Villanova’s Jeff Manto reinvents himself at South Florida summer league

For players like Villanova’s Jeff Manto, the South Florida Collegiate Baseball League serves as a proving ground for reinvention.

Manto has largely been a backup infielder with the Wildcats, batting .102 in 52 career games and 32 starts. Despite batting .150 in six games in his shortened junior season, he slugged his first two career home runs, showing potential for power.

This summer, Manto is batting .324 in 16 games for the Delray Beach Lightning, exclusively as a catcher. He batted .202 the previous summer with the Lightning, trying to incorporate the new position while mainly patrolling the hot corner and second base. 

“I worked on it a little last summer but this summer is the first time I’m strictly catching,” Manto said.

Jeff Manto, the Catcher

The position change in search for a rare opportunity to crack the starting lineup may have led to Manto’s breakout. His junior season was cut short before the potential was realized. He started all six of the games he played and each of his three hits led to an RBI. His two home runs came during the Snowbird Classic in Port Charlotte. The first homer came against Eastern Michigan and the other against Western Michigan. 

The Wildcats were 5-1 during Manto’s starts (9-5 overall) and the Lightning are second in the league in wins with 12, tied with the Palm Beach Diamond Ducks for the top spot in the North Division Standings. To Manto, summer ball doesn’t make up for his lost spring season but the rare opportunity to play at a time where everyone else is reeling from the pandemic is still something he doesn’t take for granted.

“Obviously the spring season is more competitive,” Manto said. “There’s a chance to win a Big East championship, go to the regionals and stuff like that but this is awesome. I’m really grateful to be a part of this. A lot of kids aren’t playing right now and I am. There’s a waiting list for this league so whatever it takes.”

It helps for Manto to have players in the SFCBL coming from the same area he’s from. There are a handful of players from Eastern Pennsylvania schools in the league. He has a teammate with the Lightning from Lafayette College. One of the catchers with the Florida Pokers, another playoff contending team, plays at the University of Pennsylvania. Lehigh University sent four players to the SFCBL. It’s lead to moments of bonding, whether it’s in the weight room or hotel.

“It’s always cool to have someone that’s going through the same thing as you are,” Manto said, “especially coming down here in Florida. It’s a whole different culture playing baseball.”

Like Father, Like Son

Manto originally entered Villanova as a third baseman just like his father. Manto’s dad played in the big leagues for nine years with eight different teams, three of which went to the Wold Series. The senior Manto played college ball at Temple before being drafted by the California Angels in 1985. Safe to say the father-son dynamic provides a parallel path. 

“Being around baseball my entire life, I loved it right away. So he definitely influenced me in the beginning,” Manto said. “I do want to follow in his footsteps and obviously play play professional baseball later on in life.”

It’s one thing to play in front of your father with a strong sense of desire and pressure to impress. It’s another when your father was a pro in the sport he’s watching you play. Unlike the Florida Collegiate Summer League in central Florida, the SFCBL allows fans to come to the games, so long as they bring their own seat. Which means Jeff Manto can continue playing in front of his father this year despite it potentially not being possible due to the viral outbreak erasing college sports in the spring.

“Sometimes it gets a little nerve racking because you want to do well in front of him, try to live up to expectations and being like him,” Manto said. “When I got used to it and just do my own thing, it’s pretty awesome to have him by.”

The SFCBL season runs through this month with the playoffs following the final regular season game on July 30.

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