He used a rubber-coated ball because it would bounce back to him. Hour after hour Floyd Bannister threw it off a cement wall at his south Seattle home, hitting marks he had drawn, developing pinpoint control that would be his pitching trademark and take him places.
Thirty years ago, Bannister became the state’s highest drafted baseball player — a badge of honor he retains today — when the Houston Astros made the left-handed pitcher from Arizona State and Kennedy High the No. 1 selection overall in the annual June draft. Chosen ahead of such can’t-miss players as Rickey Henderson, Jack Morris, Wade Boggs and Alan Trammell, his talent was unquestioned.
“They had talked to me quite a bit, so I had an inkling I was going to be that pick,” Bannister said. “They said I was an obvious choice, because they needed pitching and they were so far behind the Dodgers.”
While going first was an honor and no surprise, to say it was stress-free wouldn’t be as accurate as his pitches.
During those 1976 negotiations, the Astros wouldn’t budge for six weeks before agreeing to pay him a then-sizable bonus of $100,000. Where others signed for less money and quickly moved to the pros, the pitcher sat idle most of that summer, appearing in just seven minor league games.
Yet in his first spring training, Bannister made good on the investment, earning a Houston roster spot. He embarked on a 15-year big league career that involved six teams. He pitched in an American League Championship Series and an All-Star Game. Bannister’s career record, 134-143, wasn’t nearly as good as he was, because he played for a lot of bad teams, namely the Mariners.
Bannister reluctantly left his hometown team as a free agent bound for the Chicago White Sox, with whom he had his best years, 16-10 in 1983 and 16-11 in 1987.
Bannister’s baseball disappointments were few, thanks to that wall at his home in Seattle.
After he was cut from the Kennedy freshman team, he made himself a dominant pitcher as a senior, going a dazzling 15-0 and permitting no earned runs in 112 innings for a Lancers team that captured the state title.
He won national championships with Seattle-based Stoen-Kassuba and the Fairbanks Goldpanners at the Connie Mack and semipro levels. He played in the College World Series with Arizona State, finishing his three-year career with a 38-6 record and a 1.88 ERA.
Bannister was a high draft pick coming out of Kennedy, going to the Oakland A’s in the third round in 1973. However, owner Charlie O. Finley was in a cost-cutting mode after winning a pair of World Series and didn’t make a serious bid for the pitcher.
Three years later, he wound up with Houston, though baseball’s best team at the time showed considerable interest. He would have looked good as part of the vaunted “Big Red Machine.”
“To be truthful, a Cincinnati scout followed me around and who knows, if I had gone to the Reds in ‘76, how my career would have gone,” he said.
Fourteen years after retirement, Bannister, 51, lives with his wife of 27 years, Jana, in Paradise Valley, Ariz. They have three sons, all right-handed pitchers, all pursuing high-level careers: Brian, 25, a rookie with the New York Mets; Brett, 23, in the Mariners organization, recovering from shoulder surgery; and Cory, 18, a Stanford recruit.
The ex-big leaguer is busier than he ever imagined, managing different investments and training players of all levels. He has an indoor mound, Astroturf and weights in a commercial building he owns in north Phoenix. In the same facility, he runs a photography studio as a business for his oldest son, personally building sets for everyone from ESPN to high-profile New York shooters. He’s remodeling a house in the area for that same son, doing the electrical wiring and plumbing.
Baseball still holds his rapt attention and keeps him fit. He’s actually on the other end of the pitching battery these days.
“I strap on the gear and catch guys and get a chance to see what they’re doing,” Bannister said. “It keeps me active. I like that. I throw batting practice. I throw practically every day to Cory.”
It beats lobbing them at that backyard wall, though it’s hard to ignore the first stop in making him that time-honored first pick.