Where Are They Now? Willie Banks
illie Banks awoke one morning in January 2009 to the startling realization that his late mother had spoken to him in his sleep. He remembered her words from the dream vividly.
“Get the hell off the damn couch,” Banks recalls his mother, Ethel, telling him in his sleep.
“She felt from upstairs that her baby boy wasn’t doing so well,” Banks said. “I had been depressed before, mad and (ticked) off before, but it was nothing like this. It was a cycle I couldn’t come out of. I just lost it and got to the point where I didn’t care about anything.”
At age 40, Banks was admittedly a lost soul.
Shortly after his late mother spoke to him, Banks called Tim Raines, a teammate of his on the 1997 and 1998 Yankees, and at the time manager of the Newark Bears in the independent Atlantic League.
“Rock, I don’t know what I’ve got and I don’t know if it’s good, but I just want you to see,” Banks recalled telling Raines. Three days later, Banks threw a bullpen session for Raines and signed a contract.
Playing for Newark during the 2009 and 2010 seasons was a far cry from the 181 games Banks pitched over nine major league seasons for seven clubs, but it was the first step toward regaining footing in his life.
Shortly after joining the team, Banks recognized a high school clubhouse attendant for the club and a friendship developed with James Domino, whose parents Jim and JoAnn also worked for the team. Before long, the younger Domino was transporting Banks to and from the ballpark daily, and eventually the player moved into the basement of the Dominos’ home.
“It was life-saving,” Banks said of the Dominos. “It brought me back into a family environment, which I needed at the time.”
Banks had grown up in Jersey City, N.J., where he gained fame at St. Anthony’s High for twice striking out 19 batters in a game. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound righthander had drawn comparisons with Bob Gibson and Dwight Gooden when the Twins selected him third overall in the 1987 draft.
Banks tossed a no-hitter in the high Class A California League in 1989, and by 1991 he had reached Triple-A Portland of the Pacific Coast League. He believed he was ready for the majors when he met with Bob Gebhard, the Twins’ farm director.
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The 23-year-old added impact to his batted balls and versatility to his profile to put himself on the MLB radar.
“He told me, ‘You go out there and pitch well, and we will call you up,’ ” Banks said. “It made me grow up.”
Banks went on to win eight consecutive decisions and made his major league debut with two innings of scoreless relief at Yankee Stadium. He compiled a 33-39, 4.75 mark over the course of his major league career.
Banks pitched two years in Japan, then his mother’s death in 2006 sent him into a downward spiral. He only recovered when his mother spoke to him in a dream. Today, he works for the Dominos with budding baseball players at Toms River Sports Academy. He recently moved into his own two-bedroom condo.
Every June, Banks said he checks the draft list to make certain he still remains the highest selection ever from the state of New Jersey.