"My first at bat my knees were shaking. The first person I faced was Rollie Fingers."
As young baseball fans, most of us spent countless hours as kids dreaming of being a Big Leaguer one day and playing for the home team.
Former Indians Chris Bando got to do that and more and he is sharing his story in this week’s Spitballin.’
Bando grew up in Cleveland and while his childhood was filled with the typical activities of a young sports fan, like playing Little League and going to ballgames, he also got a behind-the-scenes look at baseball in a way most kids don’t.
Chris’ older brother Sal is 12 years his senior and while Chris was in high school, Sal was anchoring the great Oakland A’s dynasty of the 1970s. While most teenagers are content to follow their favorite players on TV, Chris had guys like Gene Tenace, Tony LaRussa and Ray Fosse over the house for his mom’s spaghetti.
Even prior to that, when Sal was a standout at Arizona State, Chris and his family relocated seasonally to Arizona where Chris served as the Sun Devils’ batboy.
Years later, Bando would become a Sun Devil himself. His great collegiate career was highlighted by hitting the deciding home run in the NCAA Championship Game to lift Arizona State to a 2-1 win and a national title.
Bando played nine years in the Majors and then spent decades in the game as a minor league manager and bench coach and third base coach for the Brewers.
Today, Bando works with baseball players through Athletes Abroad for Christ, an organization with a mission, “To glorify God through the arena of athletics by teaching Reformed doctrine and a faithful commitment to the local church.”
He has experienced many of the dreams all of us had as young baseball fans, so let’s go Spitballin’ with Chris Bando.
1986: All time great Atlanta Braves pitcher Phil Niekro, now a coach of the Cleveland Indians, talks with catcher Chris Bando of the Indians. Mandatory Credit: Gray Mortimore/Allsport
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Bando. Before we get into your career, I wanted to ask about your childhood. Growing up in Cleveland, were you a big Indians fan? Did you have any favorite players?
Absolutely, I was a big Indians fan as a kid and Rocky Colavito was my favorite player. He was a role model for those of us who grew up in Cleveland. I liked all the players for the Indians, but he stood out.
I tried to imitate him as a Little League player. From the way he stood to the way he pointed his bat, he was always someone I wanted to emulate. I played Little League baseball and if you got straight A’s on your report card, you got free tickets to go to an Indians game, so I always tried to do that. When I eventually got drafted by them, it was so surreal. When I was a kid, Municipal Stadium was bigger than life. Not just for Indians games, but for Browns games too.
“They used to call me “mud turtle” because I was caked with mud by the time the game was over after trying to block all those knuckleballs.”
You also had a unique perspective of baseball as a youngster as your older brother Sal made his Major League debut when you were 10. You were in your teens when he led the A’s to three straight World Series in the early 1970s. What was it like growing up with an older brother as a star baseball player?
It was great. I went to all the World Series games with my dad and it was surreal being in the locker room. Being in high school at that time, it was a moment that you couldn’t describe. Watching their talent up close was a big thrill. It gave me more inspiration and desire to one day be a Major Leaguer.
Were there any guys on those A’s teams that you particularly looked up to?
They were all fantastic to me as a kid. Ted Kubiak was incredibly nice to me and later on we coached together in the Indians organization.
My brother used to bring Tony LaRussa and some of the guys over the house for spaghetti when they were in town. Ray Fosse, who unfortunately just passed away, was one of my favorites. Gene Tenace always used to come by for spaghetti too. It was a lot of fun getting to know all of them and they were always so nice to me. But if I had to pick ones who stood out it would be Tony LaRussa, Ray Fosse and Gene Tenace.
Those are some great guys to look up to. Before you followed in your brother’s footsteps to the Majors, you played at Arizona State like he did. I read you were even a bat boy there when he played. Was it a goal of yours to play there one day?
They played on this back field that was actually the JV field when I went there. We would go out there every spring with my parents. I would transfer to school in Arizona for the season which enabled me to be bat boy and mingle with the players. It was a big thrill and always a goal of mine to play at Arizona State. The notoriety that came with the school at the time was great and of course my brother had his ties there.
You have one of the biggest hits in the school’s history. In the 1977 College World Series you hit a home run to put Arizona State up 2-1 in the seventh inning of the championship game against South Carolina. You guys held on to that lead to win the National Championship. Could you take us through that at bat?
