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The long way: Manny Mantrana on faith, family and baseball

Note: This article was first published in the 2012 issue of Panorama Magazine during my last semester at the University of Texas Pan American.

Before practice starts for the Bronc baseball team, players can be seen running to the third-base dugout at the Edinburg Baseball Stadium to wait for their daily instructions. They don’t walk or trot, they run the 100 yards from the right field entrance to the team’s meeting area where they will be sheltered from the strong Valley sun.

At a distance the mass of green, grey and orange uniforms all look the same. Pitchers, infielders and outfielders are all one unit as they move across the empty field. Bits of grass and dirt fly up around them. Only when they approach the concrete steps of the dugout do their faces become recognizable from the deep shadows below their ball caps.

“Let’s go!” one yells out to the few stragglers behind the main group.

As they settle onto worn-out wooden benches and wait patiently for their head coach to arrive, spit and sunflower seeds begin to accumulate at the players’ feet. Some joke around about classes, and one tries to make small talk about Miami Marlin manager Ozzie Guillen’s recent media gaffe.

“Did you guys hear about what he said?” asks junior outfielder Derek Hagy.

“Nah,” replies pitcher Preston Budziszewski.

“He said he loved Castro,” Hagy announces as he kicked some seed shells around with his foot.

“Crazy,” Budzisewski adds.

The players and assistant coaches have already been waiting for 15 minutes when a figure appears from right field. His walk is deliberate and he takes his time to get where the rest of the team has gathered. After all, it’s 2:45 p.m., and he’s right on time.

A player mumbles, “swagger,” under his breath as Manny Mantrana crosses the infield line.

“OK, guys,” Mantrana starts, “I hope you all took my advice and had a good Easter and rested.”

The fourth-year UTPA head coach moves his gaze from one end of the dugout to the other, going over plans for the team’s upcoming matchup against UTSA and the high points of the recent series sweep against the New York Institute of Technology.

He transitions between good pitching and batting, being a tough out on long counts and what he calls “winning the freebie war,” all without raising his voice once. The dramatic effect and sense of urgency is conveyed to his audience by how calm he seems. In a sport where flying off the handle can be seen as a strength, it seems Mantrana has mastered the underrated art of staying cool and calm.

Perhaps it’s his established coaching legacy that makes him this way; a history of winning does create a sense of certainty in people. Maybe it’s the time playing under great coaches and programs. However, if a person were to ask him, for Mantrana, it might be as easy as “the good Lord” making it so.

LEAVING CUBA

Mantrana can remember certain things about his native Cuba. He recalls his family’s home in Havana, the backyard where he played with friends from the neighborhood. He was also old enough to remember the decision his parents made when he was just 7 years old, to escape the communist nation and emigrate to the United States.

“They sat us down one day and said, ‘You can’t tell anyone that we’re leaving,’” Mantrana recalled. “It had to be hush-hush. We couldn’t tell our friends or anybody ‘cause something might happen. The regime frowned on trying to leave.”

Looking back at the choice that would change the course of his life forever, the coach assured himself that his parents, Enrique and Aurora Vasquezbello, did what they had to do.

In 1970, Mantrana, his parents and siblings loaded onto a double-engine propeller plane in Havana and flew 230 miles to Miami, where they would start a new, American life.

Although there was a sizable Cuban community in Miami when his family arrived, making the cultural and language barriers less painful, he could see the differences between the island where he was born and his new home. The buildings, cars, schools and even the toys were new and gleaming for a young Mantrana.

“I remember my first pack of gum I got from my aunt,” he said. “It was a big deal.” “Everything was different from the island, and once we got a place to stay and my parents started to work, we started to get acclimated.”

Part of that acclimation would come by playing baseball.

Playing Ball

Although Cuba is considered a baseball nation, Mantrana didn’t develop his love and understanding of the game until his mother signed him up for Little League when he was 8.

He quickly found that he had a knack for baseball and, although he never took a batting or fielding lesson, he developed into a good player at a young age. According to Mantrana, it was the good Lord at work in his life, again.

“I always played because I loved the game,” Mantrana said. “But I didn’t realize I was good until maybe my senior year of high school.”

The Jackson High School shortstop had two Little League national championships and a productive high school career under his belt by the time Major League Baseball came calling. The Atlanta Braves were the first professional team to show interest in the young athlete, picking him in the 10th round of the 1981 draft out of high school.

“I wasn’t thinking about getting drafted then,” he recalled. “I was happy to just be getting a scholarship to go to school then.”

