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Bannister a rising spiritual leader for KC
Friday, Apr 25, 2008
By Joshua Cooley

KANSAS CITY (BP)--Some people’s earliest childhood memories are of playing tag in the backyard or riding bikes to the park. Not Brian Bannister. He remembers, at age 7, goofing around at Kauffman Stadium, home of the Kansas City Royals, with some of the biggest baseball stars of that era.

Ah, the perks of having a major league father.

Floyd Bannister, who enjoyed a productive 15-year major league career, pitched for Kansas City in 1988 and ’89 when the Royals were still riding a competitive wave from their World Series championship in 1985. For Brian, summers consisted of playing catch in the outfield and joking in the clubhouse with the likes of Hall of Famer George Brett, slugger Bo Jackson and multiple 20-game winner Bret Saberhagen.

“I remember all of them,” Bannister said. “They were my good friends, and they’d make fun of me. It shaped me and helped me understand how a major league ballplayer carries himself and what it takes to be successful.”

Lesson learned.

Bannister, 27, is one of the top young pitchers in baseball. The 6-foot-2 right-hander finished third in the 2007 American League Rookie of the Year Award voting and has enjoyed a strong start this year.

Brian’s baseball roots can be traced back to Floyd’s indigent beginnings. Floyd’s father, Ivo, put his hand to World War II anti-aircraft guns in the Philippines and a farmer’s plow and railway hammers in South Dakota before moving the family to Seattle to work in a Boeing aircraft plant. Floyd would often help his father fix car engines for extra income.

Without money for a real baseball or glove, Floyd taught himself how to pitch left-handed by throwing a rubber-coated ball against a three-foot-high rock wall in his backyard. Remarkably, the Houston Astros drafted him No. 1 overall in 1976, and he went on to pitch for six different teams (plus a half-season in Japan) before retiring in 1992, finishing with a 134-143 career record, a 4.06 ERA and appearances in the 1982 All-Star Game and the 1983 American League Championship Series.

“It helped me create that down-angle muscle memory and throw a foot off the ground,” Floyd said of the rock wall. “And I can’t tell you how many hours I worked the ratchet, working on engines with greasy hands. I’m sure that really helped develop my arm to be successful at that level.”

Floyd was the family’s first baseball player, but not the last. Brian’s younger brother, Brett, was a teammate at the University of Southern California and got drafted by Seattle before arm problems ended his career last year. His baby brother, Cory, is currently a sophomore pitcher at Stanford. And the boys’ uncle, Greg Cochran, played in the Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees’ farm systems.

Brian might be on the verge of stardom. Early on, it appeared the Mets’ seventh-round draft pick in 2003 would be a fixture in New York for years to come. He earned a spot on the starting rotation of the 2006 team – an ultra-talented squad that came within one game of reaching the World Series – and dazzled with five no-hit innings in his major league debut. But he tore his hamstring three weeks into the season, exacerbated the injury during a minor league rehabilitation assignment and went on the 60-day disabled list.

When he returned to New York in late August, he was an afterthought. The Mets only gave him one more start during the regular season and did not include him on their playoff roster. Overall, he finished the season 2-1 with a 4.26 ERA. That December, New York traded him to the Royals for young fireballer Ambiorix Burgos.

After shuttling back and forth between Triple-A Omaha and Kansas City for the first month-plus of the 2007 season, Bannister finally stuck with the Royals in mid-May. Winless in his first six starts, he caught fire in June and rode a torrid three-month stretch where he went 11-4 with a 2.87 ERA. Overall, he finished with a 12-9 record and a 3.87 ERA in 27 starts as the only winning pitcher for the woeful Royals (69-93).

“The way I pitched last year was the way I really expected to pitch with Mets,” Bannister said.

This year looks even more promising. Now the Royals’ No. 2 starter, he started the season with three straight wins, including a seven-inning two-hitter against Detroit on April 2 and a complete-game three-hitter on April 13 against Minnesota. Even with a rough outing on April 18 in Oakland, Bannister is 3-1 with a 2.42 ERA.

And – believe it or not – the future actually looks bright for the Royals. The American League Central’s perennial punching bag (one winning season since 1994) has surprised the division with the franchise’s best start since 2003. A $250 million facelift to 35-year-old Kauffman Stadium is scheduled to be completed next year. And in May 2006, the team hired Dayton Moore, a key figure in most of the Atlanta Braves’ amazing success during the 1990s and early 2000s, as its new general manager.

Moore, a Christian, is supportive of the Royals’ Bible study, which Bannister helps to lead now that first baseman Mike Sweeney, the longtime face of the franchise and its spiritual clubhouse leader, signed with Oakland in the offseason.

“Mike and I talked many times about Brian eventually being the leader of team because not only is he rock-solid, but he has a passion for Christ,” Royals co-chaplain Rod Handley said. “Brian told me, ‘I like to speak through actions instead of words, but I understand when I get that mantle from Sweeney, I’ll be more verbal.’ When Mike said goodbye at the end of [last] year, he said, ‘If I’m not back, Brian’s the guy.’”

Bannister, who trusted in Christ for salvation at Scottsdale (Ariz.) Bible Church’s Awana group while growing up, sees his career as a vehicle for fulfilling the Great Commission. He has shared his faith to poor kids and gang members at a Brooklyn (N.Y.) church and at his old high school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes group. But his biggest mission field is the Royals’ locker room.

“Baseball is a hectic lifestyle,” Bannister said. “It’s tough on relationships and families. Even though these guys have material things, they’re missing out on Christ. So God has really given me an opportunity to share with guys.”

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