Karen Banister looks for positive signs from the universe.
When she and her husband were relocating from Houston to North Texas and were pressed for time in December, she found out on Christmas Eve that the house they were going to buy was not available. On New Year’s Eve, a house that had initially caught her eye — but then had disappeared from listings online — was back on the market.
Karen took it as a sign. This was meant to be.
It wasn’t until she moved in that she saw the most prophetic feature. The kitchen island is shaped like home plate. This was serendipitous. Her husband, Jeff Banister, is the new manager for the Texas Rangers.
As Jeff’s days are filled with the business of baseball, games and travel, Karen is busy getting settled into their Keller home. It is a luxury she hasn’t had for decades. Until last fall, she was a full-time high school teacher for the Clear Creek Independent School District in League City, south of Houston. She’d been a teacher for years, with only a short break when their first child, Alexandra, was born.
After Alexandra’s birth, she stayed rooted in the Houston area while Jeff moved about the country with minor-league teams and various coaching duties for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
There are still things to buy and a warehouse of stuff to reclaim near Houston, but the gaps are only evident to Karen and Jeff. “We are a work in progress,” he says.
For someone who spends an inordinate amount of time living out of a suitcase, Jeff is a very capable domestic partner. Karen says he cooks more than she, and he likes to accompany her on shopping trips for new furniture. He’s even happy watching The Food Network on TV. In one of their previous homes, he painted the murals on the children’s bedroom walls, a baseball theme for son Jacob and a multihued rising sun for Alexandra.
This is the first time during their 27-year marriage that they all live in the same town. Karen and the kids were used to seeing him between games for a few days or for a stretch during the off-season.
It is a wonder Jeff had a baseball career. He was told to quit playing when he injured his knee at 14. In high school, he almost lost a leg to a bone infection called osteomyelitis. He suffered through seven operations to be able to keep it. Then, he broke three vertebrae in a home-plate collision when he played for Lee College in Baytown. Eventually, he made it to the major leagues — drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1986. Then his story took more unexpected twists.
He had a single at-bat as a major leaguer.
On July 23, 1991, in his only major-league plate appearance, Jeff got a hit and was subsequently sent back to the minor leagues. The next season, his elbow blew out and he retired batting a thousand.
Banister was in the Pirates organization for the next 28 years. He was the bench coach last season when the Rangers called in search of Ron Washington’s replacement. In October, Banister was named the Rangers’ manager, signing a three-year contract with the option for a fourth.
His story is unique. He can cite the number of single-hit players: “16 in the modern era,” he says. When it comes to staying with one team for almost three decades and then to make it to a managerial position in the major league, he shrugs.
“At 20, you think it’s a stardom trek; at 51, with all the bumps and bruises, I wouldn’t change it,” he says.
His travails instilled in him a never-die spirit. “There are not a lot of us who ground it out. It’s a never-quit attitude.” He pauses, “It might be stubbornness.”
He uses the hashtag #nevereverquit, and the Rangers have adopted it as their cyber rallying cry.
When asked if he deserves this job after the years he has worked, he says, “No, I don’t deserve it. I am blessed and honored to get it.”
Jeff says baseball is the easy part of his job. “What I think people fail to realize is these guys are human beings with the same problems and troubles, and the same worries. They celebrate the same things everybody else does. But they live their lives in a spectrum where any mistake is magnified for the world to see. For me, how I help them overcome those real-life situations is what’s real. Don’t get me wrong: We play to win and win a championship. But I learned early on we are family, that’s what this is. That is what it has to be.”
He knows how fleeting fame can be. Being the man in charge is new for Banister, and it is not swelling his head. He is grounded on that damaged ankle and says, “I’ve never won anything easy.”
The Rangers’ schedule that has him home more than on the road is a new experience; so is the luxurious new house. It is modest by sports-star standards. But it is a tonier ZIP code than where they first began.
In the early days of their marriage, Jeff and Karen lived in a two-bedroom cracker box with a single window air-conditioning unit and a foundation that was in such disrepair that gaps between the floor and the walls allowed critters access to the interior. When hanging pictures on the wall, Jeff said, he had to choose between the corners, the floor or the ceiling for leveling because nothing was plumb.
In those days during the summer, Karen would follow the team bus with other wives, camping out in motel rooms of dubious cleanliness and quality. When Alexandra was born, she was packed up and taken along. “She learned to walk at a Days Inn in Bradenton, Fla.,” Karen says, of the the town where the Pirates held spring training.
A lot of Pirates memorabilia is scattered throughout the house. The autographed bats and balls are in Jeff’s office. But photographs of the family and players taken in various ballparks are mixed in with family vacation photos. Baseball is so much a part of their lives, it is shuffled in with everything else — not shunted off to a side room.
The Banisters are trying to balance their allegiance, and on a newly purchased pool table in the upstairs game room, a large Rangers logo graces the center of the table. It is by far the largest logo in the house.
The guest room is filled with family heirlooms. The furniture came from grandmothers, grandfathers and great-grandmothers. There is a photo of Jeff as a toddler cowboy, Karen’s mother in her wedding dress and her grandfather sitting on the cab of a truck he used to drive. Both Jeff’s and Karen’s mothers were high school majorettes, and there are photos of them striking the familiar pose of one raised knee and the requisite tasseled white boots.
The Banisters have been in Keller for fewer than five months, but Karen has found her way to the local shops for furniture and accessories. The large leather sofa came from Runyon’s Fine Furniture in Roanoke and chests, lamps, tables, side chairs and wall pieces from a variety of higher-end and mid-range stores — the El Paso Import Co., Into the West, Hobby Lobby, Home Goods, At Home and Tuesday Morning.
She found pieces of outdoor furniture at Ruibal’s Plants, and when big purchases need to be made, she consults with designer Rachel Erickson of Custom Interiors by Rachel.
The back yard, though, is what attracted them to the house. There is a pool, spa, fountains and comfortable seating area with an outdoor kitchen under a large porch roof. This is where Karen watches the games on nights when she isn’t at the ballpark. And she has been orchestrating the installation of flower beds that surround the porch. In one of them is a larger-than-life painted tin rooster among the petunias. She says it’s for Jeff; his twitter handle is @bannyrooster28.
“This is one of my favorite places,” she says. “It’s very calming. It’s where we spend most of our time, and I think Jeff will, too, when he gets some down time.”
Let’s hope that down time comes in November.