Mantrana describes getting the phone call from the Braves organization and setting up a meeting with them at his home in Miami. At that point, it dawned on him that maybe he was good enough to play professionally. His mother, however, thought it would be in her son’s best interest to get an education before committing to a pro contract.

“She kept saying no and no and no,” Mantrana said. “She wanted me to finish school, or get close to it, and then I could do whatever I wanted.”

He weighed his options between pro ball and an education, meting his mother halfway by attending Miami-Dade North College the next year. A major league contract would have to wait.

“She was, and still is to this point, the most influential person in my life,” Mantrana said of his mother, who often worked multiple jobs to help the family. “She spent her life working for her kids and I didn’t want to disappoint her. Even though I was drafted pretty high, and the money was good, she wanted me to go to school, so I did.”

But the pros would continue to pursue him as his baseball career took him from Miami Dade (1981 to 1982) to Middle Georgia Junior College (1982 to 1983), where Mantrana and the Warriors would finish second in the Junior College World Series. Baltimore, Cleveland, Texas and Atlanta all wanted to sign the young shortstop as a prospect, but his mother kept trying to convince him to find value in an education and go to a four-year college.

The opportunity to attend a premier program and an academic institution would come in the summer of 1983 when newly hired Louisiana State University head baseball coach Skip Bertman contacted Mantrana.

“I had been recruited heavily by some big time schools when Skip Bertman called and asked if I would come play for him,” said Mantrana, pointing to a portrait of Bertman, hanging on his office wall across from his desk. “I knew him from his time at the University of Miami, tremendous guy, so I went to LSU to play.”

LSU was far from being the baseball powerhouse it would become in the 1990s when Mantrana began with the Tigers in 1984. The program had suffered several years of mediocre, sub-500 ball before the Bertman Era, and Mantrana relished the opportunity to help his new coach change the way baseball was perceived at the university.

“I was part of his first recruiting class,” Mantrana said. “As that core group we worked hard to turn the losing ways around.”

In his first year at LSU Mantrana had a .302 batting average with 52 hits, scored 42 runs and led the team in triples (6) and stolen bases (17). The next year he brought in 40 runs while scoring 43 of his own, stole 19 bases, and belted 11 home runs. The Tigers would win the SEC Western Division Championship and go 41-18 during the 1985 season.

“Probably the best baseball decision I ever made was playing for LSU,” Mantrana mused as he sat back in his office chair. “I got to play two years for Skip Bertman and he taught me more about baseball in those years than the rest of my career combined to that point.”

He would take that baseball know-how with him into the minor leagues and later, as a coach, to every squad he was charged with leading.

THE COACH

Mantrana played four years in the minor leagues after leaving LSU in 1986. He signed as a free agent with Detroit and played second base for the Gastonia Tigers (1986) and the Fayetteville Generals (1987). Halfway through the 1987 season he was traded to the New York Mets, who sent him to play for their Columbia, S.C., squad.

In 1988 Mantrana was moved to one more team in the Mets farm system before retiring from professional baseball at the age of 23. He ended his pro career with 274 hits, 147 runs scored and a .277 batting average.

Making good on the promise to his mother to finish his education, Mantrana decided to move back home to Miami, and completed his sports administration degree at St. Thomas University. Even though he knew he wanted to graduate, the future wasn’t clear until he drove by Miami Springs High School one day.

“There was a high school baseball practice going on as I stopped my car,” Mantrana recalled. “And I thought, ‘Man, that guy has a pretty good job. He’s getting paid to coach baseball. You know what? That’s what I want to do.’”

When he finished the degree he applied, and landed, the vacant head coach position at his old high school. After five years of coaching the Miami Jackson High Generals, an assistant position became available at Miami-Dade North, and Mantrana found himself coaching infielders and coordinating recruiting at another one of his former schools.

The good Lord has a funny way of opening doors, Mantrana said.

But there was a learning curve for the 27-year-old coach. Although the transition from player to coach wasn’t difficult for Mantrana, there was a realization that his new career would be different from the previous one.

“The biggest thing was, you weren’t just worried about executing your job well,” Mantrana said. “You had to think about all nine players on the field executing theirs.”

According to Mantrana he took what he learned from Bertman at LSU and used it to see and understand the big picture on the diamond. In 1996, when St. Thomas University began looking for a replacement for Al Avila, the young assistant coach took a chance and applied for the position.

