Manto guarded amid acclaim for his starting role

June 09, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

"This game has beaten me, frustrated me, knocked me down and kicked me," Jeff Manto was saying in the clubhouse yesterday.

Anything else?

"Spit on me."

Which is why he refuses to admit he has stolen Leo Gomez's job as the Orioles' third baseman, even though he has been in the starting lineup for 21 straight games, hit more home runs than Cal Ripken and Chris Hoiles this year and obviously won manager Phil Regan's favor.

"As far as I know, it's not my job," he said yesterday after hitting two home runs at Camden Yards.

C'mon, Jeff. Give us a break.

"No," he said, "I don't think I'll ever cross the threshold where I admit I've won a job, not after what I've been through. I think you'll continue to see me playing every game like it's my last game. Because in the past, usually, it was my last game."

AFrom the outside looking in, it appears he is just playing a mind game with himself, trying to trick himself, trying to prevent the onset of cockiness by denying that he has been promoted even when it is obvious to everyone else.

From the inside looking out, though, he is just doing what comes naturally as a career minor-leaguer who has learned, through repeated frustrations, not to trust any good news beyond tomorrow's sunrise.

"This game," he said, "definitely teaches you humility."

He is 30 years old, tall and broad and slump-shouldered, a native of suburban Philadelphia who has spent most of the past decade putting up quality numbers in the high minors, places such as Edmonton and Colorado Springs and Richmond and Rochester, close enough to the bigs to sniff them, yet still not there. Before this year, only 222 of his 3,636 professional at-bats had come in the majors.

Traded by the Angels, released by the Indians, given up on by the Braves and Phillies, traded by the Mets -- not a lot of poetry in that "Field of Dreams," pal.

"If this game hasn't disappointed you at least four times, you've lived a charmed life," he said yesterday.

And?

"I've had my four times and a couple more."

"Did you ever considering giving it all up and retiring?" he was asked.

"Only about twice a year for the last 10 years," he said.

It was different teams and different names over the years, but always the same explanations: a prospect in front of him, a roster squeeze dictated by other people's contracts, a future that never seemed quite bright enough.

"I never doubted my own ability, but I never got an opportunity in the majors," he said. "I was always filling in, and therefore looking over my shoulder. I always felt I'd be sent down if I went 0-for-4 one night. Because I usually was. After a while, the frustration level was very high. It was like, 'Oh, man, not this again.' "

The low point came in 1993, when the Phillies, his hometown team, sent him to Triple-A. "That was the day I said, 'That's it, I'm done, I'm retiring,' and it felt good," he said. But he wound up playing, and hit 17 homers in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Last year, the Mets sent him to Norfolk coming out of spring training, and he almost retired again. "With all due respect to the [lowly] Mets, if I couldn't make that club, I didn't think I'd be getting back to the majors," he said.

The Orioles traded for him one month later and watched him have a huge year at Rochester, where he hit .310 with 27 homers and 83 RBIs. They promoted him to the 40-man roster over the winter and gave him a chance this spring, envisioning him as a utility player with power. They wound up with a new third baseman when Gomez slumped.

"We gave him an opportunity," Regan said, "and he has taken advantage of it. It's as simple as that."

Manto has already hit more home runs this season (six) than he did in the entirety of his prior major-league career (four in 222 at-bats). He also is hitting .299, some 80 points higher than Gomez, and ranks among the Orioles' top run producers with 17 RBIs.

"This is my first opportunity in the majors," he said. "It's the first time I'm allowed to make mistakes. The first time I have the support of the manager and the front office. And that makes all the difference. I can relax and just play. Players need that support. They try to play the tough guy and say they don't need it, but they do."

The question was put to him: Can you believe how simple it was after all these years, how quickly you have found a steady job in Baltimore after struggling without one for so long?

He laughed. "I guess baseball wanted to wait 12 years to give me my opportunity," he said. "Some guys take two years; I took 12. That's kind of crazy. But hey, I'm just glad it happened."

One certainty: He won't take it for granted.

"Never," he said. "I know this game is set up to disappoint you. And I'm not going to let myself go through that again. I'm just going to come to the ballpark every day hoping my name is in the lineup. And be pleased when it is."

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