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MANTO'S U-TURN

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On all sides of Jeff Manto, nothing but brake lights. A complete stop. He had decided to quit baseball, and now, in March 1994, driving home from Florida to his beloved hometown of Bristol, Pa., he was stuck in an 8 a.m. beltway traffic jam.

The baseball career of Jeff Manto, as mystifying and frustrating as it had been to him, was over. New York's Dallas Green had just become the latest manager to cut him, and Manto figured, "Well, if I can't make the Mets, as bad as they are, it isn't meant to be."

He was sure of his decision, and felt good about it, comfortable, as though a weight of unfulfilled expectations -- his own -- had just been lifted off his back. Funny, though: At age 30, he was sure he could play, no matter what the California Angels or the Cleveland Indians or the Atlanta Braves or the Philadelphia Phillies or the Mets thought when they traded or waived or cut him.

He was sure that if given a chance, he could do something every day to help a team win. Make a defensive play, take an extra base. Hit a home run. He had asked Green, and Phillies manager Jim Fregosi, and others, why he had been cut, and he had yet to hear an answer that satisfied him.

Manto thought about this as he sat in the traffic jam. He looked at the men and women in the cars around him, many drinking cups of coffee, most suffering from acute sleepy face. To the side, he saw a relatively young guy, with short black hair, wearing a gray suit. Could've been Jeff Manto, if Manto drove a green Grand Am.

The rat race, he thought, that's pressure. He wasn't ready for that. He loved to play baseball, loved the competition. When he got through the traffic, he called the Mets and said he was reporting to the minor leagues.

Little more than a month later, he was traded to the Orioles.

Little more than a year later, he became the Orioles' everyday third baseman and tied a major-league record by hitting four homers in four at-bats. The Hall of Fame called to ask for his bat.

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Bristol is a town of about 29,000, crammed into one square mile northeast of Philadelphia, across the Delaware River. Jeff Manto felt, even as he grew up, extremely privileged to live there, with his father, a judge, his mother, and his two brothers and sister. The families in his neighborhood, his family, were very close, the bonds often crossing ethnic lines in a community rich with residents of Italian descent, African-American, Irish, Polish.

They all played games together. In the summer, stickball, baseball or basketball. In the fall and winter, it was football; the first snowfall every year meant a mean tackle football game. Two end lines, no sidelines, 25 or 30 kids, not many rules. You had four plays to score a touchdown. If the unlucky soul carrying the ball happened to venture too close to the 13-foot-high fence that bordered the field, it was like giving invitations to your own slaughter; the ball carrier would be rammed against the barrier. "You chased a guy until you tackled him," he said.

Manto thrived on this, the competition, and loathed embarrassment or failure. When he was 8 years old, a football had gotten stuck in a tree, 20 feet or so off the ground. An older kid in the neighborhood, Mark Rushbrook, persuaded Manto to get the ball. Manto tentatively climbed into the tree, and 15 feet off the ground, he became frightened, and couldn't get down. Somebody called a fire truck, and Manto, crying, was rescued, like a scared cat. He was humiliated.

When the fire truck left, the kids noticed the football was still in the tree, and Rushbrook deftly climbed the tree and retrieved the ball. Manto was furious. When he goes back to Bristol during the off-season, he sees Rushbrook -- almost nobody leaves the town, Manto says -- and reminds him of how he embarrassed an 8-year-old.

He was a quarterback for Bristol High, a shooting guard in basketball, a pitcher in baseball and, at nights, an amateur stickball star. Either he or Sam LaRosa, his best friend, would borrow a broom from one of their mothers, without permission, break it off and for two hours a night they would play stickball, the outside wall of the bathroom serving as backstop.

The draft, but not The Draft

Manto won a baseball scholarship to Temple University in Philadelphia, but he never thought about baseball as a vocation. He figured at that time that maybe he would get a job in social work. Stay in Bristol, of course. Everybody stays in Bristol. Manto remembers being aware of world events, but never felt a need to think of going elsewhere.

On June 7, 1982, the phone rang at the Manto household, and Jeff answered it.

"Jeff," a voice on the other end said, "I just called to inform you that you've been drafted."

Manto called for his father. "Dad, dad!" he said. "I can't go to college. I've just been drafted into the service."

