February 27 – Happy Birthday Willie Banks
I was watching a well-done sports documentary about Bob Hurley Sr. on ESPN this past weekend when the name and image of Willie Banks appeared on my television screen. Hurley is the legendary high school basketball coach at St Anthony’s High School in Jersey City New Jersey. You can add up all the World Series won by Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel and Joe Torre and the total doesn’t exceed the number of New Jersey State Basketball Championships St. Anthony’s has won since Hurley became coach of the program. All of his players graduate, most go to college, a bunch get full rides to do so and quite a few, like Hurley’s own son Bobby Jr. make it to the NBA.
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant graduated from St. Anthony’s and played basketball for Hurley Sr. on the same team Bobby Jr played. But basketball was Willie Banks’ second best game. He also played baseball and when he was a student athlete at St Tony’s, Banks’ right arm could already throw a baseball from the pitchers mound to home plate at speeds over ninety miles per hour. In 1987 he became the highest ever draft pick for a New Jersey high school-er when he was selected in the first round (third pick overall) of the 1987 MLB Amateur Draft by the Minnesota Twins. He made the big leagues for the first time in 1991 and in January of 1997 he signed a minor league contract to pitch for the Yankee organization. He spent most of that season in Columbus where he was used primarily as a starter and went 14-5. In September, with the Yankees close to clinching the AL Wild Card spot, Banks was called up to the big leagues and pitched brilliantly, finishing with a 3-0 record and a 1.93 ERA. That strong performance earned him a spot in New York’s bullpen to open the ’98 season. Unfortunately for Banks, he was not able to begin his second season in the Big Apple as effectively as he had finished his first and with an ERA of over ten, he was traded to the Diamondbacks that June for two guys I’ve still never heard of.
Banks kept pitching both in the Majors and minors until 2005 and then stopped when his Mom passed away. She had raised Willie and his brothers by herself in the toughest projects in Jersey City. Banks was extremely close to her and went into a deep depression upon her death. He credits his former Yankee teammate, Tim “Rock” Raines with giving him a reason to live again. Raines was managing the Newark Bears in 2009 and he convinced Banks to come pitch for the team. Willie spent the next two years doing so, finally retiring in 2010 at the age of 41. His big league career record ended up at 33-39 with 2 saves and a 4.58 ERA. By the way, if you get a chance to see that ESPN special about St. Anthony’s, I recommend it highly.