-old general manager. "In the initial interview [in 2014], everybody was blown away, and when we made a trip to his home outside of Houston to meet his family, I was even more impressed.
"But if you really want to know when I knew we made the right choice, it was at the end of April last year. We had just got beaten late to fall way below .500, and I had this woe-is-me look on my face. He looked at me and said, 'JD, I can't have you looking like that. I want our people to see that it's just one loss and that we're going to be all right -- it's a long season.' I knew then that I had found a true partner in constructing this ballclub."
The Rangers not only righted the ship but also sailed through the second half, taking over first place for good in September thanks to a five-game winning streak that propelled them past the Houston Astros. Long before that, though, Daniels called Banister's former boss, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, to thank him for recommending Banister. "Clint said, "JD, I didn't send you some boy. I sent you a grown-ass man!"
SAID MAN IS sitting in the visiting dugout shortly after his ritual exercise walk through the park on July 5. It's the start of an ordinary day in the life of Jeff Banister -- game time 8:10 p.m. -- but it's also a chance to review his extraordinary life. Every game brings Banister a parade of reminders of the people and events and games that brought him to this spot.
Take the early arrival in the Rangers' visiting clubhouse of young Dominican right hander Jose Leclerc, brought up from Triple-A Round Rock to shore up the Rangers' overworked bullpen. This is Leclerc's first call-up to the majors, and Banister greets him warmly and makes him feel at home -- even on the road.
It was during this month, 25 years ago, that Buffalo Bisons manager Terry Collins told journeyman catcher Jeff Banister that the Pirates were calling him up to fill in for the injured Don Slaught. The move was so unexpected that Banister's wife, Karen, and mother, Verda, were left behind in Oklahoma City, where they expected to see him play for Buffalo.
"July 23, 1991. I walked into the clubhouse in Three Rivers Stadium, and there was my name on a major league jersey," Banister says. "And the number was 28, my number ever since I broke my neck wearing No. 17. I know for a fact it wasn't on purpose -- I like to think a higher power had something to do with it.
"Anyway, I went in and introduced myself to the manager, Jim Leyland. But I really didn't know what to say or even how to mingle with the other players."
With one out in the bottom of the seventh inning and the Pirates leading the Braves 10-3, Leyland sent Banister up to pinch-hit for starting pitcher Doug Drabek. He had to borrow the bat of teammate Cecil Espy. On the mound was Dan Petry, and on a 1-1 count, Banister grounded the ball into the hole between short and third and beat shortstop Jeff Blauser's throw to first.
Verda, watching with her daughter-in-law from their Oklahoma City motel room, remembers it this way: "That run down the first-base line was so Jeff. He's not exactly a speed demon, you know, but he was not going to be denied. We went crazy."
Banister accompanied the team to its next stop, his hometown of Houston, but he never got another at-bat in the majors, or a chance to play in the field. That does give him the distinction of being one of only 15 non-pitchers to get a hit in his only at bat --the perfect ending (1.000) to a less-than-perfect major league playing career. And he still has the ball -- or rather his son, Jacob, has it.
"I'll always remember the euphoria of hearing the cheers as I stood on first base," he says. "They weren't that loud -- it wasn't a big hit in the scheme of things. But it was to me. So when I got a chance to help Chi Chi Gonzalez savor the moment in his debut last year, I took advantage."
Banister is referring to the start Gonzalez made at Globe Life Park on May 30, 2015. The rookie right-hander no-hit the Red Sox for the first five innings of his major league debut, then ran into a little trouble in the sixth. With two outs, Banister went to the mound to replace him. "As soon as I arrived, Chi Chi handed me the ball and started to walk off the mound. I told him, 'Hold on, son. Let's wait a second and let me signal for a reliever. And then I want you to listen to the noise -- it's going to get real loud. That'll be for you.'"
When Banister raised his right arm for Tanner Scheppers, the crowd of 42,831 rose as one to cheer Gonzalez. "I'll never forget the standing ovation," Gonzalez says. "But I'll also never forget Jeff's thoughtfulness."
IN THE FIVE or six hours before a game, much of a manager's time is taken up with meetings and phone calls. On this day, Banister checks in with Daniels about roster moves, meets with his coaches and sits down with Adam Lewkowicz, the Rangers' director for advance scouting and game strategy.
Lewkowicz comes from the world of baseball analysis -- his own playing experience didn't go beyond Division III Hamilton College in upstate New York. But he has become a key member of the Rangers' staff, acting as a liaison with the analytics team and providing Banister with the tools and videos he needs to fine-tune defensive positioning, pitching matchups, batting order, et cetera, et cetera. "He wants it all," Lewkowicz says, "and I mean that in a good way. He speaks two languages, the one that scouts and players understand and the one that the analytics department uses. He asks questions, some of which he already knows the answer to, but he's always open to a new concept."
The coaching staff for this road trip includes a welcome addition: Tony Beasley. Ordinarily the third-base coach, Beasley had to take time off to get treatment for colon cancer. He and Banister go way back in the Pirates organization -- Beasley actually played the infield for him on the 1997 Carolina Mudcats. The only coach Banister brought with him when he took the Rangers job was Beasley.
