After a preseason workout at Eldredge Park, Orleans Firebirds manager Kelly Nicholson sat down and talked about the group of assistant coaches that would be joining him this summer.
“We have Jay Banfield, our mental skills guy and team-building coach,” Nicholson said after rattling off a few notes about other members of his coaching staff. “He also played in the World Series of Poker. He’s really like the world’s most interesting man.”
Banfield had already accomplished a lot before he and Nicholson first met for lunch a few years ago in Los Angeles while Banfield was visiting his son Aidan at the University of Southern California. A native of Somerville, Banfield headed west to earn a psychology degree from Stanford and eventually settled in San Francisco with his wife Kate and their three kids.
He’s worked on local, state and national political campaigns and has served in both the legislative and executive branches of government. He’s also a baseball lifer who approached Nicholson with dreams of returning to his roots in the Bay State while also tapping into his passion for psychology and helping others.
“Yogi Berra talked about how baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical,” Banfield said before a recent game. “The math is not exactly right, but I think it’s directionally accurate, which is the sport is very demanding mentally. If you think about the time that most baseball players put in, it’s almost exclusively on building their physical skills of throwing or hitting or pitching and very little on the mental side.”
“When you ask players how much of the game is mental, on the low end you’re going to get 50 percent and on the high end I’ve had guys say 80 to 90 percent,” said Nicholson. “And then my next question is always, ‘How much do you spend on the mental?’ On the low end I’ll get zero and on the high end it’s 20 to 30 percent. Now, I didn’t go to Stanford like Jay, but that doesn’t make sense. If you’re saying it’s that important and you’re not training a really important aspect of baseball, then something’s not right.”
Banfield joined the Firebirds’ staff for the 2019 season after he and Nicholson both acknowledged a need to enhance Orleans’ approach to the mental components of the game. The coaching staff implemented a program it calls “Mind Up” to help players stay mentally sharp during what can be one of the most taxing summers of their lives.
Mind Up incorporates concentration activities, visualization exercises and breathing techniques the players can utilize to slow down their heart rate during tense moments.
“Baseball is a very grueling game mentally because you have so much downtime, so much time to think about things,” Banfield said. “And, as everybody talks about, it’s a game that’s built on failure and how do you overcome failure and adversity is a very important piece of it.”
Banfield and the Firebirds stress a process-driven approach. They don’t worry about what they can’t control. After all, the teams they are competing against are led by talented coaches and are full of talented players, too.
“The things you can control are this pitch — executing this pitch, putting a barrel on this pitch and then fielding it cleanly,” Banfield said. “We talk about this with the pitchers — you could make a perfect pitch and you saw off the batter and get a broken bat, bloop hit double. You can’t let that get you down because you’ve done your job at that point. You’ve got to be more process driven than results driven.”
As far as their playing style, the Firebirds want to play with conviction.
“You can’t do anything halfway in baseball,” said Banfield, “you have to do it all the way.”
That was one of the messages the 2019 team received from three-time World Series champion Al Leiter when the left-handed pitcher visited Orleans and spoke with the club.
“There were a lot of takeaways but one was him saying that the mental aspect is so huge,” Banfield said. “He worked with Harvey Dorfman and he said to the boys, ‘Here’s a book you should read, “The Mental Game of Baseball.” Everybody should read this.’ And what he talked about as well is that everything you have to do has to be with conviction.”
While Banfield certainly approaches his coaching with a great deal of conviction, he admits his greatest professional accomplishment came far away from any Cape League diamond. Back home in San Francisco, he spent 12 years at Year Up, a nationally recognized youth and workforce development program, where he led an expansion into the San Francisco Bay Area and later served as chief officer of innovation and scale, as well as managing director for California.
“We helped tens of thousands of young people get access to jobs that they otherwise wouldn’t have had access to,” said Banfield, who since 2019 has worked as the chief officer of economic mobility at All Home, a new Bay Area organization aimed to provide solutions for homelessness in the region.
“I like to think of myself as an opportunity broker,” he continued. “That’s the stuff I’m most proud of and I feel like I’m trying to do that a little bit here, too. Although these guys have talent that will get them where they need to go, anything I can do to help them along the way I’ll do it.”
It’s that team-first outlook that Nicholson admires most about Banfield.
“He’s totally committed and dedicated and there’s not an agenda. He just wants to add value every day,” said the manager, who spends his off-seasons teaching at Loyola High School in LA. “As we say in Jesuit education, he gives and he does not count the cost.”
Nicholson said it was a no-brainer to bring Banfield back this summer when he expressed interest in returning. For the Massachusetts native, working with Nicholson and the Firebirds really has been a dream come true.
“I feel really blessed and grateful to have the opportunity to be here because I think this is baseball at its most pure form and to be involved in it in any shape, way or form, I’m just grateful for that and I’ll always be grateful for [Nicholson] taking a shot on me,” Banfield said. “I think that’s what this role is all about — taking shots on people and then letting them prove themselves.”
And while the Firebirds love Banfield for all that he brings to the team’s Mind Up programs, they are also fascinated by the fact he played in the 2018 World Series of Poker.
“I decided that was going to be my present for my 50th birthday, and so I signed up and did it and it was a great experience,” said Banfield, who pointed out he lasted longer than a couple competitors who had previously won at the competition, but he didn’t return home with any money. In true Banfield fashion, the coach’s recollection of his World Series of Poker appearance focuses on the process rather than the results.
“I tell the guys I didn’t want to be the first guy knocked out — and I wasn’t — and I wanted to make it through the first day, and I did,” Banfield said. “I had a great time and I did what I wanted to do and I made it out of the first day, which was great. I wanted to bag chips the first day, I did and everything else was gravy.”
Email Brad Joyal at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recent/Upcoming Games for the Orleans Firebirds (7-7-2)
July 11: Yarmouth-Dennis 6, Orleans 2
July 12: Falmouth 1, Orleans 0
July 14: Orleans at Harwich, 6:30 p.m.
July 16: Orleans at Wareham, 6:45 p.m.