Jeff Manto's last swing at Dunn Tire Park went for a home run. Could it have possibly been anything else?
The Bisons' modern-era home run king crushed a two-run bomb in the eighth inning of Sunday night's 12-7 win over the Rochester Red Wings. Afterward, he told the largest crowd of the season he's likely retiring after this, his 15th pro campaign.
The Herd broke a 7-7 tie with a five-run eighth, the last two scoring on Manto's majestic drive into the left-field screen off Rochester reliever David Evans.
The blast, Manto's 23rd of 1999 and 66th in three seasons in Buffalo, prompted bedlam in the Fan Appreciation Night crowd of 19,910. Although it was the Herd's second-last game of the season, Manto said it was his final at-bat in the minors. He'll watch tonight's finale (7, Radio 1520) from the dugout.
"When I hit that, it was almost like my body fell asleep," Manto said. "As soon as that thing hit the net (above the left-field fence) and just hearing the music and crowd, I had butterflies around home plate. That was the emotional part -- coming around third base thinking, 'I know this is it. They (the fans) don't know yet." '
After the game, the team presented Manto with a plaque honoring him for his home run prowess. He took a microphone and made his dramatic announcement.
"I stand here tonight and I've done a lot of soul searching," Manto told the fans. "I'm probably playing my last year as a minor-league player. I can tell you this right now: The last three years have been the absolute best."
Manto then referred to a recent article by News columnist Jerry Sullivan that discussed how difficult this season has been in the wake of his father's death in May. The article talked about how Manto has been playing the game through his father's eyes since then.
"Then the reporter turned around and said maybe I play this game through the fans of Buffalo's eyes," Manto said. "I can't agree more and I appreciate it. I love playing for you."
Some fans had an inkling they were seeing Manto's swan song, as a banner that read "Thank You Manto" was hung from the facing of the bleachers in deep right-center before the game. After his speech, the crowd cheered wildly as Manto doffed his cap and headed into the dugout.
Manto had been 0 for 4 in a game that had seen the Herd collect 15 hits. A sacrifice fly by Bill Selby scored Jolbert Cabrera and set the stage for Manto to bat with John McDonald at second.
"I was hoping for another at-bat," Manto said. "It happened and it was incredible."
Evans' first pitch, a slider, sailed over Manto's head, drawing hoots from the crowd. The next one was right down the middle.
"I knew he was going to guide something over and I wasn't looking for anything else," Manto said. "For it to come down like that, somebody had to be looking down on it. That was pretty cool."
Manto has been the people's choice since arriving in Buffalo in a trade with the Toronto organization in June, 1997. He hit three home runs against Iowa July 14, 1997, and belted a three-run shot in the ninth inning in the 1998 season finale to give Buffalo an 8-7 win at Scranton and the IL North Division title.
In 181 regular-season games with the Bisons in three years, Manto batted .310, hit 66 homers and collected 161 RBIs (he finishes this season at .299-23-44 in 65 games). His 230 career minor-league home runs are the most among active players.
Manto has just 30 homers in 281 big-league games with seven teams and knows the chances of a big-league deal for 2000 aren't good. He understands that 35-year-olds are likely nothing more than insurance for a good team or out of the budget for a small-market team.
Manto said he's struggled to perform in the minors of late, in part because of his father's death. He's also frustrated by the lack of a challenge Triple-A provides; despite playing in less than half of the Herd's games, he has a team-high 66 walks.
"I say this not in an arrogant way but this level is not a challenge," Manto said. "When they won't pitch to you, it's not fun. When you feel that, it's time to let a kid play."
The Bisons battled back to a win a game they trailed, 6-2, in the fourth. Selby had a three-run homer in the sixth and a great dugout seat for Manto's heroics.
"That gave me chills," Selby said. "I wish he could have played 10 years in the big leagues so he can touch other players, but he's helped me so much. It's fun to be a part of his special days."
Manto said he won't get overly emotional tonight. His alternatives for next year -- being in the big leagues or staying with his family in suburban Philadelphia -- are fine.
"I'll probably be goofing around in the dugout keeping everybody loose and telling war stories," he said. "I'm not going to have a lot of wild emotions, not at all. I'll come in, get dressed, shower, say good-bye and go home.
"I'm content with that. I couldn't end this thing any better than I did. This was perfect, absolutely perfect."