"I was so happy for Jeff when he got the job," Beasley says. "He's great at taking the pulse of the players, and he sees things before any of the rest of us see them. He's got your back, and he's got your front."
"He's passionate, firm, smart, he'll put you in a position to succeed, and he'll fight for you."Rangers CF Ian Desmond
When Beasley was diagnosed with cancer after last season, Daniels and Banister told him to take his time and return at his own pace. "Jeff was one of the first people I talked to because he's been there. He shared my pain. He also told me, 'Do everything you can to fight it. Don't allow cancer to change you.'"
When Banister was just 16 and a sophomore at La Marque (Texas) High School, doctors discovered that he had bone cancer in his left leg -- an ankle injury that had been slow to heal suddenly became osteomyelitis, an infection that had spread up to his knee. Amputation was recommended to save the rest of the leg, but he and his parents prevailed upon the doctors, who would perform seven operations to save his athletic career.
His recovery period included five months in a Texas City hospital. One of his memories is of his father, Bob, the high school's football coach, sitting at his bedside day in and day out. As Banister told Richard Justice of MLB.com, "I'll never forget his head resting on my chest while I'm attached to all these tubes and machines."
Two things constantly remind Banister of that passing storm cloud. One is the slight pain he still feels in his left leg. The other is a tattoo on his left arm: a cross with the date 1/13/88. That's the day that his father died.
A LOT OF major league managers would rather go to the dentist than deal with the media. We take up their precious pregame time with questions that are either stupid or none of our business. Banister either enjoys the sessions or fakes it really well.
On this day in Boston, Banister's briefing is twofold. Eric Nadel, the radio voice of the Rangers for the past 22 years and the 2014 recipient of the Ford C. Frick Award, gets a little alone time with Banister first. "When Jeff got the job, I called Clint Hurdle, who used to be our batting coach," Nadel says. "He said, 'You're gonna love this guy.' And I have. For years, the manager's pregame show was four minutes long. Now it's six, sometimes six and a half. Jeff has that much interesting stuff to offer.
"He'll tell you he's sticking with [first baseman] Mitch Moreland, but he'll also give you a good reason -- the exit velocity on his batted balls is still really high."
When Nadel is through with his session, the door opens, and the rest of the media corps gathers around Banister's desk. On this particular day, the desk is hosting a copy of "Ego Is The Enemy," a book by Ryan Holiday that celebrates heroic figures who put higher goals ahead of themselves.
Banister gives a postmortem of the Red Sox's 12-5 drubbing of the Rangers the day before, explains why they called up Leclerc, gives a progress report on rehabbing ace Yu Darvish, goes over the pitching plans for the rest of the week. When Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News asks him whether the struggling starter Nick Martinez has perhaps lost his confidence, Banister replies, "I can only tell you what I've seen. You're asking me to speculate."
He says it not in a dismissive fashion, but more like Socrates might -- or Verda, his eighth-grade algebra teacher. The colloquy between Grant and Banister is often the most entertaining part of these sessions; the writer knows his baseball but wants to learn more, and Banister is happy to oblige. "You can ask him any question," Grant says, "and he'll always have a good answer. He's the most linear, forthright manager I've ever dealt with."
His people skills are evident during batting practice. "That's the time when I like to touch base with everybody, have a little chat. I'll just wander around and ask them how they're doing. It's not about hitting or pitching or fielding -- they get enough of that. I'd much prefer to do life."
In perhaps the best move of the MLB offseason, Daniels signed former Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond to play outfield for the Rangers -- at the break, he was batting .322 with 15 homers, 15 stolen bases and 55 RBIs and looking like he was born to play center. One of the things that attracted him to the Rangers was Banister. "Because I'm from Sarasota, I train in the offseason at Pirate City, and I'd heard a lot about Banny," Desmond says. "It was all true. He's passionate, firm, smart, he'll put you in a position to succeed, and he'll fight for you. You know how in school you had a favorite teacher? He definitely has that vibe."
BANISTER HAS ONE other order of business before the game. He announces to the team that Desmond and pitcher Cole Hamels have been named to the American League All-Star team. "I also wanted to let them know I thought they were all All-Stars," he says. "It says a lot about us that we have the best record in the American League, and only two guys going to San Diego."
Banister was an all-star once, too -- "He hit a grand slam for the American League to beat the National League," Verda says. "He was 10."
He and his mother talk on a regular basis, often about baseball. "She'll question some of my decisions, and I'll say, 'Verda, I think I know something about this game.' And she'll say, 'Please call me Mother.'"
Her son was also a junior college All-American at Lee College, in Baytown, Texas, and therein lies another tale of resilience -- and one of the reasons he often ends tweets "#NeverEverQuit." In 1983 he was involved in a home-plate collision while playing for Lee: He had moved up the third-base line to catch a throw; the runner tried to leap over him; the runner's knee hit Banister flush in the head; his whole body went numb.