Mantrana would take the STU baseball program and the Sun Conference by storm and become the winningest coach in the baseball program’s history. By the time he left for his current job at UTPA, he had given St. Thomas 11 straight winning seasons (1997-2007), accumulated a .681 winning percentage (434-193-1), with five Florida Sun Conference championships and garnered three trips to the college World Series.

CHANGE OF SCENERY

When UTPA Athletic Director Chris King needed to fill the Broncs’ baseball head coaching position in September 2009, one of the people he called was Skip Bertman.

“They called him,” said Mantrana nodding again to the portrait of his mentor. “He told them to call this guy, me, first and see what they thought.”

Mantrana, the coach who had made a name for himself in Florida, had suddenly become part of the Bronc shortlist for coaches.

“We started the process,” he said, “first with a phone interview and then I came down for a visit.”

During that visit King offered him the job and Mantrana had to make a decision. He asked his wife and daughter first, but made sure to ask his mother Aurora what she thought too.

“One of the biggest things for me, before making the move, was my mom,” the coach said, leaning forward in his chair.

His mother, who had fought off breast cancer twice, was the main reason for Mantrana to second-guess the South Texas job. His mother would be 1,500 miles and he was worried about being by her side if she needed him. But she put her son’s mind at ease and convinced him that he wouldn’t be that far away if anything were to happen.

“Being the person she is, she told me to make the best decision for me and my family,” he said. “She kind of pushed me to take the job.”

For Mantrana, the good Lord may open the doors, but it was his mother, her dedication to her six children and her teachings, that pushed him through.

“I’m very fortunate, I wouldn’t be who I am today if it wasn’t for my mom,” he asserted. “I wouldn’t be coaching, to tell the truth.”

THE BRONC

The reason Mantrana took the UTPA job was quite simple to him. He thought he could win at the University.

He knew it would be difficult to change the mentality and perception that the Broncs were a losing team, even though the team had been contenders in the 1970s and 1980s. But he saw promise in the school, location, weather and potential pool of players to choose from in Texas. However, he started off slowly in his first three seasons and was hit with his first string of losing outings since becoming a head coach.

He credits the program’s slow start to having been hired late in 2009, hurting his first two recruiting campaigns and thus the prospects for winning.

“It was tough because we had such a late start,” said the fourth-year Broncs skipper. “The first year we couldn’t do much and it affected the people we could recruit the next year too.”

But now, as his first real recruiting class takes the field against the rest of the Great West Conference, Mantrana feels confident the Broncs can turn the tide and add more games to the win column.

“There is no doubt that we have to work harder than at other places,” he said, “but that’s part of the challenge of making something better. I feel that Pan Am baseball will get better and better because we have a great group of kids now.”

Mantrana, who said he never had to be asked to hustle on the field, understands how important it is to get the right players, on the field and in the clubhouse.

“We may not be able to compete with the LSU and Texas for the ‘best’ players, but we can do a lot with players that have a strong work ethic,” he claimed. “If we can get those players that want to win, we can do great things here at Pan Am.”

One of the players he leans on to motivate the team and help cement a winning legacy at UTPA is senior outfielder Adrian de la Rosa.

“As a team we’re up for any challenge,” de la Rosa said. “We respect everyone but we don’t fear anyone.”

The El Paso Junior College transfer reminds Mantrana of himself when he used to play. He sees the same kind of hustle and work ethic that set him apart in junior college and LSU.

“We’re no longer the Pan Am you’re just going to beat,” the head coach said, “guys like Mike (McCarthy) and Adrian (de la Rosa) are a big reason why. They put in the time to get better and they love the game. They remind me of myself in that perspective.”

De la Rosa said that the team has bought into the winning mentality wholeheartedly. Mantrana’s view that they represent the University, their families and their maker is seen by the senior standout as words to live both on the field and off.

“I’ve learned so much from coach, about baseball and life in general,” he said. “We respect him and we don’t want to waste his time.”

MOVING FORWARD

Although some may look at Manny Mantrana and say his “swagger” and larger than life image are somehow self-fabricated, to his players he is the real deal; a man that has gone through the system and come out the other side strong and knowledgeable.

His life may not have been charmed and perfect, but he has made something out of it and carved out a place in college baseball. According to Mantrana, life has thrown him many curve balls but faith and family have sustained him.

He is grateful to have been born to his mother and that his parents made the decision to move to the United States. He’s glad to have had an opportunity to work in what he considers a great environment at UTPA.

“The good Lord gave me the ability to play baseball and the chance to coach,” he added. “I have a beautiful wife and daughter. I’m very blessed and I’m thankful for everything he does for me and continues to do for me on a daily basis.”

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