Their pitcher threw me nothing but breaking balls the whole game, but I was sitting on a fastball. It was a tie game in the seventh inning and it was a first-pitch fastball from Jim Lewis and I was just sitting on it. I wanted to be aggressive and hit it as hard as I can. It was a big thrill seeing it go over the fence then holding onto the lead. It was one of the quickest games I was ever involved in. There wasn’t many hits, maybe three or four the entire game.
Mookie Wilson was the centerfielder for South Carolina. It was one of the bigger thrills of my baseball career for sure. The guys I played with at Arizona State were great too. Hubie Brooks, Bob Horner and many other guys who went to play in the Majors.
Kansas City Royals vs. Cleveland Indians<br /> CLEVELAND - JULY 28: (l to r) George Brett #5, of the Kansas City Royals, looks back at catcher, Chris Bando, of the Cleveland Indians, while at bat during a game on July 28, 1982 at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Ron Kuntz Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images)
You were a second-round draft pick by your hometown Cleveland Indians in 1978. What was it like being drafted by your favorite team?
You go through all the stuff with scouts; fill out all the questionnaires, do the eye tests and everything else. I talked to almost every organization, but I don’t ever recall talking with the Indians. It took me by surprise. I was definitely excited about it. It was an incredible moment to experience.
What was it like putting on that Indians jersey for the first time and making your debut with them in 1981?
My first at bat my knees were shaking. The first person I faced was Rollie Fingers, who played with my brother. I grew up watching him close all those games and here I was batting against him. He was with the Brewers at the time and I just couldn’t believe I was in Cleveland Stadium facing Rollie Fingers, a Hall of Fame reliever. My knees were knocking, so I just swung at the first pitch. I wish I would have taken a strike, but I grounded out to short. It was an emotional moment at the time.
My brother was on the Brewers too and he was yelling at me from the Brewers dugout. I would hear him saying, “Get a real player in there!”
It’s a great memory.
You were with the Indians from 1981-1988 and although they never made the playoffs, I think of so many real good players who were there at the time. Guys like Andre Thornton, Joe Carter, Brook Jacoby and Julio Franco come to mind. Were there any guys that really stood out to you the most?
Some of the pitchers too. It was a thrill catching Bert Blyleven and I also caught for Phil Niekro and Tom Candiotti. Those were the guys I enjoyed catching the most. But the player who had the biggest influence on me was Andre Thornton. He took me under his wing and we lived together on the East Side of town. We drove to the stadium together and drove home after the games. He taught me a lot about the game and how to conduct myself on and off the field.
Those are some great guys to have played with. You mentioned Niekro and Candiotti. What was it like catching on a staff with two of the best knuckleball pitchers of that generation?
I didn’t sleep much the night before, I’ll tell you that! I just tried to knock pitches down and keep them from getting by. I definitely had to find a way to relax while catching. I tried to keep my body in front of everything no matter where the ball was. If you tried to reach out to catch it, it’s still breaking so you had to try to catch it close to your body.
They used to call me “mud turtle” because I was caked with mud by the time the game was over after trying to block all those knuckleballs. It was hard, but it was a challenge that I enjoyed. I’m glad they didn’t throw back-to-back, so I had a day off in between them to refresh my body and my brain.
We were talking earlier and you mentioned that you caught Luis Tiant too. I imagine he was someone you looked up to as a youngster in Cleveland. What was your experience with Luis?
I played on a team in Puerto Rico and it was almost like a who’s who All-Star team. I caught Luis there after rooting for him with the Indians and following his career with the Red Sox. He was a character for sure.
He used to call me “Jo-gi,” like Yogi Berra. Basically, I didn’t even have to put any signs down. He just invented pitches out there. I didn’t know what he was gonna throw, he had so many pitches. He was a great competitor and it was a joy and privilege to be able to catch him. It was late in his career and he was trying to make a comeback. He was a great teammate and I’m thankful I got to play with him.
That was a great team too. Tony Perez played first base. Sixto Lezcano, Ivan DeJesus, Pat Tabler, Willie Montanez and Jerry Morales were on the team. At that time, young Major League rookies who didn’t play a lot went to Puerto Rico to play and we’d play with local guys who were from there and other Major League veterans. It was one of the best experiences I had playing baseball.
After your playing days, you had a very long career in coaching and scouting. How did you make that transition from a player into those roles?
I knew my body was done at the end of my career and the Brewers were looking for an A-Ball manager. I always wanted to manage and the opportunity became available. I talked to Bruce Mano, who was their Farm Director at the time and he hired me. I started in Stockton, California and managed for about ten years in the minor leagues. I coached in the Big Leagues after that too. I love professional baseball and was thankful I was able to stay in it for as long as I did.
