Catching Up With Chris Bando

Former Major League catcher Chris Bando started out just like any other boy who grew up in Northeastern Ohio. The Solon High School alumnus loved sports, played ball with his friends and had a special place in his heart for his hometown teams.

“Cleveland everything was always my favorite,” Bando said. “Cleveland Indians. Cleveland Browns. Cleveland Cavs. When you are born and raised in Cleveland, you are definitely a Cleveland fan through and through.”

Even now, more than two decades after his playing career ended, Bando still holds a special place in his heart for his boyhood favorites.

“Absolutely,” Bando said. “They are the only professional teams that I care about.”

Bando grew up in an era quite different from today’s Cleveland sports teams, as the Browns were dominant, the Cavaliers were struggling in the infancy phase of their franchise and the Indians were in the middle of a more-than-four decade slump. Like most people, Bando had to watch the Browns and Cavs from either the sidelines or the television set, but he got the best seat in the house to watch the Tribe for eight seasons.

“It was almost surreal when Cleveland drafted me,” Bando recalled.

Bando was selected by Cleveland in the second round of the 1978 MLB Draft after a stellar collegiate career at Arizona State University. In 1996, when the College World Series celebrated its 50th anniversary, Bando was named as the catcher for the All-1970’s Team. It was an honor that was highlighted by an outstanding, clutch performance by Bando, who slugged the homerun that would decide the 1977 Championship Game and give the Sun Devils the National Title.

The homerun still sits atop Bando’s list.

“It’s probably number one on my list. It was kind of a surreal moment,” Bando said. “I look back on it, just the memory of it…It was so special in so many ways.  Nothing tops it on my baseball list.”

Also special for Bando were his championship teammates at ASU, who became more than just friends or guys that he played with.

“When you win a national championship, you’re kind of rooted with your teammates. You get kind of a chemistry and almost a family network, forever. It was a special group of guys.”

When Bando’s magical college career ended, he moved on to the Indians organization, who were a surprise suitor for his talents.

“I talked to almost every Major League team except the Indians in college,” Bando recalled.  “I was kind of shocked, but excited, that the team that never talk to me was the team that drafted me.”

With the dream-scenario fulfilled, Bando lights up when speaking of his first memories of his time spent with the Tribe.

“It was kind of ironic and certainly a thrill driving down to Cleveland Stadium for a press conference after I signed,” Bando said. “Cleveland Municipal Stadium was a stadium that I had been at hundreds of times.  Going down there with now a possibility of playing there was unreal to me.”

Bando impressed through four seasons as a minor leaguer, highlighted by a 1980 season at Double-A where he batted .349 and a Triple-A season in 1981 where he batted .306. For his efforts, Bando was promoted to the Indians in mid-August and made his Major League debut as a defensive replacement in an August 13 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers at Cleveland Stadium. A Major League debut would normally be special enough, but Bando’s first game was even more memorable because of a familiar face donning a Brewers uniform in the other dugout.

“My first game in the Major Leagues was against my brother’s team, the Milwaukee Brewers,” Bando recalled.

His brother, 16-year veteran Sal Bando, was winding up his outstanding career as the Brewers made their final trip to Cleveland for the summer. With Chris’ debut coming in Sal’s final season in the league, it would be the only time that the brothers would face as Major League opponents.

“He taught me everything,” Bando said of Sal.  “(Besides the College National Championship), my second biggest career highlight was in his last year in the league.  I got called up when Cleveland was playing Milwaukee and it would turn out to be the only game that I played against my brother…and it was my first game.  He was really instrumental in my development as a player.  He taught me the game and mentored me throughout the way.”

Bando remained with the Major League club through the rest of the ’81 season and then made the team in ’82 as a backup to regular catcher Ron Hassey. Bando’s spot on the roster was secure, as he did not spend another day in the minor leagues until the 1984 season when he was on a rehabilitation assignment.

“I remember opening up the season on the disabled list of that year. I was hurt coming out of spring training,” Bando said.  “When I was down in the minor leagues on a rehab assignment, it really put the game in perspective for me.”

The time at Triple-A Maine allowed Bando to get hot against some lesser pitching and his eventual call-up allowed for his bat to continue sizzling.

“When I was called back up, everything seemed to click that year,” Bando said of his best MLB season.  “Sometimes you lose perspective when you’re in the Major Leagues. You think it’s harder than it really is…even though it is very difficult.  For some reason, everything clicked that year and I got an opportunity to play. Me getting an opportunity to play every day in the minor leagues helped because when I got called up everything continue to flow.”

