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Macho Low, Part 7: Jeff Manto knows how to spot a slugger

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Appearing in all of eight games for the 1993 Phillies, the journeyman infielder wound up finding a niche role as a coach.

Pittsburgh Pirates Photo Day Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

There were some big personalities on the 1993 Phillies. But they weren’t the only ones. As part of a commemoration of the team’s 25th anniversary, we’re taking a look at the back-ups, drop-ins, and less-remembered Phillies who didn’t make it into a lot of the archival footage.

Jeff Manto

Position: Journeyman infielder with his eyes on the horizon

Age: 28

Stats: .056/.105/.056, 3 SO in 19 AB

In the spring of 1993, the Phillies had some decisions to make. There were plenty of productive players in the clubhouse, but only nine spots in the lineup. Instead of wedging them all in there somehow, Kapler-style, they decided to incorporate a few platoons and make a few cuts. Dale Murphy was gone. Mariano Duncan found a home in the middle infield. Lenny Dykstra’s “health” was always a gamble.

But two hometown boys were also battling for roster sports, hoping to make some history:

“Phillies ‘93: An Incredible Season,” by Rich Westcott

Both Amaro and Manto (of Bristol, PA) would see time in the bigs, though not the same amount. As the 1993 season concluded, further seasons passed, and their playing days ended, both men would go onto coaching careers, with varying levels of endearment to the region from which they hailed: Amaro would don a Mets uniform and coach first base for the Phillies’ New York rivals, while Manto was eventually given a Lakewood BlueClaws jersey and became an advocate for a Phillies slugger who helped change franchise history.

Of course, it’s tough to keep track of all of the places Manto has become a beloved figure: In Rochester, they call him “Super Manto,” and he only played there for four months. Keith Olbermann called him “Mickey Manto,” but that’s probably because it was close to another, more familiar name. But wherever he’s gone, and whatever he’s called, Jeff Manto has had a knack for pointing at struggling hitters and saying, “You. You will be the chosen one.” Or, something to that effect.

That eye for hitters began after his retirement from journeyman infielding in 2000. In ten years, Manto had put on eight different uniforms: Drafted out of Temple University once by the Yankees and then again by the Angels, he broke through to the majors with the Indians before visiting the Phillies, Orioles, Red Sox, Mariners, Rockies, and Tigers all throughout his career. His 89 games with Baltimore in 1995 was his longest stint by far—in fact, when Lee Thomas signed him as a free agent in December 1992, it wound up only to be for eight major league games as a member of the 1993 Phillies.

From June 21 to July 2, he appeared in seven of them. Playing all nine innings on June 22, Manto prolonged a brief game-tying rally against the Braves. Following a Jim Eisenreich double and Kim Batiste RBI single off Atlanta’s Pete Smith, Manto managed to reach on an error by feeding Braves shortstop Jeff Blauser a ground ball that was too hot to handle. Hitting in the eight hole, his at-bat even turned the lineup over. June 26 saw him get the start at third and even manage to single himself on base. He disappeared for a couple of months after early July, only to resurface for his last game as a Phillie on September 29, the day after the Phillies clinched the NL East.

Naturally, the Phillies were trotting out the Hangover Lineup:

  1. Ruben Amaro, CF
  2. Mickey Morandini, 2B
  3. Tony Longmire, LF
  4. Ricky Jordan, 1B
  5. Jim Eisenreich, RF
  6. Todd Pratt, C
  7. Kim Batiste, SS
  8. Jeff Manto, 3B
  9. Kevin Foster, P

Yeah, that’s Ricky Jordan hitting clean-up. Manto’s offensive contribution on the day was getting hit by a pitch in the fourth.

They lost 9-1.

Manto had hit .289 in Scranton that season, where he spent 106 games, and even slugged .503 with 17 home runs. But he was never a renown or feared hitter; he was an infielder, good for plugging holes and providing adequate defense. The Phillies granted him free agency in October, and he continued his journey across baseball, signing with the Mets, who sent him to their minor league outpost in Norfolk, then traded him to the Orioles, who sent him to their farm team in Rochester, all in 1994.

