By: Brian Frank
Jeff Manto’s leadership skills were evident when he starred for the Bisons from 1997 to 2000. It’s one of the many reasons why his number hangs in Sahlen Field’s outfield, as one of only three former Buffalo players to have his number retired by the team.
His former Bisons teammates recognized his leadership skills and knew Manto had the ability to become a successful manager someday. In a 2019 interview, Bill Selby, who played with Manto on some of the greatest teams in Bisons history, remembered how Manto hung around the clubhouse after games to talk baseball with his teammates. “If you liked baseball, he made you love it, because of all the things he knew about it,” Selby said. “If I ever played with one guy that I thought was going to be a big league manager, it’s him.” He continued, “He just played with fun. A true fan that played. … I learned so much from him.”
Arizona Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo shared similar sentiments in an interview last season, when discussing Manto’s leadership and the impact he had on young players. “He was fearless in anything he was trying to say or anything he was trying to get to,” Lovullo said. “He would never back down from a challenge. He saw things a certain way and it was the right way. He was going to let you know that you were doing something that was getting out of line before it got to the manager’s office. I’m sure if you were going to ask a lot of players, most notably Richie Sexson, what he thought about Jeff Manto, he would say that he helped shape him as a young player, which helped him get to the big leagues and be a good player at the big-league level.”
A familiar sight for Bisons fans - Jeff Manto rounding the bases. Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.
It's those types of qualities that helped Manto become the manager of the Trenton Thunder in the inaugural season of the MLB Draft League. After losing its Double-A Eastern League team in last year’s minor league restructuring, Trenton will field one of six teams in the newly formed Draft League. College and high school players who are eligible for the July 2021 MLB Draft will fill out the rosters of the Draft League’s teams. The Thunder will be joined in the new league by the Frederick Keys, Mahoning Valley Scrappers, State College Spikes, West Virginia Black Bears, and Williamsport Crosscutters.
Manto seems like a natural to lead the Thunder. He’s built up an impressive resume during his post-playing career that includes being a major-league hitting coach for the Pirates (2006-2007) and the White Sox (2012-2013), managing a season at Lakewood in the South Atlantic League (2002), and working as a minor-league hitting coordinator for the White Sox (2008-2011) and Orioles (2013-2019).
He also lives in Bristol, Pennsylvania, which is just a short drive across the Delaware River from Trenton. In a recent interview with The Herd Chronicles, he expressed his excitement at the opportunity to be able to help lead his local team.
“It’s very exciting,” Manto said. “We’ll have a lot of familiar faces in the stands I’m sure. The people in the stands are the people I basically see each day. So, it will definitely be a familiar sight and give those people a chance to yell and scream in a nice way.”
Even after working with major-league players and upper-level minor-league prospects, Manto still enjoys working with younger players and relishes the opportunity to do so again. “I really do,” he said. “As a matter of fact I enjoy it as much as I do working with big-league players. What I enjoy most about working with young players is that the information that I’m giving them is the first time that they’re hearing this type of information. Anytime you can have that interaction, it’s kind of exciting for myself as well. Sometimes you talk to a big-league guy, you have to be a little bit more creative because they’ve heard the same stories coming up through the minor leagues. But with these players being as young as they are, my stories and my way, so to speak, is something that they’ll hear for the first time.”
Manto's No. 30 will forever hang at Sahlen Field. Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.
Manto believes the biggest challenge for his young players this season will be adjusting to life without college classes dictating their daily schedules. “This will be the first time that it becomes… there’s no class.,” he said. “There’s no other responsibility except showing up on time. And they’re going to have to monitor their day, you know, fill in the time before they go to the ballpark.” In college, players may have a few early classes before going to the field in the early afternoon. But once they move on to the Draft League, the responsibility falls on the players to manage their time. “Here you have from the time you wake up until 3:00, you’ve got to figure out what the heck you’re going to do,” he said. “That’ll be the biggest adjustment they’ll have.”
Asked what manager had the biggest influence on his career when he played, Manto answered without hesitation, naming his manager for the 1997 Bisons. “Brian Graham for sure,” he said. “I learned so much from him. I learned from him how to treat people. Every manager in the big leagues and the minor leagues runs the game similarly. The game dictates what to do. There’s a lot of thought that goes into it, don’t get me wrong. But one of the best things about a manager is when they can relate to a player as a person and Brian Graham was able to treat players as people and he was a big, big influence on my career for sure.”
Manto is a fan favorite with Buffalo baseball fans. Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.
Of course, due to the current construction at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field and preparation for the possible return of the Toronto Blue Jays to the Queen City, the Bisons will be playing home games at Trenton’s Arm and Hammer Park, which was supposed to be Manto’s team’s home field. Instead, the Draft League Thunder will be playing at nearby Rider University. As one of the greatest players in Bisons history, the fact that it’s the Bisons who are displacing his team is not lost on Manto.
“I think there’s a lot of irony to it,” Manto laughed. “I think its fun. It’s good talk. I’ve had a good time giving (Rich Baseball President Mike) Buczkowski a tough time and giving (Corporate Vice President for Governmental Relations and Special Projects at Rich Products) Jon Dandes a tough time. Text messaging those guys and sharing barbs if you will. But, hey, if it’s the Bisons, it’s OK. They have done so much for me that driving ten more minutes is not that bad.”
The Thunder are scheduled to play their debut game in the Draft league against the Frederick Keys at Rider University on May 24.