The first day in a big league uniform is always exciting. It was doubly so for Willie Banks, who spent that first game Wednesday night near his hometown. Banks, a 22-year-old right-handed pitcher from Jersey City, was the third pick in the 1987 free-agent draft.
He was the highest draft selection ever from New Jersey. The Minnesota Twins had high hopes for him; they invested $160,000 to sign him. Banks would struggle some in the adjustment from high school ball to the pro life.
Lately it has all come together for him. Pitching for Portland (Ore.) in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, Banks was 9-6 overall with a 4.15 earned-run average. But in his past nine starts for the Beavers, he was 7-0 with a 2.28 ERA.
Wednesday, Banks relieved Kevin Tapani in the eighth inning, allowing two runs on three hits, but neither run was earned. The Twins won, 12-3.
The call from the Twins beckoning him to the majors came Monday night. The first call he made was to his mother, who had been a particularly strong influence with no father at home.
“Woke her up,” Banks said. “I told her, ‘Mom, I got called to The Show!’ She said, ‘What movie are you going to see?’ ”
He laughed at Ethel Banks’ reaction but couldn’t wait to get home to see her. “She was the one I would call during all the low points,” he recalled. “I remember after one bad game in Double-A, I was about to cry over the phone. She gave me a pep talk, told me not to put too much pressure on myself.”
That, he thinks, was his problem. Everybody had such high expectations for him. Banks would top out at 93, 94 mph on the radar gun and because he had so commanding a presence on the mound at St. Anthony High School, he was likened to a young Bob Gibson.
“I really didn’t know,” Banks said. “I knew who he was but I was in diapers when he pitched.” Banks was so young. He needed those formative seasons in the minors.
Being called up to the Twins was a proud moment. “That’s a confidence booster right there,” he said. “The pitching staff was going great for them and they are in the middle of a pennant race. I was just hoping to be called up in September.”
Pitch now, pitch later, Banks was just happy to be wearing a big league uniform in Yankee Stadium. “They could tell me to clean the bathroom and I would do it,” Banks said.
He flew to New York with the team Tuesday night and, after he went to the Grand Hyatt in midtown, Jersey City friends picked him up and took him home. “I got home around a quarter to one in the morning and Mom had a big pot of rice waiting for me,” he said. “Thank you very much.”
Early Wednesday, before coming to Yankee Stadium, he toured his old stomping grounds in and around Jersey City with boyhood friend Ruben Rodriguez. He went to Pershing Field, the scene of youthful triumphs. There were happy moments visiting Mike Hogan, his high school coach, and Ed Ford, a onetime scout whom Banks described as “a father figure.”
Not all the memories were pleasant. There was Currie’s Woods, the low-income project where he was raised. “You couldn’t walk outside,” Banks said. “Every time you took a step, you got to look behind to see if somebody is coming at you with a bat.
“I’ve seen people get shot, seen people get stabbed. I started out early. I was about 5. I’ve seen a lot. I was 6 when a cousin of my mother’s upset her husband when she wouldn’t go someplace with him. He went upstairs, came down with a gun and shot her in the head.”
Banks came to understand something about the quality of life through his involvement in sports. “I had the right people behind me,” he said. And when that bonus money came down from the Twins, he knew what to do with a portion of it. He changed Ethel Banks’ address, bought her a house and got her out of Currie’s Woods.