There was Ollie Carnegie in the 1930s. Then came Luke Easter in the '50s. To the latter-day Bisons fan, there is Jeff Manto.
Friday night at Dunn Tire Park, Manto will take his place alongside Buffalo legends Carnegie and Easter as the only Bisons to have their numbers retired. Manto's No. 30 will be put on the left-field wall following the Herd's game against Syracuse.
"It's an incredible honor, something I've been thinking about for a while," Manto said this week by phone from his home in Bristol, Pa. "It's like the old kid-before-Christmas analogy. I've really lost sleep over it, I'm looking forward to it that much. I know what it means to me and these people in Buffalo."
Buffalo meant more to Manto than any of the 14 other minor-league stops he made in his 16-season career. In his four seasons here (1997-2000) while playing mostly first base, Manto hit 79 home runs - no other post-1985 Bison has more than 57. Manto, in fact, ranks fifth on the all-time home run list in the 117 years of Buffalo baseball.
Manto was a cog on the Herd's 1997 American Association championship team and the '98 International League champions who played in the inaugural Triple-A World Series in Las Vegas. His pregame speech prior to Game Five of the IL finals at Durham ranks as one of the most noteworthy clubhouse moments in team history.
All the great moments, however, nearly didn't happen.
Languishing with Syracuse in the Toronto chain and batting just .205, Manto was pondering retirement when he was traded to Cleveland on June 5, 1997 for outfielder Ryan Thompson.
"We were getting ready for a bus ride to Pawtucket and (Syracuse manager) Garth Iorg called me to his office and said, "You're not going on the trip. You've been traded to Buffalo,' " Manto recalled. "I had never even seen the park but I had heard a lot of good things. Free agents who had passed through there that I knew always said it was the big leagues of Triple-A."
Still, Manto was disheartened. The best of his four-plus big league seasons came in 1995 at Baltimore - 17 homers and 38 RBIs. He even earned the nickname "Mickey Manto" for homering in four consecutive at-bats over two games, a name most friends and teammates quickly shortened to "Mick."
An injury-plagued '96 season still included stops in Japan, Seattle and Boston so when Manto suddenly found himself in the minors the next year at age 32, he thought it was time to walk away.
"I told Denise (his wife), "Don't lock the doors. I don't have my house key and I might be coming home,' " Manto said. "I was very close (to retiring)."
"When he came over here in '97, we actually sat down and started discussing his off-the-field options after that season," said Mark Shapiro, the Cleveland Indians' incoming general manager, who engineered the Manto deal as the team's farm director.
"We were talking about coaching, scouting, whatever. Then he just went off - absolutely went off - for about two months and ended up going to Cleveland, being part of a long postseason run and playing three more years."
A turning point
The season turned for Manto on July 14, a Monday night game against the Iowa Cubs with more than 19,000 people in the stands to see a July 4 fireworks display that had been postponed due to high winds. Facing Iowa right-hander Amaury Telemaco, Manto homered to left in the first. Homered to left in the third.
And, on the first pitch he saw in the fifth, sent another bomb into the left field screen.
A buzz quickly enveloped the crowd. It grew louder, as fans came to the their feet. In a few seconds it was a roar. The next hitter, Richie Sexson, stepped out of the batter's box as the noise became deafening, with fans imploring Manto to emerge back out of the dugout to take a bow.
Manto climbed the steps and tipped his helmet to the crowd in one of the great spontaneous moments at a ballpark where so much has been carefully staged over the years. It remains the only three-homer game by a Bison in the downtown ballpark.
"A lot of players were saying it was the first time they'd seen a curtain call in the minor leagues. It was truly amazing," Manto said. "I was thinking, "Wow, this place is serious.' The whole thing took me back. I really believe that game and that moment had a huge impact on me. I realized it was just not another town to play in. That game rejuvenated the heck out of me."
By mid-August, Manto was off to Cleveland and lasted all the way to Game Seven of the World Series at Florida. Manto was on their 25-man playoff roster, but did not get an at-bat.
"It worked out pretty well in '97 going from Syracuse, one of the lowest points of my career, to being with a World Series team," he said.
Manto batted .321 with 20 homers and 54 RBIs in 54 games for the Herd in '97. Buffalo was 40-17 while he was on the roster, going from 4 1/2 games out of the lead in the American Association East to 6 1/2 games in front.
Manto put up more huge numbers for Buffalo in 1998 (.311-23-63 in 62 games) even though he spent plenty of time on the transaction wire between Cleveland, Detroit (where he spent 16 games after being claimed on waivers) and Buffalo. His performance in Triple-A hardly wavered. In his first two Buffalo seasons, he had 43 homers and 117 RBIs in 116 games. The team was 78-41 with him on the roster.
"There were times I'd look at Blackie (pitching coach Bud Black) or look at (batting coach) Dave Keller and we'd be shaking our heads and going, "Wow, not again,' " said '98 Buffalo manager Jeff Datz, now Cleveland's minor-league field coordinator. "But it was like, "Yeah, again.' He was awesome."
One of Manto's greatest moments came in the final regular-season game at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He belted a three-run home run to left in the top of the ninth to give the Bisons an 8-7 victory and the blast turned out to be a North Division-winning blow. Buffalo was rained out the next day and finished a half-game ahead of Syracuse after trailing by eight with 27 games left in the schedule.
