Retired Mormon major leaguer experiences uncommon journey

Published: Thursday, May 2 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

Family portrait of Brian and Tarrah Banks. Banks played baseball for BYU before being drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers and going on to win a World Series with the Florida Marlins. Nearly a decade after retiring from baseball, Banks is about to complete his residency as a pediatric dentist.

Photo courtesy of Brian Banks

SALT LAKE CITY — The Dental Clinic at Primary Children’s Medical Center is one of the last places you might expect to find a former major league baseball player, especially one with a sparkling World Series championship ring.

Yet there is Brian Banks, standing 6-foot-3 and dressed in green scrubs, in the final weeks of his residency. Becoming a pediatric dentist is a goal the 42-year-old has worked toward since retiring from baseball in 2004.

Examining children’s teeth is a long way from the big leagues, but how he got there is an interesting tale. The journey includes a difficult decision to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an impressive sophomore season at BYU, an arduous climb through the minor leagues, a magical season in 2003 and several faith-building experiences along the way.

For all the good things in his life, Banks points to two fundamentals — setting goals and making good choices.

“I like to tell the young people about the concept of setting goals and enduring to the end. Reaching a goal doesn’t just happen. It takes hard work and perseverance,” Banks said. “Making key decisions at a young age may seem small and insignificant at the time, but they are choices that help you build the foundation of who you are and will become.”

A mission?

As a senior at Mountain View High School in Mesa, Ariz., Banks was named the 1989 Arizona player of the year. He was also the league batting champion, a two-time all-state selection and his team’s three-time MVP. As a result, professional baseball scouts were hanging around the ballpark.

If Banks would forget plans to serve an LDS mission, the scouts said, he could be a high draft pick and receive a six-figure signing bonus.

"They didn’t want to waste a draft pick on me if I was going to leave for two years," Banks said.

Encouraged by family members and church leaders, the young athlete had always planned on serving a mission like his older brother David, but he had dreamed of playing in the big leagues, and a large signing bonus was tempting.

“I wrestled with it quite a bit,” Banks said. “You start going through those things that every Mormon athlete goes through. You think, 'There are other ways I could serve a mission.' 'I can do a lot of good.' 'I can be a good example to teammates and those watching.' You kind of rationalize yourself into that type of thinking.”

Banks decided to wait and play his freshman season at BYU. He was still picked in the sixth round of the 1989 draft by the Baltimore Orioles but declined the opportunity, along with a $100,000 signing bonus.

It proved to be a good decision for two reasons: First, he knew he wasn’t ready for professional baseball, and second, he found himself surrounded by good examples and influences. While honing his baseball skills during the 1990 season, playing in 41 games, hitting four home runs and recording 28 RBIs as a catcher/designated hitter, Banks was able to observe and bond with Cougar teammates who had served missions and those who had not. Ultimately, he decided to serve and was called to Seattle, despite claims by scouts that he would lose his arm strength, foot speed and athleticism. For the next two years, Banks’ companions would throw to him in the batting cage or play catch with him on their one day off each week.

“For me it came down to I needed to serve a mission and I made that decision through what you are taught as a youth, through prayer, fasting and scripture study,” Banks said. “I also drew upon the feeling that I was doing what the Lord wanted me to do, and if it was meant to be, I would be blessed for it. I took peace in that.”

Banks continued: “I was also motivated by them telling me I couldn’t do something. … I took it as a challenge and would always envision that time when I would go back and prove people wrong.”

Two ASU diamonds

Following his mission, Banks returned to BYU for his sophomore year in 1993.

While he had fallen off the scouts’ radar, he felt faster and stronger and knew he could throw the baseball harder.

“Everything seemed to click for me,” Banks said.

A critical turning point came early in the season when BYU played a three-game series at powerhouse Arizona State in mid-February. Before the first game, Banks surprised his girlfriend, Tarrah, a student at ASU, with a diamond ring as an early Valentine’s Day present. She accepted.

The excitement carried over to the series against the Sun Devils as Banks, now playing in center field, said he went 7 for 8 with two homers in the first game, including a grand slam, and another home run in the second game.

“It was a splash on the scene,” Banks said. “From that point on, the scouts followed me every game I played. It was a great weekend from a personal and professional standpoint.”

Banks went on to hit .389 that season with 20 home runs (third nationally) and 73 RBIs (11th nationally) and was named an all-American.

Gary Pullins, who coached the Cougars for more than 20 years, said Banks was one of his all-time favorite players.

“He was a class guy,” Pullins said. “The lights were always on with Brian Banks. He showed up to practice and played hard. He never had academic problems. Every college coach would have loved to have a roster of guys with Brian Banks’ credentials.”

