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STINT WITH BISONS GIVES MANTO RESPITE FROM DIFFICULT YEAR

Jeff Manto says the realization came over him during a game a few days ago. He wasn't playing because of his sore elbow. As he walked out to coach first base for the Bisons, an older woman called to him from the stands along the first-base line.

"Why aren't you playing?" the woman asked.

"Well, because I'm hurt," Manto replied.

"Well, I came here just to see you," she said.

At that moment, it struck Manto how powerful a legacy he has established here in three seasons. He has become a minor league power-hitting legend, the most revered Buffalo slugger since the late Luke Easter, a real-life "Crash" Davis.

It is not an easy thing to embrace, not when you've struggled for 15 years to break through as a big-leaguer. In the national fascination with home runs, with McGwire and Sosa, few fans have the vaguest idea that Manto is the active minor-league leader with 226 dingers.

But in this, the most difficult year of Manto's life, it has been some small comfort to come back to Buffalo for the final month of the season, to finish out a largely unsatisfying year in the city that appreciates him best, the town where he is a star.

"If it was any other town, if it was some small town in the Midwest, it wouldn't mean as much as it does," Manto said Tuesday before the Bisons played Ottawa at Dunn Tire Park. "But because it's Buffalo, a major market for hockey and football, I feel kind of humbled to be even thought of that way."

Manto admits it was hard to feel much of anything earlier this season. On May 11, his father, Michael Manto, died after a three-month battle with cancer. His dad, a judge, had been his inspiration, a quiet, proud man who was always there for him, a phone call away during the tough times and the many brief stints in the majors.

He was ready for his dad's death. Near the end, he had visited him in his hospital room in suburban Philadelphia and thanked him for all his love and support. He didn't know how hollow he would feel when he was gone.

"I played a lot of the game for him, through his eyes," Manto said. "It was always his dream for me to play. I could see how happy it made him. Just like any son, or any child, you want to see your father happy. As the years went on, the more proud my father was of watching me play, the more I enjoyed it.

"He made me enjoy the game and realize how lucky I was to be playing it," he said. "When he died, I wasn't sure if I had the desire to play anymore, because there wasn't anybody to play for. It was very difficult. But as you get over the melancholy, you realize you have to go back and play."

Manto said there are still times when he drifts off, thinking about his dad, wishing he had time to fully mourn him. It didn't help, being used as a pawn in the rivalry between the Yankees and Indians.

In early July, Cleveland placed Manto on waivers, intending to send him to Buffalo. When the Yankees claimed him, it was perceived as a vindictive shot at the Indians. Later in the month, the Yankees waived him, but took 10 days, presumably to keep him from Cleveland as long as possible.

Manto was with the Yankees on July 18, the day David Cone pitched his perfect game at Yankee Stadium. Before the game, he collapsed from dehydration and was taken to the hospital. When he got back, he stayed in the clubhouse rather than join his teammates on the bench. He knew that if Cone lost the perfecto, he would be accused of jinxing him.

"Yeah, I couldn't even enjoy that one," Manto said. "This has been the biggest emotional roller coaster I've ever had. I've been released before; I've been traded before. But the loss of my father was tough. It's one of those seasons where, you hate to say it, but you can't wait for it to be over."

It's not as if the season was a washout. In Buffalo, he has been typically productive, hitting home runs and driving in runs at a startling rate. Tuesday night's shot against Ottawa gives him 20 homers and 40 RBIs in just 58 games.

During his three years with the Bisons, "Mickey" Manto has 62 home runs and 155 RBIs in 173 games. No one who witnessed his three-homer game here on July 14, 1997, or his emotional thank you to the fans afterward, will soon forget it.

Manto still yearns to play in a World Series. He was on the Indians' postseason roster in '97, but didn't get in a game. He has unwavering faith in his ability to hit big-league pitching.

"He's been tremendous," Bisons manager Jeff Datz said. "He is a true pro. He's been around the game, knows a lot about the game, and is a tremendous leader on and off the field. And still a very talented player. I'd like to see him get another shot up there."

Manto doesn't expect to get recalled to Cleveland when rosters expand. He'd just as soon head home when Buffalo's season ends, so he can be with his family and properly mourn his father.

He turned 35 a week ago. He has three children -- Gabrielle, 5; Andreana, 2; and Jeffrey, 6 months. He's reached the point where home runs are less important than his home life. Like many people who lose a parent, he has begun thinking less like someone's child and more like a father.

Gabrielle starts school this month. His wife, Denise, suffers from Crohn's Disease, an intestinal disorder that can cause weight loss and digestive trouble.

Since 1995, Manto has had big-league stints with Baltimore, Boston, Seattle, Cleveland, Detroit, Cleveland, the Yankees and Cleveland again. He has played minor-league ball in Pawtucket, Trenton, Buffalo and Syracuse. He even played in Japan.

"I need to know where I'm taking my family," he said. "My family is the most important thing in my life. I've had 15 years of selfishness. Now I need to be there for my children. It's time I gave something back to my kids and my wife.

"I need my family to be stable. I can move anywhere. But when you pack up three kids, it's not as easy as it may sound. The game has driven me crazy, and I think right now it's starting to drive me and my family crazy together, and that's what I don't want."

What he wants is to be in one organization for the entire year. He doesn't want to be called up, designated for assignment and wind up in another organization in the space of a month. He loves the game. He'll play it somewhere next year. He will have no trouble finding a job in baseball when he finally decides to quit playing.

He conceded that this could be his last week in Buffalo -- as a player. He seemed to be suggesting he could coach or manage here someday. It would be nice. Baseball legends come along rarely in a minor-league town. The players come through so fast, it's hard enough to learn their names, never mind let them into your heart.

Jeff Manto was one of the rare ones. That's what the woman was telling him. It wasn't only his father. For three wonderful seasons, he played baseball for the people of Buffalo. He played it through their eyes. It will be a long time before they forget him.

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