It was the final season at old Yankee Stadium, Derek Jeter and company were slugging their way through a big winning streak, and 56,000 noisy fans crammed the historic ballpark for an afternoon game.
The visiting San Diego Padres, desperate to halt the momentum, handed the ball to one of their most intriguing prospects, an earnest young right-hander from Anne Arundel County.
Things didn't start out well for Josh Banks. Left-fielder Johnny Damon and Jeter led off with singles. Bobby Abreu lined out to center field, advancing both runners. And with one out and two on, red-hot slugger Alex Rodriguez dug in, waggling his big Louisville Slugger.
Such a moment might have undone a less prepared young hurler, but Banks remembers narrowing his consciousness.
All he could hear were the words of Jim McCandless, his coach at Severna Park High: "Bull your neck. There's no one you should be afraid of."
Banks threw a fastball in, another away, and one more inside. He fired two cutters for a strikeout. He then retired Jason Giambi to end the inning.
Banks ended up losing the game, 2-1, as a passel of Severna Parkers cheered their support from the stands. But the second-round draft pick showed what he must do to prolong his big-league journey, now approaching three years in the making: Draw on every possible resource, from a strong baseball upbringing to a wide array of pitches.
On Monday, the soft-spoken Banks leaves snowbound Maryland for Kissimmee, Fla., where he'll try to win a job in the starting rotation of his third big-league team, the Houston Astros. He knows it won't be easy. It never is. Josh Banks has been bulling his neck for a long time.
ObsessiveFor years, it wasn't even that certain Josh - the youngest son of Charles Banks, a businessman, and Judy Banks, a licensed customs-house broker - would specialize in the national pastime.
Always a good athlete, he loved football and basketball as much as baseball. He even started at quarterback for Severna Park High (he graduated in 2001).
By 15, though, Banks was throwing a baseball 85 miles an hour, passable even for a big leaguer. McCandless - then his coach - saw a possible future for Banks in the game and made him a full-time pitcher.
For a time, Josh wasn't so sure he liked it. He remembers McCandless - known for coaching current Yankees slugger Mark Teixera, among other Anne Arundel stars - singling him out for in-your-face hollering sessions.
"You don't know why I do this, do you?" the coach finally asked one day. "It's because you have a gift, and it's my job to stay on top of you."
With McCandless urging him never to back down from a hitter, Banks, the team's youngest player, mowed down lineup after lineup of 18-year-olds.
He was good enough to star in Maryland baseball, but McCandless, having higher aspirations for him, brought in a pitching specialist, veteran Anne Arundel coach Clayton Jacobsen, to work with Banks.
In his new charge, Jacobsen saw a thoughtful young man with rare ability but, like most pitchers that age, poor mechanics. He taught Banks a more vertical arm slot and a curveball less reliant on wrist motion.
Like many a prodigy, Banks pleased his tutor but daunted him, too.
"Josh is a great listener," Jacobsen says. "He'd take whatever you taught him and came back the next day, having mastered it. He was an obsessive. I thought, 'I'd better not tell him anything wrong.' "
Coming insideA snowstorm is brewing, and he has had two wisdom teeth removed this morning, but Banks arrives at the BATT Academy, an indoor baseball facility in Glen Burnie, at noon recently to throw 45 pitches in the bullpen.
He slips in without fanfare, grabs a ball, slaps it in and out of a glove, and waits his turn on the mound in Cage One.
Banks' father, Charles, a lifelong Orioles fan, calls Josh a "throwback" for his Ripkenesque work ethic.
Banks laughs that off - "It's just that I love to play," he says - but everything about him is indeed focused, respectful, orderly. He nods to the coaching staff, chats with the college player who will catch him today. And when he takes the mound, his motion - smooth leg kick, effortless weight transfer, ball jumping from his hand - personifies what Jacobsen says about a big-league delivery: "It maximizes what a pitcher has to offer."
The local scene has produced several big leaguers - Teixera, ex-Twin and Yankee hurler Eric Milton, White Sox starter Gavin Floyd - but BATT owner Larry Williams, a onetime major leaguer, says Banks might be the best and hardest-working pitcher of the lot.
"You can tell a pro just by the way he gets off the bus," Williams says. "Josh has that love of the game, but also the humility you need."
Once he's finished, Banks grabs a bottled water and sits down to talk baseball.
Now 27, on the older side for a prospect, Banks agrees 2010 is a pivotal year in his career - though every year in the majors demands you prove yourself.
"You watch hitters for weaknesses, but they're always watching video on you too," he says. "I like to call it a cat-and-mouse game."