All the hard work paid off in the June draft as the Milwaukee Brewers selected the sophomore outfielder with the first pick in the second round. After marrying his fiancee, Banks signed a contract worth more than $250,000.

“Not a bad start for a 22-year-old,” Banks said.

Conquering the minors

With his new bride remaining behind with her family in Arizona to finish her education, Banks made his professional debut with the Helena Brewers in Idaho Falls in the summer of 1993.

To go from the camaraderie and rah-rah atmosphere of a college team to the intense competition and daily grind of the minors was a weird dynamic that reminded him of his mission, Banks said.

“You are pulling for your teammates, yet at the same time you are trying to outplay them so you are the one that gets called up. You feel like people aren’t really rooting for you,” Banks said. “When you’re on your mission ... you are getting doors slammed in your face, rejection and thinking this is miserable. But those types of things create the man."

The “endure-to-the-end mentality” and character-building experiences from his youth sustained Banks during tough times in the minors, he said.

“Earning my Eagle Scout award, serving a mission, etc., those were the lessons that brought everything together for me to get to the big leagues,” Banks said. “I went back to that old motivating factor of being a competitor; if you tell me I can’t do something, or if you are going to compete with me, I am going to compete right back. It raised my level of play and I was able to move up.”

Having already decided to avoid alcohol, immorality and other vices also benefited Banks. Over time, his teammates came to respect him for his values, he said. Many even apologized for swearing in his presence.

“I didn’t make it an option from the beginning,” Banks said. “As a group, they liked to joke about it, but out in batting practice when we were standing around, or in the locker room, many of them would come up and tell me how much they respected what I stood for, saying things like, ‘Man, I wish I could do what you do.’”

On Sept. 9, 1996, Banks was finally called up to the majors. He joined the Brewers in Milwaukee and flew to Boston to take his first at-bat in Fenway Park. Unfortunately, he struck out. Two weeks later, he got another chance to bat in old Yankee Stadium. This time he slapped a double down the right-field line. He still has the ball today.

“Obviously, it was an amazing experience. It was a relief. It was the ultimate reaching of a goal,” Banks said. “It was an exciting time.”

McGwire and Sosa

Over the next few seasons, Banks bounced up and down between the majors and the minors. During those years, fan support of baseball was low due to the 1994-95 strike.

That changed in 1998 when Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs began a home run race that renewed the nation’s passion for baseball.

Banks remembers. He was playing catcher for the Brewers on Sept. 20 when McGwire smashed home run No. 65 in Milwaukee. Three days later, he witnessed as Sosa slammed his 65th homer. Banks and Sosa were represented by the same agent and were friends. Banks was genuinely happy for him and gave the Chicago slugger a congratulatory hug after the game.

“That was a memorable experience, seeing the excitement and fans come back to the game,” Banks said. “Unfortunately, from that point on everything became tainted and known as the steroid era.”

Performance-enhancing drugs were readily available but used secretively, Banks said, and the temptation was almost overwhelming. He recalls hitting as well or better than some players at the end of one season. But when the same men returned the following spring, their skills and strength were vastly improved. Although Banks was projected to fill a key role in the franchise, other players surpassed him.

“It was very disheartening because you knew they were doing something. You just couldn’t keep up. You couldn’t compete,” Banks said. “It went back to my moral compass and values. I wanted to do it the right way. Ultimately, I made the decision to avoid it.”

Santiago Perez

Banks figured he had finally cemented his place on the Brewers’ major league roster in 1999. After moving up and down a lot in previous years, he was finally seeing consistent playing time and hitting the ball well as the season drew to an end.

Less than a month before the end of the season, the manager and general manager called Banks for bad news. He was going down in exchange for another pitcher.

“I was absolutely devastated,” Banks said. “I told them I was done. 'Don’t call me back up so I can become a free agent. I’ll play for another team if you don’t want me.'"

Banks considered giving up the game altogether. He had earned his way to the majors by working hard and not cutting corners while less-disciplined players appeared to be rewarded for taking shortcuts, Banks said.

Fortunately for Banks, his wife talked him into staying. He didn’t know why this was happening, but he did as he was told.

He was glad he did.

Banks’ disgruntled attitude changed a few nights later in a hotel room when his young roommate, a player from the Dominican Republic named Santiago Perez, asked him if he was a Mormon.

Banks said he was.

Perez said his girlfriend was a Mormon and he had been meeting with the missionaries. He pulled out a Book of Mormon, said he’d been reading it and knew it was true. But some of his family members and teammates had been giving him a hard time about the church and telling him not to get involved.

