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The Buffalo Bisons' first non-playoff season since 1994 ended Monday with a 3-2 loss to the Rochester Red Wings at Dunn Tire Park. So too did the minor-league career of Herd slugger Jeff Manto, albeit a day later than he said he would.

After announcing his retirement from the minors following Sunday's game, the Bisons' modern-era home run king said he had no intention of playing Monday. No intention, that is, until he read the newspaper in the morning and came to the park to confirm that his batting average was indeed stuck at .299.

Manto could live with .297, but not .299. He called that "unfinished business." So he left a scribbled inquiry on Jeff Datz's desk when the Buffalo manager came into his office.

"Dear Coach Datz," the playful note read. "Can I play first base tonight (and get) two at-bats? Mick."

Datz sought out Manto (whose clubhouse nickname of 'Mick' is short for 'Mickey Manto'), just to make sure the note wasn't a hoax.

"I said, 'What's going on?' and he said, 'I can't sit on .299. I've either got to get above .300 or be really below .300,' " Datz said. "I asked him, 'You really want to do that?' He said he did."

Manto hit a towering home run, his 66th as a Bison, in his last at-bat Sunday. There was, however, no repeat Monday as he went 0 for 2 to leave his average for the season at .296 and his career average in Buffalo at .309.

He struck out swinging on a 2-2 pitch in the first inning and left two runners on in the third when he hit a first-pitch bolt to left-center field that was hauled in by Darrell Dent.

"That was just being way overanxious," he said. "I wanted to try to duplicate last night's last at-bat, but it just wasn't to be."

Manto was replaced at first base in the top of the fifth by Chris Turner. After Buffalo batted in the bottom of the inning, a video tribute to Manto was played on the Bisons Big Board. When the clips finished, the camera focused on him in the dugout and the crowd of 10,336 came to its feet.

Manto emerged from the dugout for one final curtain call, tipping his hat to the fans during one last standing ovation.

"The video was special. I wasn't expecting that," he said. "Then you start reflecting. It was something."

"Jeff Manto deserved every accolade and every ovation from the fans he got here tonight," Datz said. "He's a winner. I'd love to have 100 guys like him."

The Bisons finished 72-72, just the second time in their 115 seasons they've been exactly at .500 (they were 71-71 in 1986). The loss left them fourth in the International League North, a game behind Syracuse.

Buffalo was 50-60 on Aug. 4 before going 22-12 the rest of the way. The Bisons nearly pulled out Monday's game, which ended when Jolbert Cabrera lined out to Dent in center field with the bases loaded.

Monday's crowd put the season's final attendance total at 684,051, the lowest in ballpark history but still the most in the minors for the 12th straight year. The Herd averaged 10,060 per opening, down 470 from 1998.

Those in attendance were probably wondering why Manto wasn't wearing his customary No. 30 jersey. No teammate would take credit for it, but the last clubhouse prank of Manto's minor-league career saw the jersey get pilfered from his locker.

"Guys said, 'Check the flagpole, check the dugout,"' said Manto, who wore a No. 24 with no name on the back. "I checked everybody's jersey and it wasn't to be found."

"I know a lot of people who'd like to have it," catcher Steven Soliz with a devilish grin. "As far as who took it, that will have to remain secret."

Rochester won the game with three runs in the seventh, aided by two Buffalo errors. The Bisons had taken a 2-0 lead in the sixth on Scott Morgan's two-run homer. It gave him 34 for the season (eight in Buffalo) and 100 RBIs between Double-A Akron (70) and the Herd (30).

"I'm definitely proud of getting 100," said Morgan. "It's the first time I've done it and it's a tough thing to do."

Morgan, 26, will be one of the Herd's power threats in 2000, but it may be too much to ask a young player to provide Manto's influence in the clubhouse.

"The game would be over at 10-10:30 and we'd be in the clubhouse until midnight talking hitting, talking situations, " Soliz said. "It's always a pleasure when you're fortunate being around players like Jeff. You never forget it."

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