It was the spring of 1997 and Willie Banks was staring at the crossroads of the rest of his baseball life. The Jersey City native, once the No. 3 pick in the entire Major League Baseball draft in 1987 with the Minnesota Twins, had just been released from four different franchises in the single calendar year of 1995.
In 1996, Banks was out of baseball, apparently finished at the age of just 27. A shoulder injury also derailed any hope of a comeback.
But after rehabbing the shoulder and working hard on his pitching mechanics, Banks longed for another chance. George M. Steinbrenner III, the bombastic owner of the New York Yankees, personally gave Banks that opportunity.
“I went to Tampa that spring and Mr. Steinbrenner personally offered me a contract,” Banks said recently. “He took care of me when no one else wanted me. He took care of me, gave me a second life, and treated me like a man. He gave me a chance to be back on the scene again.”
Banks went to Class AAA Columbus in 1997 and rewarded the Yankee organization by being the team’s No. 1 starter, winning a team-high 14 games that year. By September of 1997, Banks was recalled by the Yankees and won three crucial games down the stretch that month, posting a 3-0 record and a 1.93 ERA.
Banks then spent the better part of the next five years in the big leagues, with the Yankees, Diamondbacks and Red Sox. Because Steinbrenner was willing to take a chance, Banks was able to extend his career.
It’s the reason why Banks floated poetically about Steinbrenner, after receiving word that the legendary Yankee owner had died Tuesday of a heart attack at the age of 80.
“He was a good, good man,” said Banks, who is now a player/pitching coach with the Newark Bears of the Atlantic League. “I had a good relationship with him. I have nothing but good things to say about the man. He treated me like I was always one of the big guys. He always asked about my Mom every time I saw him. It was more than being a Yankee. It was about being a man. He gave me a second life and I’m forever grateful for that.”
Banks wasn’t the only member of the Bears to have a relationship with Steinbrenner. Bears manager Tim Raines was signed as a free agent with the Yankees in 1996 and remembered his dealings with the late Yankee owner.
“I admired the man,” Raines said. “A lot of people didn’t like him, but I liked him. For me, he respected me as a player and I respected him for being the Boss. He always talked to me about his football days because he knew I played football. He said he always liked my type of player.”
Raines said that Steinbrenner was very active in bringing Raines to New York.
“He was involved in the negotiations,” Raines said. “Back then, he was involved with everything. He put his two cents in or even more into bringing me to the Yankees. In 1996, we had a lot of veteran free agents and he wanted to have that. He wanted to win the World Series and we did that. I ended up having a solid year. He was definitely fair with everyone. He was the Boss. He wanted to win and I admired him for that. He might not have done things the way people expected them to be done, but he wanted to win. It’s one of the main reasons why I wanted to come to New York, because he made sure his teams had an opportunity to win.”
Added Raines, “I had no quarrels with him. He paid players well and expected them to perform. That’s what I’ll always remember about him. Players all owe him a debt of gratitude for free agent salaries. They might not realize that, but they do. I’m sure he will be recognized by the Hall of Fame someday.”
Steinbrenner also had somewhat of a soft side. In 2006, Steinbrenner first gave local sports journalist Ed Lucas, who also serves as the director of development and public education for the St. Joseph’s School for the Blind in Jersey City, permission to get married at home plate at Yankee Stadium, then ended up picking up the tab for the entire affair. Certainly a classy move.
Personally, there were two memorable encounters that yours truly had with “The Boss.”
First, on Opening Day, 1987, at Shea Stadium, the day that they raised the Mets’ World Championship banner, Steinbrenner was spotted coming out of a limousine and quickly, good friend and Jersey City Police Inspector Hugh Donaghue ran over and took pictures of “The Boss” with yours truly wearing full Mets regalia. In turn, Donaghue was snapped with Steinbrenner as well. It was amazing how he didn’t mind posing for a picture with an obvious Met fan. Donaghue actually put in that picture as part of his wedding video.
Then, it was a few days after the Yankees hired Joe Torre as manager in 1995 and the sportswriter was dispatched to cover an event in Newark that Steinbrenner was attending. In the interview process, yours truly asked a question that Steinbrenner didn’t take a liking to and the response was memorable: “Now, wait a minute, big man.” That line has been repeated and impersonated about 10,000 times over the last 15 years…
It’s truly amazing how a bread factory and bakery could emerge as the center of the local professional boxing game.
But that’s what has happened with Hudson Bread on Tonnelle Avenue in North Bergen, which hosted the press conference last Tuesday promoting the Zab Judah-Jose Armando Santa Cruz fight at the Prudential Center this weekend. Media outlets from all over the world converged on Hudson Bread for the announcement of the fight.
Hudson Bread has hosted other boxing press conferences as well, especially those involving local heavyweight contender Tomasz Adamek, who trains out of Jersey City. Hudson Bread has also been a major sponsor for the cards at the Prudential Center, including those involving Adamek, who returns to “The Rock” for a fight next month.
Patrick “Paddy Boy” Farrell of Jersey City will also be a part of the Judah-Santa Cruz card this weekend…-- Jim Hague Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.