Severna Park's Banks knows he must work to return to big leagues

Pitcher trying to make Astros, his 3rd organization

February 14, 2010|By Jonathan Pitts

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.

Obsessive
For 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 inside
A 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.

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