"It was magical, flat-out magical," Manto said. "It was a 3-1 forkball (from ex-Bison Darryl Scott) and when I hit it, I was thinking, "Wow, this was cool.' "
Manto produced more dramatics in the championship series against Durham. The Bisons won the opener, 7-6, as Manto's three-run double to right-center in the fifth helped the Herd wipe out a 5-0 deficit. Manto then took over the clubhouse a few minutes before Game Five. The Bisons had given up two ninth-inning runs in a 7-6 Game Four loss the night before and were in danger of blowing a 2-0 lead in the series.
"I just said to them, "Remember how special this is going to be. Have a good time and absorb the novelty of it all,' " Manto said. "I wanted the young guys to know the feeling they had was what you get every day in the big leagues and for the older guys to shoot for being the first (International League) team to play in Las Vegas.
"I told them, "When (stuff) starts hitting the fan, look at a veteran and let us do the dirty work. Those fans in Buffalo want us to win this thing. You'll never play in such a special place in the minor leagues so let's do it for those people back home.
"Think about this. This is awesome. Where would you want to be but Game Five after all the work we've put in? This is our Game Seven, man. Enjoy it."
The Bisons sweated out a 3-1 victory to claim the title. Playing first base, Manto recorded the final putout on a grounder to shortstop Jolbert Cabrera.
"I was just thinking, "Don't drop this one,' " Manto said. "It was a great moment."
Manto had another monster half-season in 1999 with the Herd (.296-23-44) in between stints with Cleveland and the New York Yankees. Each time he was put on waivers and reclaimed by Cleveland, or optioned by the Tribe, he got huge ovations upon the return to Buffalo.
"It was unbelievable the way they treated him here," said Durham catcher Pat Borders, the former World Series MVP (Toronto '92) who played for the Bisons in '99. "You heard about how good a hitter he was in the minor leagues and to come here and see it really showed that it was a shame he didn't get more of an opportunity to play in the big leagues."
On Fan Appreciation Night in '99, he homered in his last at-bat and told the Dunn Tire Park crowd he was retiring from the minor leagues. He started 2000 with the Colorado Rockies, but was again sent to the minors and nearly went home for good.
Cleveland persuaded him to return to Buffalo but he struggled as a .201 batting average made his final season a difficult one. When he retired, his 244 home runs were tops among active minor leaguers.
Kept struggles to himself
"It was the dog days of summer last year and he's throwing BP for us," Bisons outfielder Dave Roberts said. "He did whatever he could. He was a positive person in the dugout. When you hit .300 and hit 30 home runs, anyone can be a great teammate. Jeff had his struggles and you wouldn't have known what his average was. That showed me a lot about his character."
Manto took a job as a hitting coach this season with Class A Lakewood (N.J.). The Philadelphia affiliate is just 50 minutes from his home.
"It's great, fun to see grass roots baseball where there's a lot of deer in headlights type of thing," he said. "I like the players. I tell stories. Sometimes I think I'm Walt Disney. Every time I turn around, one of these kids wants another story."
The Bisons have an elaborate ceremony planned for Friday night but have kept the details closely guarded. Several former teammates are expected to be on hand in person or through tributes on the Bisons Big Board. Manto's mother, in-laws, wife and three children (ages 7, 4 and 2) will be there.
"We had a great year in the second half of '98 and he was a big, big part of it," Datz said. "Until the final, final out in Las Vegas, he busted his tail and played his heart out and I'll always respect him for that. This will be a special night for him."
"I don't know what's going to happen but I need to have something prepared," Manto said of the remarks he's planning to the crowd. "It's not going to be Lou Gehrig, but we'll see.
"To see that number up there on that (left field) wall will be enough for me. I guess coming to Buffalo in '97 (rather than retiring) turned out to be a good move."
MANTO IN BUFFALO
JEFF MANTO'S GREATEST HITS
June 8, 1997: Slugs first home run as a Bison, a solo shot in the fourth inning of a 5-1 win over Iowa at then-North AmeriCare Park.
July 14, 1997: Hits three homers in 6-1 home win over Iowa, earning curtain call after his third.
July 1, 1998: Becomes first International League player in four years to hit grand slams in back-to-back games, connecting in 12-2 win at Ottawa.
July 31, 1998: Two-run homer in the fourth inning of 8-6 win at Pawtucket is his 200th in the minor leagues.
Sept. 6, 1998: Three-run homer in the ninth gives Bisons an 8-7 win at Scranton and the IL North Division title.
Sept. 18, 1998: Pregame clubhouse speech inspires team in 3-1 win at Durham in Game Five.
Sept. 25, 1998: Hits two-run homer in the seventh inning of 12-6 loss to New Orleans in final game of Triple-A World Series. It was the last of his Series-high eight hits.
April 8, 1999: Homers on Opening Day against Ottawa to begin sizzling April that sees him post .393 average with seven homers.
Sept. 5, 1999: Homers in final at-bat on Fan Appreciation Night against Rochester.
Aug. 20, 2000: Hits final regular season home run as a Bison in home win over Ottawa.Sept. 7, 2000: Hits two home runs in 5-2 win at Scranton that evened IL semifinals at a win apiece, becoming first modern-era Bison to have a multi-homer game in the playoffs.