His father took the phone. It was a scout from the New York Yankees, calling to say they had taken Manto in the 35th round. This was the first time the thought occurred to Manto that he could pursue baseball as a vocation.

Manto went to Temple, anyway, pitched some, convinced his coach that he could play outfield and shortstop to keep himself in the lineup every day. (He had been asked if he ever played right field before. "Sure," he lied.) Sitting and watching, that drove him crazy.

The Angels drafted him in the 14th round in 1985, and he hit .197 in his first season, .247 in his second season. He was sent to the Instructional League, which frightened him. He understood, from watching and listening to other players, that he was on the verge of being released. The Angels asked him to move to third base, and successful players aren't usually moved.

Manto told one of his coaches that if he were going to make a successful transition to third base, he would need 200 ground balls a day. He wasn't a natural fielder. In fact, he had few natural gifts. Sub-par speed, a relatively slow bat. His power was his saving grace.

He survived. Manto batted .301 for Double-A Midland in 1988, driving in 101 runs, and in 1989, he hit 23 homers for Triple-A Edmonton. "It was like I was stalking the guy ahead of me," Manto said. "That's the way I've always felt -- I was stalking the guy who had the job in front of me."

In the Angels' organization, that guy was the left-handed-hitting Jack Howell. The Angels liked Howell, and traded Manto to Cleveland. He left the California organization feeling he never had gotten a chance, feeling he always had put up the numbers.

Clash in Cleveland

He spent two years with Cleveland, angry at hitting coach Jose Morales, and played in 77 games for the Indians. Morales wanted him to hit with a different bat, with a different style, and they clashed. Manto, who had learned how to catch after the '90 season, was released by the Indians in the fall of 1991, and he signed with Atlanta.

Manto was cut almost immediately in spring training. He said that Chuck LaMar, the Braves' assistant general manager, asked him why he felt he should be with Atlanta after playing for two losing organizations. "I said, 'You've got to be kidding,' " Manto said. "I was never so embarrassed."

He asked for his release, and asked for a trade, but LaMar told him he was being kept as insurance in case Terry Pendleton got hurt. Manto hit .291 for Richmond in the International League that year, and didn't make it in the big leagues.

He signed with Philadelphia, and although he wasn't cut until the end of spring training, he had only three at-bats in exhibition games. One Phillies scout said that Manto was the first major-league player he had ever seen with five negative tools: couldn't run, couldn't throw, couldn't field, couldn't hit or hit with power.

"Tell me I can't do something," Manto said, "and I'll stick it [to you]."

Nevertheless, Manto went back to the minors and had a great year for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, hitting .289 with 17 homers and 88 RBIs. He played eight games for the Phillies, and thought, for the first time, about retiring. When the Phillies sent him to the minors in July, after three weeks, Manto took nearly two weeks to report to Scranton. He thought about getting out, getting into coaching baseball or instructing.

No luck, but no reasons

But this ate at him: No one had convinced him that he couldn't play. He was sure he could play.

Manto signed with the Mets, played regularly in the exhibition season, before being sent down again. He flirted with retirement, deciding, ultimately, to try again. For the first time, however, Manto was moved aside for a younger player, Butch Huskey.

Manto's time was running out; he would turn 30 later that year. He asked for a trade, and the Mets agreed, in May 1994. Manto went to the Orioles, for right-handed pitcher Mike Cook -- Manto's sixth organization, and fifth in four years. He hit 31 homers and was named the MVP of the International League.

Phil Regan heard about Manto for the first time in August 1994, about two months before the Orioles hired him as manager. Regan, the pitching coach for Cleveland, listened as Indians executives talked about re-acquiring Manto, and heard what everybody had been saying about Manto for years: Tremendous work ethic, great person, not a pretty player.

The first position player that Regan saw after the players strike ended in April was Jeff Manto, and the manager immediately liked him, his power and his willingness to do anything to help.

Regan looked at him as a utility player, but on May 17, Manto

replaced Leo Gomez as the Orioles' third baseman. Manto has started every game since then, and is hitting .287, with nine homers.

"What makes this so enjoyable," Manto said, "was that I wasn't given this job. I wasn't given a damn thing. . . . I'm proud of that."

The other day, Fregosi mused over Manto's history. "We might've made a mistake on him," he conceded, "but so did a whole bunch of other teams."

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