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Bannister savoring new life in bigs

Bannister savoring new life as big-league starter

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- For years, the Mets flashed in and out of his life. The Bannister family was visiting Manhattan when oldest son Brian hadn't yet reached his 10th birthday. They emerged from their Midtown hotel to see a Howard Johnson's across the street. Father Floyd told his baseball-tilted son of the other Howard Johnson, and young Brian wanted to know -- "in the distorted perspective of a kid," he says now -- whether the Mets' third baseman owned the hotel and restaurant chain.

Thirty homers, 30 steals and 28 flavors.

The big year in Little League, the year Brian Bannister was of Williamsport age, his cap said Mets. By chance, of course, but that cap seemed to fit so well.

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And a few years later, when Brian saw the likeness of his dad on a Topps baseball card, the name on the card wasn't Floyd Bannister, but rather that of a White Sox teammate, one Tom Seaver. A wonderful error that now is worth $250. And the Bannisters own three of them.

All the statistical lines on the back of that memorable mistake, most of which began began with "New York" and many of the numbers made an impression on Brian Bannister, an impression made more vivid when he reached USC. He knew Seaver had earned the identification "The Franchise" with the Mets. "But he was the franchise at USC, too."

None of the flashes cried out "Mets" to Brian Bannister, but they and others had a cumulative effect. They elevated his earliest sense of the Mets. They were "special" to him. And he still applies that adjective now that he is one of them.

The meaning will be underscored Monday afternoon when Floyd's oldest son will be introduced and take his place on the first-base line during Opening Day ceremonies at Shea Stadium. (Well, maybe the No. 40 he is likely to wear will put him on the right-field line, but that'll be special, too.)

Six days later, he is to be in the middle of Shea's diamond, the center of attention. No. 40 -- unless 19 becomes available -- will be on the mound. A big-league debut that never has seemed particularly likely, will happen. The mere thought makes Bannister's face crack into a smile. An expertise in body language is required to understand what all this means.

Promotion to the big leagues is an enormous step for all prospects, even the can't-miss kid. For Bannister, assignment to the New York Mets put a spring in that step.

Bannister is 25, bright and articulate. He shares his thoughts willingly. Two weeks ago, after his then-flawless spring had thrust him into an indirect competition with friend Aaron Heilman for the fifth spot in the Mets' rotation, he prepared some words designed to defuse the notion of "him vs. me."

He think likes a public relations man or -- tee-hee -- a reporter. He knows when to speak, what to say and how to say it.

But when he was told Tuesday that big-league status awaited him, he didn't articulate his joy with his normal grace. "Pretty emotional," he acknowledged later.

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Not all of it is related to Bannister's fascination-turned-affection for the Mets, but a lot of it is. "Definitely uncommon," Heilman said. "He feels it's special."

Bannister doesn't cite specific instances. He just knows. A sense of romance -- a sense all but gone from most of baseball -- exists in how he sees the game and, in particular, the Mets. "I have a passion for their characters and personalities." Brooklyn had that sense for its Dodgers. Cubs and Mets fans have it at a diminished level.

Bannister's first roommate at Southern Cal was a Cubs fan, banner and all. Bannister knew Chicago by then from his father's experiences, knew how the city applauds the White Sox when they win and embraces the Cubs in all circumstances. He saw the New York baseball dynamic in the same way -- despite the Yankees' incomparable success.

"I guess it has to do with the underdog thing. I was kind the underdog."

He was a walk-on at USC who won a place on the roster because of his extra-large curveball and a place on the travel squad because he could steal signs like Rickey Henderson stole bases.

He hardly was a lights-out starter for the Trojans. "And there's no way I should have gone in the first 10 rounds," he said. He was selected in the seventh round of the 2003 draft. "I'm convinced [they] drafted me because of my personality."

Well, in a way, yes.

"It's not personality, per se, but makeup -- his makeup is off the charts," said Steve Leavitt, the scout who signed him. "It's never just raw talent. You put everything you think together and try to project what they're going to be. Brian has so many things that don't have anything to do with how he throws. ... He's humble. But he has lots of confidence. And he has baseball smarts. He has as good a makeup as you'd want in a person, no matter what he's going to do.

"You know, I called when they made it official that he was going north. He thanked me for signing him. ... I said, 'Thank you.' If I sign one kid like that a year, I'll have a job for a long time. But there aren't many like him."

The Mets signing him completed the evolution from fascination to affection for Bannister. Now he can't get enough Mets. He doesn't know all their history. He didn't know Seaver wore No. 41. But chances are his copy of the 2006 media guide already has dog ears.

"Others hear something or read something," Heilman said, "and they say 'That's cool.' Brian goes out of his way to research it."

The call from Leavitt moved Bannister, as did the same-day call from his college roommate. They walked on together at Southern Cal.

"I remember the first day," Bannister said. "I had prepared myself. I told myself, 'This could be the last day I play baseball.' But he made it as sort of a third-string catcher. I was about the same, but I was a pitcher. They liked my curveball.

"After a few weeks, he decided he wasn't going to play enough, so he quit. But he called and said, 'I can't believe how far you've come.' That made me pretty proud."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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