Interview: Chris Bando continues baseball ministry, savors his New Orleans Zephyrs memories
Had there been Minor League Baseball in 2020, there would have been no games in the New Orleans for the first time since 1993.
That is when the New Orleans Zephyrs arrived in town from Denver.
The Zephyr name fit perfectly, with the name being indigenous to the culture, thanks to the famous ride at Pontchartrain Beach and its successor, the Mega Zeph, at what became Six Flags of New Orleans.
The team debuted under the tutelage of Chris Bando.
The baseball career of Bando on the Major League level spanned nine seasons, including nearly eight seasons with Cleveland and some brief time with both Detroit and Oakland.
With is playing and Major League coaching career long over, Bando has run Athletes Abroad for Christ for years now, serving athletes and more in ministry around the world.
With no Minor League Baseball this season and with Major League Baseball yet to start, Bando has had ample opportunity to minister to those in professional baseball in 2020 as he spoke about, along with many other topics on The Life Resources Bottom Line Sports Hour on 106.1 FM Thursday night.
“We’re trying to keep young men encouraged during this difficult time with no Minor League Baseball and with Major League Baseball coming. There’s a lot of young men that have lost their way. We’re men with hope. Those without God are without hope and we have a living hope which is an anchor for our soul.”
Bando is convinced that there is good to follow the bad times that we have been ensconced in.
“The best life is yet to come,” Bando said. “Christ is going to return and set up His kingdom. In the meantime, keep looking up. God is sovereign. He’s in control and his promises are true. He will never let us go.”
In the midst of massive social change, there are changes with sports franchises as well.
Bando has mixed emotions about the pending name change of the Indians as he grew up in the Cleveland area before realizing his dream of playing for his hometown team.
“Absolutely,” Bando said. “I know the logo was meant to honor one of the first American Indians to play professional baseball for the Cleveland Indians. It is a mixed emotion. I certainly have fond memories of growing up in Cleveland. The Cleveland Indians were always a team of endearment. I’m sure most of the people in Cleveland feel the same way. I understand why it is happening. It certainly is mixed emotions.”
Bando had the distinction of catching for Cleveland when a famous player appeared at the plate for the final time in his illustrious career.
“Carl Yastrzemski, I was catching behind him in his very last at-bat of his career,” Bando said. “Every pitch that was thrown, there was an ovation of 30 seconds to a minute between every pitch so that last at-bat seemed like eternity but it was one of those surreal moments where you got goose bumps going down your arm knowing that this is Carl Yastrzemski’s last at-bat of his prolonged and historic Major League career.”
Today’s Major League Baseball features more home runs and more strikeouts to go along with lesser batting averages.
“It appears that baseball fans, they like to see the long ball, to hit the ball over the fence,” Bando said. “I personally don’t think it’s for the good of the game but you come up as an old-school type of coach where you’re used to teaching making contact and putting the ball in play and making sure you get the runner over. You try to generate runs and it’s all part of what we instructed and the way we instructed young players to play and the way I was taught.”
The result is not what Bando enjoys watching.
“I think it takes away from the game because it’s because so one-dimensional,” Bando said. “I think there’s a certain excitement to the more you put the ball in play, the more exciting the game is and the game keeps moving. I think it takes away from the game but that’s the way the game is. Guys are getting bigger and stronger, fences are being brought in and the ball is traveling more. Stadiums are conducive to offense. All the teams are built around power.”
While most players today swing lighter bats in search of bat speed, there is an advantage to using a bigger, heavier bat.
“A lot of the big guys used big, heavy bats,” Bando said. “Today, I don’t think there’s many guys using big bats any longer. As big and strong as they are, they just try to get it through the zone as fast as they can. Bobby Bonds was one of my hitting coaches when I played and he was a big endorser of using as big and heavy a bat as you can because of less work you have to do. I think there’s a lot of validity to it.”
After his playing career ended, Bando got into coaching.
In 1993, he arrived in New Orleans to manage the Triple A Zephyrs.
The team had to play at a subpar facility for Triple A in Privateer Park, a facility with a lower and upper fence, a facility with few permanent seats and a facility, at the start, with incomplete fencing down the outfield lines which cost the Zephyrs a win in their first-ever game at the ballpark.
Bando handled the difficult situation perfectly, focusing on the positive.
“It was a unique situation in terms of the ballpark,” Bando recalled. “The circumstances, having to walk down from Lakefront Arena to the baseball field and a lot of unique ground rules playing on that field with the wind blowing out.”
Bando felt it was all part of the journey to try to make it to the highest level of baseball.
“I think it’s a time, so often in the Minor Leagues and there’s such a common bond and you all go through struggles on the Minor League level, all striving to get to the top,” Bando said. “You have to overcome. It’s just like life. There’s trials and circumstances that are unpleasant but we’re grateful for the opportunity to serve the Lord and to play and coach a game that we dearly love.”
The 1993 Zephyrs were a good team, going 80-64 but losing out to Iowa by a narrow margin it their division.
The 1994 Zephyrs of Bando went 78-66 and made the American Association playoffs. Despite playing in a small college park, the Zephyrs were a small ball team, hitting just 79 home runs but running wild, stealing 186 bases, including 41 by Tim Barker.
“That is the way I loved to manage, putting runners in motion and trying wreak havoc on the base paths,” Bando said. “We tried to manage to the talent we had and we had a good group of players who could run well.”
Bando’s last season in New Orleans was 1995 before he was summoned to become a coach for the parent club of the Zephyrs, the Milwaukee Brewers. Bando would not get to coach in the new stadium, Zephyr Field, which opened in 1997.
The stadium hosted Minor League Baseball through the 2019 season with the team formerly known as the Zephyrs departing for Wichita at the end of that season.
“It breaks my heart that there’s not going to be minor league baseball in New Orleans,” Bando said. “New Orleans has a great fan base, it’s a wonderful city, it’s a wonderful place to spend the summer and it is an enthusiastic sports town and well deserving of a minor league team. I sure hope they are able to bring another minor league team to New Orleans. I have a lot of great memories there.”
There is one aspect about his time in New Orleans that Bando has not forgotten.
“Of course, I gained 20 pounds each summer eating all that great Cajun food,” Bando said.
In the final analysis, playing Triple A baseball in well below average conditions for three seasons was a challenge.
“The Zephyrs tested my faith a lot and my faith grew a lot during those three years,” Bando said. “It’s the only field I know where you had to go over the ground rules and you had to hit it over the second fence for it to be considered a home run. I don’t think that’s ever happened in Minor League Baseball.”
The faith of “CB” will always define him, whether in New Orleans, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Texas or any part of the world where athletes can be reached on the broadest level possible to share his faith.
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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started NewOrleans.com/Sports with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became SportsNOLA.com. On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch CrescentCitySports.com. Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Sports Media Association, National Football…