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Minor miracle: Manto's a player worth honoring

Last Friday, fans in Buffalo, N.Y., celebrated all that is good and right about the game of baseball. They celebrated the qualities that fans yearn for but claim they can no longer find in the national pastime. You could find those qualities - a love for the game and a connection to its fans - in places like Buffalo, and, for brief periods over the last 15 years, in places like Colorado Springs and Norfolk and Rochester and even Baltimore - every place where Jeff Manto played baseball. That's what Buffalo fans celebrated Friday night at Dunn Tire Park, where the Class AAA Bisons play - the baseball life of Jeff Manto, by retiring his number 30, only the third Bisons player to ever have his number retired, the others being the legendary Luke Easter and Ollie Carnegie, in 116 years of professional baseball in that city. In its own way, the baseball life of Jeff Manto is worth celebrating every bit as much as a Barry Bonds or a Roger Clemens. Those are great players, but Manto, like "Bull Durham" 's Crash Davis, is a better story - a career minor leaguer who put up some legendary Class AAA numbers, but never really was able to make the move to sustain any kind of major league career. In fact, out of all of the cups of coffee he had in the major leagues - eight major league clubs in all - "Mickey" Manto's best year was 1995 playing third base for the Orioles, when in 89 games and 254 at-bats, he hit 17 home runs, including hammering his way into the record books by homering in four consecutive at-bats, tying Don Baylor's club record. But there was more to Manto than just his bat. He had an everyman quality about him that fans picked up on. When he played, he valued every minute of it, and that stood in the era of the spoiled, overpaid ballplayer. He played the game with passion, and he enjoyed all of it. "I came to the field with no baggage," he said in a telephone interview. "I came to play baseball. I didn't come to complain. I just enjoyed everything about the game, and I think people were looking for that. I had to work for everything I got in baseball, and people could relate to me because of that. "I never took the big leagues for granted," the 36-year-old Manto said. "I knew how special it was to put on a big league uniform." He didn't take a minor league uniform for granted either, even after 15 different stops (and one short-lived stay in Japan). Buffalo was the last uniform Manto put on as a player, retiring after the 2000 season. He is now the hitting coach for the Class A Lakewood Blue Claws in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, one of the 12 major league organizations that Manto spent time in as a player. Of course Jeff Manto would be a minor league coach. Who else could teach young players so much about what to expect, because Manto has seen it all. "So far it has been great," Manto said about his coaching experience. "I feel responsible for these young players' careers. Class A is like the baseball version of first grade, and they are most impressionable now. I want to make sure I do right by them." Manto can teach them how to hit, because he was one of the most prolific power hitters in minor league history, and turned in some outstanding seasons at some of his stops, particularly in Buffalo, where, from 1997 to 2000, he hit 79 home runs and drove in 207 runs in 276 games. In 1997, Manto batted .321 with 20 home runs and 54 RBI in 54 games with the Bisons. The following year, he hit .311 with 23 home runs and 63 RBI in 62 games in Buffalo. In 1999, Manto batted .296 with 23 home runs and 44 RBI in 66 games. "He became a big name in this town," said Tom Burns, Bisons director of public relations. "In 1997 we were down 3 1/2 games in the league and when he left [promoted to Cleveland] we were in first place by 7 1/2 games. He was Player of the Week four times in six weeks. It was a magical year. You didn't want to miss a Jeff Manto at-bat. It was electric. The next year he hit a ninth-inning home run in the last game of the season to give us the division title." But, again, it was more than numbers that made Manto a fan favorite. "You don't see players make a connection with the fans and a city like Jeff did," Burns said. "When Detroit wanted to send him down to Toledo [the Tigers Class AAA team] in 1998, he said he didn't want to, and instead became a minor league free agent and came back to Buffalo. And he did the same thing last year when Colorado wanted to send him down to Colorado Springs [the Rockies Class AAA team]. He chose minor league free agency over staying with those organizations because he liked playing in Buffalo. "Pat Borders [former Toronto Blue Jays catcher] was his teammate here and used to say that Manto was like the mayor here. He said they would go out to dinner and Manto would never have to pay." Manto said the fans and the Bisons organization treated him special and he never forgot that. "My time in Buffalo was like a storybook," he said. "It was a first-class organization, and the fans were great." Over 1,346 minor league games, Manto hit 243 home runs, drove in 920 runs and batted .271. When he retired, he was the active leader in career home runs. Manto's major league numbers are hardly impressive - a .230 average with 31 home runs and 97 RBI in 289 games - but he managed to make the most of his time. He was a member of the 1993 National League champion Phillies, and was also part of the Indians 1997 AL pennant drive (he made a name for himself at Jacobs Field by attracting a fan club of his former elementary school teachers from Bristol, Pa., who had moved to Cleveland - six nuns). He played six games on the 1999 New York Yankees World Championship team (though he never got a ring), and he was on hand in Baltimore in 1995 to witness Cal Ripken break Lou Gehrig's consecutive game record. He hit a game-winning home run for the Red Sox in 1996 and was sent down to the minors the next day. He hit a game-winning home run for the Mariners the same year and was sent down the next day. As Jimmy Buffett might say, some of it was magic, some of it was tragic, but Manto said he had a good baseball life all the way. "There are a lot of things that I backed into and am grateful for," Manto said. "Every step was a great memory." Barry Bonds may break Mark McGwire's single season home run record this year. Roger Clemens will likely win his record sixth Cy Young award. But when it comes to contributions to baseball, what Jeff Manto had to offer was more valuable than a home run record or a Cy Young season. He gave his heart and soul - rare commodities in a game losing both.

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