Bando posted career bests with a .291 batting average, 12 homeruns and 41 RBI in 75 games in the summer of ’84. The good season cemented his place on the roster for the next half-decade as the organization went through the rollercoaster of the mid-80’s seasons. The young and talented Tribe was an out-of-nowhere 84-78 in the 1986 season and were then picked by Sports Illustrated to win the AL Pennant in 1987. The Tribe floundered under a weak pitching staff, however, and lost a depressing 101 games instead.

In the middle of another disappointing 1988 season, the Indians released Bando in August as another youth-movement made its way to the shores of Lake Erie. Bando looks back on his time with the Tribe nearly the same way as he does his collegiate career—with fondness for the guys he played with.

“Just my teammates…we were close knit,” Bando recalled. “We were all about the same age group and we all remained good friends throughout the years.  There were so many good players and close friends. Brett Butler, Joe Carter, Pat Tabler…”

The young players became close friends and have remained so for years and years after playing, but it was a veteran on those Indians teams that had the biggest impact on the young Bando.

“Andre Thornton had the biggest impact in my life and career,” Bando said.  “He took me under his wing and mentored me and I looked up to him.  He was a captain, a model Indian and a model citizen.  He went about his business so professionally that we eventually became best friends.  We spent a lot of time together. He just taught me how to conduct myself and how to lead. He was very instrumental in my life and career.”

Bando signed on at the end of the ’88 season to play one game with the Detroit Tigers before their season ended and then got another shot to play one more Major League game in ’89 with the Oakland A’s on the final day of the regular season. Bando got the game winning hit in extra innings and then moved on to the next phase of his baseball life…coaching.

“That’s it, basically,” Bando said of the job that has taken up the majority of his time since 1990.  “After playing, I got into coaching in professional baseball from 1990 to 2005.  I managed in the Brewers minor-league system and then was a coach for their Big League team and then I was with the Indians and managed and was the roving catching instructor in their minor league system. In my last season of professional baseball, I was an advanced scout for the Diamondbacks. From there, I went to coach in college and coached my boys and got to watch them play college baseball.  My last one is graduating this year and I’m thankful to have spent the last six years in college baseball.”

Bando is currently the head coach at the private, evangelical Christian school San Diego Christian College in suburban Santee, California and had the pleasure of coaching his sons over the past six seasons. Bando looks on the challenge of coaching his own kids as one that has been extremely rewarding for him.

“You’re always harder on your own children, usually,” Bando said of his boys.  “It is a joy to be able to coach them and watch them play the game you enjoy.  It was a joy to see the quality of friendships that they made.  I’ve seen four of them get spouses through their college experience and another two that probably will as well.  College has been good not only for baseball, but for our family. We’ve seen our family expand.  It’s been a joy in many areas.”

Bando has built the program that has been around for only a half dozen years into a stellar one, as Bando was able to relive his glory days when he returned to the College World Series last season as a manager. In addition to a fun postseason run, a few of Bando’s boys also got to move on to the professional ranks like their college coach did almost four decades earlier.

“Last season was a big highlight for my college coaching career,” Bando said. “We had three players drafted from our baseball club and made the College World Series.  We have only been in existence for six years, so it was a big thrill. To see three kids get drafted was great because we are at a school of only 400 students, so it’s a small college.  To see that happen to these kids was a real thrill for my coaching career.”

Returning to the highlight of the college baseball season along with two decades in charge of young athletes allows Bando to reflect on things that make his job special compared to what life was like as a player.

“As a player, you are so consumed with your own performance and as a coach who are consumed with others performances.  You get really wrapped up in developing young players with the hopes of them getting the opportunity to move on and play professional baseball.”

In addition, Bando also understands the connections that are made though the lifelong journey of some ballplayers, as he was not the only former Cleveland Indian sitting in the SDCC Hawks’ dugout during their 2014 season. Along with Bando was former Indians teammate Doug Jones, who served as the teams pitching coach. Jones is just one example of the camaraderie from Bando’s time with the Indians that he holds so dear.

“A lot of us guys have stayed connected,” Bando said.  “We stay in touch with each other, so I think the quality of relationships that I made as a player—sharing the high points and the low points—is special and something that I can carry with me for the rest of my life.”

Photo: Topps Baseball Cards

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