He would need surgery to relieve the pressure on his spinal cord. Reliving that day for Tyler Kepner of The New York Times back in 2013, Banister said, "When they put me in the car, I said, 'Hey, Doc, when do you think I can start working out again?' And he said, 'Jeff, let me tell you something: You're not going to play baseball again.' ... And I smiled at him and told him, 'Doc, I'm going to play in the big leagues.' He said, 'Well, best of luck to you. You'll do good to run.'"
Says Verda, "We really did think that was the end of his baseball career."
During his year of recovery, Banister went from 225 pounds to 150. But he persevered, trained and returned to the diamond. Not only did he make the junior college All-American team, but he also earned a baseball scholarship to the University of Houston. That's where he met his wife, Karen, with whom he has two children: Alexandra, 21, a member of the Baylor University volleyball team, and Jacob, 14, who's serious about baseball.
That's also where he attracted the mild interest of the Pittsburgh Pirates. They drafted him in the 25th round of the 1986 draft. OK, he had only one major league at-bat. But the Pirates also found themselves an organization man for the next 29 years. The main reason for his overly long journey back to the majors was that he was so good with the kids -- eight seasons as a minor league field coordinator doesn't exactly put you on the radar. But the Pirates didn't forget his service, because when they went looking for a new major league manager at the end of the 2010 season, he was one of the two finalists. The other was Clint Hurdle.
Hurdle knew enough to ask Banister to be his bench coach. And Banister knew enough that he didn't yet know enough about managing in the majors. "I'm not sure I would've been ready back then," he says. "Clint taught me a lot."
ONE OF THE things Hurdle taught him was that the best place for a manager to create some necessary space for himself is the dugout before a game. That's why the only man sitting on the visitors bench a half hour before the first pitch on July 5 is Banister.
"I love that time," he says. "No questions, no obligations -- it clears my mind. And then that quiet seat becomes the best seat in the house. The dugout fills, the fans take their seats, the national anthem plays and the fun starts." (Part of the fun on this night had already started: Two rookie relievers had to roll children's suitcases out to the bullpen.)
As Banister stands with his arms crossed on the far right side of the dugout, Shin-Soo Choo swings at David Price's first pitch and launches it 421 feet over the fence in center. Desmond follows with a single, steals second and eventually scores on a sac fly by Elvis Andrus. So far, so good: 2-0.
Rangers starter A.J. Griffin gives up a solo homer to Jackie Bradley Jr. in the bottom of the second, then runs into all sorts of trouble in the fourth: double, single, walk, walk, walk. The score is tied 2-2, the bases are loaded with two outs, and David Ortiz steps to the plate. Some fun.
Banister stays with Griffin, who gets Big Papi to hit a ground ball into the shift for a Big Out. But Griffin is clearly done for the night, and there are still five innings left to play. Fortunately, Banister and pitching coach Doug Brocail have planned the bullpen choreography for the night: left hander Cesar Ramos, righty Shawn Tolleson, lefty Jake Diekman, righty Matt Bush.
Rougned Odor doubles in Andrus in the top of the sixth to give the Rangers a 3-2 lead. In the meantime, Banister finds out that Choo had hurt his back on the home run swing and has to be removed from the game. He also gets a text from his son, Jacob, whose travel baseball team is playing in a tournament back home. "He got beat 6-2," Banister says later.
The Rangers nurse their 3-2 lead until the ninth. It's clear that the game will come down to closer vs. closer, Red Sox All-Star Craig Kimbrel vs. the Rangers' Sam Dyson. But on this night, Kimbrel doesn't have it: walk, single, RBI single and, on a 2-0 pitch to catcher Robinson Chirinos, a three-run blast over the Green Monster in left. Banister smiles as his players slap hands with Chirinos when he returns to the dugout.
Dyson gives up two singles to start the ninth. But then he gets Bradley to hit into a double play neatly turned at second by Odor. Not until Brock Holt lines out to short to end the game can Banister rest easy.
Actually, "rest" is the wrong word. There's still the postgame news conference in which he gives the credit for the victory to the bullpen and Chirinos, "who means so much to us." When Grant asks him whether this was one of those "punch-back games" he sometimes talks about, the manager nods in agreement.
Banister and his backpack leave the ballpark at around midnight. Back at the hotel, he watches a condensed video of the game that Lewkowicz has prepared for him. The very act of watching a replay gives him one last reminder of the path that took him here. "Because my father was a football coach, we watched a lot of film together."
His own internal projector often takes him back to Jan. 13, 1988. "I had finished my first season in Double-A in Harrisburg, and I was substitute teaching during the winter. My father took me to Sears Automotive to buy me four new tires for my 23rd birthday. We're just sitting there, talking, and he says, 'You need to write a journal. You might want to share your story with people someday.' He died of a heart attack a few hours later.
"So I have kept a journal. I've got a stack of them at home. Sometimes my daughter, Alexandra, will read them and make her own little notes."
For now, the journal is best kept in the family. There are chapters that still need to be written. And games and seasons to be played.
At 2:45 a.m., Jeff Banister finally turns off the lights.