It was there that Manto so endeared himself to the people of that New York town, and was celebrated by the local media during his induction into the International League Hall of Fame in 2014. The ceremony was held at Rochester’s Frontier Field, though Manto entered the Hall as a Buffalo Bison (A number of lovestruck International League teams undoubtedly had to fight for his representation).

Based on his reaction to his treatment by the Rochester front office upon his arrival, Manto was an easy man to please.

“[Rochester GM John Phillippone] said ‘I’ll take care of everything,’ ” Manto remembers. “I said ‘You’re crazy.’ But he did. He got me an apartment, cable TV, phone, furniture and utilities. And I thought, ‘This town is great!’”

The opposite of a diva, Rochester fell in love with Manto because of his personal investment in the team and the town, bashing dingers and signing autographs with a smile on his face. On his 30th birthday, he spent 20 minutes after a game talking to a blind fan, and once drove through a snowstorm to Rochester from Philadelphia to speak at a rally for a new downtown ballpark.

Manto’s career continued from town to town, league to league, until he was released from the Indians in 2000 and hung up his cleats for good. But his coaching career was only just beginning. The Phillies tabbed Manto to fill a variety of roles—instructor, scout, and manager of their Low-A farm team, the Lakewood BlueClaws, in 2002.

It was there on the New Jersey coastline that he saw the power inside of a young slugger named Ryan Howard who, beleaguered by strikeout totals and questionable defense at first base, seemed to have hit a stopping point in his minor league development. Nevertheless, Manto saw in him a crushing clean-up hitter, believing that Howard’s approach and work ethic would be enough to eventually nullify his weaknesses.

Actually, Howard’s strikeout totals would only go up as he advanced through the Phillies’ farm system, but I think it’s fair to say that Manto’s surmising of the stud’s bat was a more accurate one than the scouts who believed he would amount to less than an NL Rookie of the Year and MVP in consecutive years.

Manto would depart Lakewood and head once more for the big leagues, where he was hired to coach Pirates hitters starting in 2005. Sorry to bring up Olbermann again, but it was this particular empty-headed pundit who met Manto in the spring of 2007, when Manto was in his last year as the Pirates’ hitting coach:

“I asked him what he could tell me about his Pirate hitters that I didn’t know; who I should watch for; who might surprise me.

He pointed at the guy in the batting cage. ‘If we can get him to replicate his swing three days in a row, Jose Bautista could hit 25 homers a year. In fact, I think he could hit 40.’”

Manto pointed at Bautista’s obstacles as typical of a young, scuffling hitter: quick to frustration. Gets in the box and forgets everything he knows. Finds it impossible to forgive himself for mistakes. It was a quintessential case of a player’s mental skills needing to be sharpened in order to get out of the way of his natural skill. And Manto knew it.

Flash forward three years and in 2010, Bautista was at the beginning of a six-year run as an American League all-star, leading the circuit in home runs with a staggering 54. The next year, in 2011, he’d finished with an OPS of 1.056. His power seemed to have come out of nowhere, and the typical rumors swirled, but to Manto, the output was hardly a surprise. By then, he’d been hired as the hitting coach for the White Sox, who fired him after a 99-loss season in 2013. He’s currently a minor league hitting coordinator with another of his former teams, the Orioles.

Journeymen players travel the landscape of baseball every season, and some even stick around for a decade or two. But it’s clear that Manto has a gift for unearthing the occasional game-changing slugger, despite his own career BA of .230 with 31 HR. Embedded in the paltry Orioles farm system at the age of 53, we can only guess which of their underperforming young hitters is an adjustment away from figuring it out. And when he does, Jeff Manto will be the one smirking through an unsaid, “...I told ya so.