Since the Toronto Blue Jays drafted him in 2003, Banks has thrown four years in the minors; visited every state in the continental U.S. but Montana and the Dakotas; tossed a game in 24-degree weather, and struck out 410 pro hitters, 54 of them in the majors. The Padres claimed him off waivers in the fall of 2008, and Banks started his National League career almost perfectly, spinning 22 scoreless innings in a row.
The streak was a heady debut - and a window onto Banks. He had decided, out of respect, that he wouldn't address any teammates until they spoke to him first.
Seventeen innings into his scoreless string, catcher Michael Barrett finally pulled him aside. "Hey, man, do you [expletive] talk?" he asked.
Soon the Marylander had a permanent seat in the bullpen next to Barrett and some big-time veteran pitchers: future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, All-Star Jake Peavy and lefty Randy Wolf. They took him out for steak dinners more times than he can remember.
Banks, as usual, was gravitating toward veterans. "They've been around," he says. "They know how to make good decisions, about baseball and about life." Some of that discernment came straight from McCandless, who always told him to think hard about the company he keeps, especially if he got to the major leagues.
It was Maddux who made the deepest impression. The bespectacled four-time Cy Young Award winner, who was funnier in person than Banks expected, grilled the newcomer on his pitching. He spoke of how strategy on the mound should change as the pitch count changes. He even offered nuggets of advice.
"He said if you throw down and away 95 percent of the time, you'll win 15 games a year," Banks says. "He also said it's a myth that you have to come inside [throw in on a battter to get him away from the plate] to keep hitters honest. I don't know if I can make that work. He sure did. He won 355 games. At the time, I had two."
The day Banks handcuffed the Yankees at the old ballpark, it was his buddies Maddux, Peavy and Wolf, with more than 400 big-league wins among them, who clapped him on the back. "They all felt I could pitch at this level," he says.
Center of the universeIn a sport where just 1,200 people occupy big-league rosters, and only a fiftieth of 1 percent of all serious players make the majors, Banks knows the margin for error is still as thin as a sharpened spike.
In his junior year at Florida International University, insiders guessed he'd be picked between No. 20 and No. 30 in the amateur draft, but when word got out he'd developed a blister on his throwing finger, he slid to No. 50 overall - a drop that cost him about $1 million in signing money.
(Banks, who has grossed more than that since turning pro, got a $650,000 bonus.)
Even after his hot 2008 start, he didn't stick with the Padres. He went 3-6 with a 4.75 ERA while facing top pitchers like Arizona's Randy Johnson, Milwaukee's C.C. Sabathia and the Giants' Tim Lincecum. After walking 13 hitters in a two-game span, a rarity for the control pitcher, he was farmed out to Triple-A Portland to end the year, and after a 1-1 season in 2009, San Diego let him become a free agent.
The Astros, Dodgers, Phillies and Royals showed interest this offseason. Banks signed a minor-league contract with Houston last month, in part because he knows their pitching coach, Brad Arnsberg, from their days together in Toronto.
Should he make the cut, and join a rotation headed by star righty Roy Oswalt, and thus qualify once again for the major-league minimum salary of $400,000, it won't be due to overpowering stuff. Banks' fastball clocks in at about 90 miles an hour, only in the average range for a big-league pitcher. It will have to be durability, guile, hard work and his unique mix of eight pitches - including a split-finger fastball, a cut fastball, a curve and a hard knuckleball he taught himself, a pitch that can drop 2 feet.
That and the kind of intangibles that come from life in what he calls "the center of the baseball universe."
Banks, his wife, Lindsey, a fellow Severna Park native, and their 5-month-old daughter, Lola, moved back to the area this winter to be near family. He remains in close touch with McCandless, Jacobsen, and, of course, his father, all of whom, he says, encourage him with a steady stream of positive thoughts.
He'll need them when camp begins - not to mention those voices that seem to come back when they're needed most. Coach McCandless "told me a long time ago that if I do things right, I can get anybody out," Banks says. "I always listen to Jim."
Joshua Charles Banks Throws: Right Bats: Right
Born: July 18, 1982, in Baltimore
College: Florida International University, Miami
Major-league debut: Sept. 11, 2007, for the Toronto Blue Jays
Childhood idol: Mike Mussina
A favorite memory: San Diego manager Bud Black noticed Banks' sound baserunning and often called on him as a pinch-runner.
Oddest pitch: A knuckler, which he taught himself. "It's not like the kind you associate with [Red Sox pitcher] Tim Wakefield," he says. "It's harder, and it drops a couple of feet. I use it when I'm in a jam."
On pitching for the Orioles someday: "I'd love it, though I never tell that to my dad [a lifelong O's fan]. It's his dream."
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