At that point, the Spirit entered the room and a gospel discussion ensued. Banks understood why he’d been sent down. Feeling sufficiently humbled, he bore testimony like he was a missionary again, and told Perez he was following the right path and not to listen to the faith-shakers. Both men came away feeling strengthened.

The very next day, Banks was called back up to the big leagues.

“That is one experience in my career I am still floored by. It opened my eyes to the fact that the Lord was in control of my life and I’ve never doubted from that moment on. He knew where I needed to be, when I needed to be there,” said Banks, currently the elders quorum president in his LDS ward. “That’s how the Lord works. He puts us in situations to share our testimonies and strengthen others.”

Perez doesn’t recall if that meeting came before or after he was baptized, but it was still meaningful. Perez was baptized a member of the LDS Church in July 1999 and was later sealed to his sweetheart in the Mesa Arizona Temple. Today, he’s a sports agent and at one point represented Banks’ nephew, Stetson Banks, a former BYU Cougar who played a few seasons in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.

“His friendship meant something to me, knowing I wasn’t alone (in my gospel faith)," Perez said in a phone interview. "It was good for me and helped me figure out what I wanted to do."

‘A magical season’

After playing a season overseas in the Japan Championship Series for the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, Banks returned to major league baseball and signed as a free agent with the Florida Marlins.

Less than two weeks before Banks reported to spring training, the couple’s first child was born, a son they named Davis. Becoming a father gave Banks a feeling that good things were in store that season.

Even so, the Marlins limped out to a 16-22 record and in mid-May, manager Jeff Torborg was fired. Jack McKeon replaced Torborg, and the team never looked back, Banks said.

“That turned around our whole season,” Banks said. “We banded together and really became a team. We went on a tear the rest of the season.”

When the regular season ended, Florida, the clear underdog, found itself playing the San Francisco Giants in the National League Wild Card series. Despite facing Barry Bonds, the most feared hitter in the game at the time, the Marlins won the series easily, 3-1.

Florida’s next opponent was the Chicago Cubs. Facing elimination in the National League Championship Series and trailing 3-0 in Game 6 at Wrigley Field, the series changed in the eighth inning when Florida’s Luis Castillo hit a foul ball down the left-field line. As Chicago outfielder Moises Alou leaped for the ball, a fan named Steve Bartman knocked the ball away. Instead of being four outs from the World Series, the Cubs went on to surrender eight runs and lost the game, 8-3, forcing a Game 7.

“It’s very surreal to go back and watch it on TV now,” Banks said. “It changed the whole momentum of the series.”

Banks' greatest contribution of the entire postseason came at a critical moment in Game 7 at Wrigley.

Losing 5-3 to the Cubs in the fifth inning, the switch-hitting Banks was sent in to pinch hit against Chicago pitcher Kerry Wood and was walked on five pitches. Banks’ walk ignited a three-run rally that gave the Marlins the lead and they went on to win, 9-6.

“The coaches came up to me later and said that was a huge at-bat for you to get walked,” Banks said. “I look at it as the story of my whole career. I wasn’t the flashy superstar, but I was able to help get us to the World Series.”

The Marlins went on to defeat the New York Yankees, 4-2, to win the World Series title. Banks didn’t play, but described the experience as "amazing."

“We were jumping around like Little Leaguers again,” he said. “It was the culmination of my whole path to professional baseball, including my decision to serve a mission and the little decisions that kept me on the right path. It was a magical season.”

A new career

A knee injury slowed Banks down early in 2004, and when he learned his wife was expecting another child, he decided it was time to focus more on his family and a new career. He walked away from baseball with a career batting average of .246, 13 home runs and 64 RBIs. He is also one of very few players to have played an inning at every position in the big leagues except pitcher. One manager figured this out and was going to put him in at pitcher, but the manager was fired before it could happen.

Banks could have retired to a quiet life of playing golf, but he wanted to fulfill a promise to his father of earning his degree and he wanted to teach his own children about the value of education and the duties of a father.

Banks enrolled at Arizona State and completed a bachelor’s degree in biology before graduating from the Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health and A.T. Still University in Mesa, Ariz. He is on track to finish his two-year residency as a pediatric dentist at Primary Children’s in June. That’s when the Banks family, now with four children, will return to Arizona where Brian will join a friend in a group pediatric dental practice.

“I wanted control of my career, which was something I didn’t have as a baseball player. I also like to work with my hands and I enjoy helping kids,” Banks said. “It was also important to me to set a good example to my kids of the value of education, getting a job and providing for a family.”

Email: ttoone@desnews.com

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