Born: February 27, 1969
Town: Jersey City
Willie Anthony Banks was born February 27, 1969 in Jersey City. He grew up in the Curries Woods projects during the height of the 1980s crack epidemic. Willie witnessed violence and depravity on a daily basis as a child and saw friends and family members murdered before his eyes. His ticket out was a fastball that touched the mid-90s when he pitched for St. Anthony’s, the school known best for its basketball program.
After a brilliant senior season in 1987, Willie was taken with the third pick in the baseball draft by the Minnesota Twins—behind Ken Griffey Jr. and Mark Merchant, and ahead of future stars Jack McDowell, Delino Deshields, Kevin Appier and Craig Biggio. No New Jersey high-schooler had ever been selected that high.
Willie pitched in the minors four-plus years before making it to the big leagues with the Twins in 1991. Bouts of wildness plagued him throughout his pro career, but his ability to strike out a batter an inning made team after team believe they could transform him into a star.
That never happened. After pitching as a starter for the Twins and Cubs, Willie became a middle reliever. He pitched a total of nine seasons in the majors, with his most memorable performance a 3–0 September stretch run that helped the Yankees earn a Wild Card berth in 1997.
After his final major-league season in 2002, Willie pitched in the minors for the Red Sox, Yankees and Cubs, but never made it back. In 2004 he played for the independent Newark Bears, but left the team for personal reasons in 2005. Willie felt aimless without baseball. After his mother died, he retreated even further, often staying in his apartment for weeks at a time.
In 2009, Willie learned his old friend and teammate, Tim Raines, had become the manager for the Newark Bears. He asked for a tryout, made the team, and pitched in 17 games. He returned to the Bears in 2010, pitching out of the bullpen and mentoring the club’s young hurlers. Baseball, Willie says, literally saved his life.