Major leaguers or rookie leaguers. It doesn’t matter. Jeff Manto loves to talk and teach hitting. And he practiced plenty of what he preached during his storybook years with the Bisons, when he became the only modern-era player to have his number retired.
Manto is getting another honor Wednesday night, when he’ll be inducted into the International League Hall of Fame in pregame ceremonies prior to the Herd’s contest against Norfolk in Coca-Cola Field. He is the 28th former Bison to be honored by the IL – but the first from Buffalo’s modern era.
Manto, who turns 50 on Aug. 23, is going through a sort of transition year in his life, working as Baltimore’s minor-league hitting coordinator after being fired as the hitting coach for the Chicago White Sox late last season. It’s the same job he first took with the White Sox in 2007 after getting let go as Pittsburgh’s hitting coach in a 2006 Pirates dugout purge.
The O’s farm director? Manto’s manager with the Bisons in 1997, Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Brian Graham. Manto was also first hired with Pittsburgh by Graham in 2003.
“This has been as rewarding a year as I’ve had in a while, maybe since the Pittsburgh days,” Manto said recently by phone from Sarasota, Fla., where he was watching Orioles’ Gulf Coast rookie ball players. “‘BG’ is the best minor league director in baseball, not just the way he can manipulate a farm system but the way he treats everybody as a person. It’s been a great transition and he made it that way.”
Last year in Chicago, Manto dealt with scores of injuries. And the White Sox, of course, did not yet have Cuban slugger Jose Abreu in their lineup.
“You’re not going to find a better hitting coach,” White Sox slugger Adam Dunn said when Manto was dismissed. “He does everything you want a hitting coach to do but again, it’s one of those things where you can’t fire all of us.”
“It was tough on me for the first week or two,” said Manto, the only member of the coaching staff dismissed following an injury-filled 63-99 season. “I was like, ‘Why just one guy after 99 losses? What can I do better?’’’
As it turned out, it was a blessing in disguise for Manto to spend more time with his wife and three teen-age children, making periodic trips to see each Baltimore affiliate.
“I’ve been home a lot more, which has been enjoyable,” he said. “I’m watching my son’s freshman year of basketball and baseball, a daughter playing tennis and the harp, another daughter going off to college. Life is great.”
Seven IL teams
Joining Manto in the IL Hall in ceremonies earlier this season in their home parks were current Scranton/Wilkes-Barre manager Dave Miley, a 1,000-game winner in the league, and longtime Toledo radio announcer Jim Weber. He was honored this season for calling his 5,000th consecutive Mud Hens game.
The Hall’s honor roll is at 113. It was revived in 2008 after 45 dormant years as part of the league’s 125th anniversary celebration. A maximum of three members has been inducted annually by a panel of league officials, former inductees and media (full disclosure: this corner has a ballot). It is a traveling display and not permanently located in one facility.
While most fans here are aware of Manto’s heroics with the Bisons, which actually began during their 1997 American Association championship season, this honor takes into account Manto’s time with seven different IL franchises.
Manto is the only player in IL history to win the MVP award while splitting a season with two teams. He did it in 1994, when he started the season with Norfolk and then exploded in Rochester after a May trade from the Mets to the Baltimore organization.
In just 94 games in Rochester, Manto became a larger-than-life figure just like he became in Buffalo. He hit .310 for the Red Wings with 27 homers and 83 RBIs, giving him a 31-homer, 100-RBI season between the two clubs that rates as the best of his career.
He was a standout in 1992 at Richmond (.291-13-68), where his teammates include future Braves standouts Ryan Klesko and Mark Wohlers and ’92 NLCS hero Francisco Cabrera.
The same was true for 1993 at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he basically played for his hometown team in his home organization (Philadelphia) and finished fifth in the league with 88 RBIs. Two of the players above him were Charlotte’s Jim Thome (102) and Richmond’s Chipper Jones (89).
“It was really a whirlwind of a career going through the league,” Manto said. “I can look back and it seemed just about every stop I had something significant happen. You think of being in Scranton, being in your hometown and having the Phillies make the World Series. Rochester became a special place because those people treated me so well and Buffalo just speaks for itself for all that happened there.”
Manto forever ingrained himself into the memory of Rochester fans for returning in February 1995 to a community rally at old Silver Stadium in support of a new ballpark – and driving through a snowstorm to get there and join the likes of legendary Red Wings manager/broadcaster Joe Altobelli and general manager Dan Mason.
At the time, Silver Stadium was in its final season and Frontier Field, which opened in 1997, was a necessity to keep the franchise viable but state funding was in jeopardy.
“They had received me so well there but you don’t think you really did anything for the town but play baseball,” Manto said. “Here was a chance to be another voice to help them get this stadium together, so my father and I said we would take a ride.
“But it starts snowing, I mean really snowing. But I was like, ‘We can’t turn around now.’ It was the least I could do. ... And to be able to play in Frontier Field and see how it turned out was really gratifying.”
Manto, in fact, desperately tried to rejoin the Orioles organization to play in Frontier’s ’97 premier season but they weren’t interested and he ended up in Syracuse before the fateful June trade to the Cleveland organization and Buffalo. Just imagine if Baltimore had signed him that year. Perhaps he never ends up here at all.
Shuffled to Buffalo
Manto, of course, became an icon here as he led the Bisons to back-to-back championships in 1997 and 1998. After becoming the first player in ballpark history with a three-homer game, he left in August and finished ’97 on Cleveland’s World Series roster. Manto was here for the stretch drive in ’98 and led the team along with Bisons Hall of Famer and current Boston bench coach Torey Lovullo.
Manto hit the division-clinching homer on the second-last night of the ’98 season, a three-run shot in the ninth at Scranton, and kept the team afloat during the IL finals at Durham after it had blown a 2-0 lead.
He passionately addressed the team in the clubhouse before Game Five, telling them it was OK to be nervous because that’s how they would feel every day in the big leagues. The Bisons won, 3-1, as Manto made the last out at first base, and Manto hit .533 in the Triple-A World Series that year as the Herd lost to New Orleans in Las Vegas.
“You think of so many things,” Manto said. “In ’97 when I got here from Syracuse, I was at rock bottom. I had a strained hamstring and couldn’t run and I told Brian Graham not to take me out of the lineup, that I could figure it out. He allowed me to play, trusted me and I’ll always be indebted to him.
“We all cared in Cleveland about Buffalo and vice versa. It mattered. It was magical to watch from Cleveland in ’97 when they won it and to be in the World Series. And in ’98 Jim Thome comes down to Buffalo on rehab for the playoffs and I told him, ‘You gotta come down here and play. This isn’t rehab. We’re serious about this.’ That’s how we were.”
Manto hit 79 home runs in his Buffalo career, tops in the modern era and fifth all-time in franchise history. The Bisons retired No. 30 during an elaborate postgame ceremony in 2001 attended by more than 16,000 fans.
“I’ve been back a few times for different things and I still have goosebumps when I see it,” Manto said. “You don’t throw that kind of stuff around. I take it very serious and I know the Rich family and Bisons organization does too.
“It comes with a lot of responsibility to live up to the expectations of having a number retired. You don’t fade away. I like to be part of things and I’m always going to be a part of it in Buffalo and for that I thank them.”