TORONTO - 1986: (L-R) Phil Niekro #35, catcher Chris Bando #23 and pitching coach Phil Regan of the Cleveland Indians have a conference on the mound during a game against the Toronto Blue Jays in 1986 at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Gray Mortimore/Getty Images)
Were there any guys you coached as youngsters who you saw go on to make a big impact in the Majors?
Mike Matheny is a guy I had as a catcher and I am proud of his career in baseball. It was great to see him stay in the game as a manager too. He’s a great leader. Dave Nilsson is another I worked with who became an All-Star catcher. Josh Bard comes to mind too. I had Pat Listach, Cal Eldred and Jeff Cirillo in the minors. There were a lot of guys I had when I was managing in the Brewers system who went on and excelled in the Majors.
That’s a great list of guys and I’m sure there are many more. As someone who has been around baseball so long and in so many capacities, what do you think about the way the game has changed in recent years?
You’d like to see a little more action in terms of putting the ball in play and hitting and running. The pace of the game is a lot slower now and with the short fences, everyone is trying to go deep. As a catcher, I used to love it when batters were all-or-nothing; they were easy to pitch to. You either punched them out or they got you. It used to be such a grind to work your way through a Major League lineup when there weren’t many swing-and-miss guys in there. In the 80’s when I played, our pitching staff had to grind it out every game because you didn’t have any teams that were all-or-nothing. They all put the ball in play and there were always some power guys. I miss that style of play.
There’s a lot of talent in the game today, but I wish there would be more of an emphasis of putting the ball in play and doing the little things like getting guys over and getting them in. That’s what you were schooled on fundamentally in my era.
Now, when a guy is on second with nobody out, they’re still trying to hit a home run instead of getting them over. We’re seeing that the better teams are the ones who have the ability to do that. I think things are swinging back to where they’re playing better fundamental baseball.
I do too. I know the game changes, but it feels like common sense is being totally abandoned.
I was fortunate enough to play with guys like Mike Hargrove and Toby Harrah. They knew the game and talked the game and if you didn’t do the job the right way, you heard about it from one of the veteran players. As a player, you knew what you had to do without anyone telling you. All we did was talk fundamental and situational baseball.
Mentioning Hargrove and Harrah, I can’t help again but to think about the fantastic players from your era. That was the era I grew up watching, so it’s always great to hear those names.
There were just so many good complete players during the 1980s. It was incredible the guys I played against. George Brett, Kirby Puckett, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor. They were not just great hitters, but they had power too. Joe Carter comes to mind too. I enjoyed playing with him and watching him excel. There were a lot of superstars in the 1980s and raw athletes like Bo Jackson. They talk about today’s players being bigger and stronger, and I don’t doubt that they are, but there were some phenomenal athletes in the 80s who were not only physically tough, but mentally tough too. They were complete players. I played with and against some of the best athletes in the world and I’ll never forget that.
I wanted to ask you about Athletes Abroad for Christ, an organization you co-founded with Mark Dewey. Can you tell us what you do and about your involvement with the group?
We do Zoom Bible studies with a lot of current players and coaches in both the Major League and minor leagues. Some of the umpires too. We try to help people grow in their Faith. We try to encourage guys in the game to live through Christ. We conduct Bible studies and do yearly retreats with players. We try to help them stand firm in their Faith. We know how hard the game is to play; it’s built in failure. We try to encourage them through the Scriptures to stay positive and know that God is with them. We teach that He put them in a position to influence others. We teach them to love God and love others and be a witness wherever they are in the game of baseball, whether it’s Independent ball, minor league baseball or in the Majors.
That’s such a great message and endeavor. I love it. My last question is an open-ended one. Do you have any final reflections you’d like to leave our readers with?
Baseball is a great game and it’s a microcosm of life. There’s a lot of ups and a lot of downs in the game of baseball and in life and you have to stay even-keeled. You have to keep going forward. The season is a grind and life can be a grind too. You just have to take life one day at a time and in baseball, you’re taught to take things one pitch at a time or one inning at a time. Before you know it, you grind out the season and life is the same way. You have to make sure you fix your eyes on the Lord Jesus Christ who has a perfect plan in the game and outside of the game. He’s there with you during the ups and downs; the good days and the bad days. He promises to work things together for our good in his glory. I always tried to keep that forefront in my mind during my baseball career and my life.