Manto's U-turn

June 16, 1995|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,Sun Staff Writer

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.

*

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."

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