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Hold on to the Bannister

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Parents give you a lot of advice when you're a little kid. Eat your vegetables. Look both ways when you're crossing the street. Don't talk to strangers.

I'd like to focus on one particular suggestion offered to me and millions of other youngsters by wise adults worldwide. I've ascended and descended a lot of sets of stairs in my time, and I've always maneuvered best when I've held on to the bannister.

I mention this because my subject of choice today is Brian Bannister, longshot contender for the No. 5 spot in the Mets starting rotation this year.

It is totally unfair to judge a pitcher based on one minor-league performance, but I'm going to do so anyway. I saw one Bannister start for the Binghamton Mets last season and it was a work of brilliance.

Its origins date back to a game between the Binghamton Mets and Norwich Navigators last June 12 (thanks to B-Mets play-by-play guy Rob Ford for the details). To this point in the season, Bannister had been virtually flawless. On this particular day, he was really good, except for two mistakes to a kid named Julio Cordido, both of which turned into home runs. This was a major improvement from Bannister's last start against Norwich in which he allowed five runs in 4 2/3 innings in a May 14 loss.

Bannister left after seven innings, trailing due to little run support by the Mets against Norwich starter Merkin Valdez. The Mets were down 2-0 in the last of the ninth when a teammate bailed Bannister out. Jay Caliguri tied the score with a two-run home run, then won it in the 10th with a walk-off sacrifice fly.

I didn't know this backstory when I went to see the Mets and Navigators in Norwich on June 17. It was Bannister and Valdez again, though as the game went on, it was more like watching a matchup of Greg Maddux against Pedro Martinez.

Actually I think that Andy Pettitte is a better comparison for Bannister, a righthander, son of former major league pitcher Floyd Bannister, and owner of a burgeoning photo studio in Arizona. I don't have the specifics of Bannister's line that day, but it seemed clear that he knew he was going to have to win this game without much help, because the B-Mets had a history of doing little against Valdez.

Bannister doesn't throw overwhelmingly hard. He topped out at about 91 that day, if I remember right (not sure how good the minor league radar guns are). But he's a smart pitcher. He holds the glove in front of his eyes when he's working from the full windup, which is where I got the Pettitte reminder. He's a smart pitcher who mixes pitches well. I thought he might tire in the late innings, but he got stronger as the game went on. I felt like I had a good seat from which to judge, 8 rows from the field just behind the B-Mets dugout....Jim Duquette, if my eyes didn't deceive me, was a couple sections over to my right.

The Mets eeked out one run against Valdez and Bannister made it stand up the rest of the night. Heading into the ninth inning, he had worked through a couple minor predicaments but still managed to face the minimum 24 hitters. I thought he might get yanked, but manager Jack Lind was determined to let Bannister finish what he started.

Bannister struck out the first Norwich hitter, than whiffed the second as well. The Navigators had one last shot and went to their ace in the hole, sending up Cordido, who entered the game in the prior innning as a defensive replacement. Bannister struck him out as well (I believe he finished with 10 strikeouts), concluding a brilliant 1-0 game. The fellow sitting next to me (who said, and I verified, that his grandfather had a cup of coffee in the majors some 70 or so years ago) said it was one of the finest he had ever witnessed by a minor league hurler.

Everything I've read about Bannister reads winner. This is a sharp guy who sounds like he's going to be a success in whatever he does. I wonder if the Mets will give him a legitimate shot. It occurs to me that he might be a fine version of Aaron Heilman, circa 2005, and that while it would be nice to give him a look as a starter, he might be well suited as a member of a set-up crew that I don't think ranks as trustworthy at the moment.

I read a note the other day that said that the Oakland Athletics are fans of Bannister. Somehow that doesn't surprise me. Mr. Beane is a fine judge of pitching talent and I anticipate that if he dangles Mr. Zito out there this summer, that he would request Mr. Bannister and a kings ransom from the Flushing nine in return.

I've heard Omar Minaya speak on many occasions and based on that, I'm guessing he's a man who received a lot of good advice from his elders growing up. I presume he doesn't use the walkways at Shea Stadium very often, but presumably when he's moving up the ramps of the ballpark he calls home, I'd assume someone's voice rings in his head to "Hold On To The Bannister."

Let's hope it does so when he's on the phone with some of his business rivals this summer.

True Mettisters know...Utility man Alan Bannister (the only other Bannister other than Floyd to make the majors), hit 19 home runs in 3,0007 major league at bats. I'd venture to say the highlight of his career was a walk-off home run on July 14, 1983, giving the Indians (whose starting shortstop that day was Julio Franco) a 4-3 victory over the Royals.


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