EXTRA INNINGS 07-19-2009 Jersey City’s Banks makes yet another comeback with Newark Bears

It was a sight that not a lot of people expected to see. Here was Willie Banks, the Jersey City native and former Major League Baseball pitcher, now all of 40 years old, wearing a baseball uniform once again.
After four years being away entirely from professional baseball, Banks has resurfaced with the Newark Bears, having signed a contract recently with the independent Atlantic League team.
Ironically, Banks’ last foray into pro baseball was with the Bears in 2005 and that attempt didn’t go well at all. Banks was not 100 percent physically and wasn’t in the right frame of mind to play baseball again.
“I was hurt with a rib cage injury and still went out there,” Banks said. “I went into it for all the wrong reasons. I was pigheaded and stubborn and thought I could just come here and throw.”
At the same time, Banks was going through some personal problems, which included the loss of his beloved mother, Ethel, the woman who almost singlehandedly helped Banks rise from the Jersey City projects to the major leagues.
“After I lost my mom, I truly lost it,” Banks said. “I lost everything. I lost contact with my daughter [Journey, now 14] for over a year. I was totally out of it. I don’t remember leaving my home for about a year. I was in a state of depression. I didn’t work. I didn’t do anything. It was tough.”
Banks said that he never really sought medical help or advice for his depression, but he knew that he wasn’t right. Like a lot of former professional athletes, Banks wasn’t ready for retirement. There were some attempts at running a baseball academy near the Jersey shore. He also gave some private pitching lessons.
But in his heart, Banks was not done as a pitcher.
“I’m a fighter,” Banks said. “It’s never-say-die with me. It’s why I loved my mom so much. She showed me everything that I needed to know about life. I have never been a quitter. I truly believed I wasn’t done. I just took a break.”
But for four years? And at the age of 40, when most baseball players are beckoning the second phase of their lives?
“Age means nothing,” Banks said. “No matter how old you are, you can still do it. Sure, on certain days I feel like I’m 40 and I feel the aches and pains. I just wanted to play baseball until I couldn’t do it anymore or I could totally get it out of my system.”
Banks was giving pitching lessons at a baseball facility in Farmingdale, N.J., but really wasn’t throwing the way a professional pitcher should be throwing. He felt like he was in decent enough shape, but didn’t know if he would ever get the chance to pitch professionally again.
A few months ago, Banks saw that his former teammate and friend Carl Everett, also a former major leaguer, had signed a contract with the Newark Bears.
“I got in touch with Carl Everett and he said that [Tim] Rock Raines was the manager of the Bears,” Banks said. “I told Carl that if Rock ever needed any help, then just let me know.”
Everett, the former Met, Red Sox and White Sox slugger, told Raines about Banks. Raines and Banks were teammates with the Yankees in the 1990s and remained friends through the years.
“I called Willie and he said that he was thinking about giving it another try,” said Raines, the former major league superstar and seven-time National League All-Star. “I knew that he hadn’t pitched in a while. I didn’t know if he was ready for this, but I always knew that Willie could pitch. I didn’t care how old he was. I just wanted someone here who I knew and trusted. I told him that even though he was 40, if he could get his arm in shape, we could give him a shot, because we needed pitchers.”
Raines said that Banks told him that his last appearance with the Bears four years ago was a disaster.
“But he admitted that he was in a very hard place and it wasn’t him,” Raines said. “I believed him. He wanted a chance to redeem himself, so I told him that he had to come in and prove that he belonged here. We weren’t just bringing him here to be a part of the team. I knew that he wasn’t going to disappoint us this time.”
“Having Rock here was a key,” Banks said. “I trust him. I know he’s not going to throw me to the fire. It was an added incentive to come back.”
So in a career of comeback after comeback, Willie Banks is having yet another, this time at the tender age of 40. It’s hard to believe that the teenager who blazed his way from Curries Woods to St. Anthony to becoming the first round draft pick of the Minnesota Twins back in 1987 is now 40.
But there were people who believed Banks was done in 2002 at age 33, when he last pitched for the Boston Red Sox. There were others who perceived that he was done a few years earlier, in 1995, when his career took him to points all over the map, including Japan.
It’s been a career of comebacks for Banks, who saw action with seven major league teams from 1991 through 2002, posting a career record of 33-39 with a 4.75 earned run average. Now, at 40, he’s getting one last chance.
“People kept asking me if I was serious about coming back,” Banks said. “I just got tired of talking about it. I decided that I was going to do it. I had nothing to lose. I know what I’m doing and I know people are telling me I can’t do it. I’ve heard it all. I know my chances aren’t good. But I have to be smart about this. I still feel like I’m in spring training. I’m still working on where I need to be physically.”
Since he signed with the Bears in late June, Banks has pitched in six games, totaling eight innings. His ERA is a gaudy 7.88. His fastball, once filled with fire, tops out now at around 85 miles-per-hour.
“Right now, I’m not even close to what I can be,” Banks said. “Come back and talk to me in August. I want to be a closer or a set-up guy now, making a difference out of the bullpen. I know a lot of people aren’t taking chances on a 40-year-old. I’m realistic. But maybe, I can go to play winter ball or overseas. I still have the dream.”
Raines is happy to have Banks as a part of his pitching staff.
“I don’t think he can have a place back in the major leagues at this point, but he’s proven here that he can pitch,” Raines said. “So far, so good. I’m not going to let him embarrass himself out there. He’s done everything I’ve asked of him and everything I want. What I like is that he’s a veteran and he knows the game. He’s willing to help some of our younger guys. He still has the love of the game and that’s good.”
“I’m doing it because I love the game,” Banks said. “I know people say that I can’t do it. But I feel like I’m the new Satchel Paige. I’m not letting go of this until I physically can’t do it anymore. I’ve had my back to the wall many times and I kept coming back. I know I still have talent enough to play this game.”
It was definitely an unlikely sight, seeing Willie Banks back as a pro baseball player. But he’s proven a lot of people wrong a lot of times. What’s one last time?
The District 7 Little League championship was crowned last Monday and once again, a team from West New York earned the banner. West New York American earned the title and will move on to the Section 2 tournament this weekend. We’ll have more on the new Little League champs next week.
The EXTRA INNINGS weekly feature focuses on the best stories that come from local baseball and softball leagues throughout the area.
If you have any noteworthy information to contribute to the EXTRA INNINGS, feel free to contact Jim Hague by voice mail at 201-798-7800, ext. 751, by general mail at 1400 Washington Street, Hoboken, NJ 07030, or via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com.
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Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.

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