Baseball used to have dozens, if not hundreds, of different leagues scattered around the country during its heyday during the first half of the 20th century. Many of these leagues were not affiliated with the major or minor leagues, and simply represented regional ball. There were more than enough people who wanted to play and be involved in the game to sustain such interest.
Although the number of leagues has drastically diminished since then, independent baseball still thrives in parts of the country. Independent baseball currently represents a frontier of sorts. It is where players who have concluded high school or college careers, and have not been able to catch on with a minor or major league team, can go and play competitively in the hope they will get a chance at “the show.”
The coaching in independent ball is top notch. Because of the desire of so many players to make it to the next level, there is perhaps a greater receptiveness to instruction in independent ball. Mike Pinto has emerged as one of its finest managers. He has spent the past five seasons helming the Southern Illinois Miners in the Frontier League, and has had a winning record each year.
Pinto has the perfect background for an independent league manager. He has a lengthy background in baseball; working previously as a scout, coach, and manager at various levels. He is also a motivational speaker in the off-season, with his specialty being conducting inspiring workshops with large, successful companies. Under his watch, dozens of players have made the jump from independent to minor/major league ball. You can find more information about his professional managerial record at http://www.baseball-reference.com/minors/player.cgi?id=pinto-001mik.
Recently I was able to catch up with Pinto and find out more about his time in baseball.
Mike Pinto Interview:
How did you become interested in baseball?: It seems it has been in my blood forever. I watched the movie The Sandlot and thought, ‘that was my life.’ As a young kid, I played from the time I woke until it was too dark to play. Pick-up games, right field out if we didn’t have enough guys, fast pitch against the wall when we were really short. On rainy days we played Strat-o-Matic inside. So I guess my analytics background came up early.
Who was your favorite team and players growing up, and why?: I grew up a Cubs fan living in Chicago. Friends and I would take a bus to the games at 9:30 in the morning, before the Cubs players got there. Loads of autographs, then head over to the visitors’ side when their bus arrived. You could actually get to the players then. I am thrilled that the Cubs have Theo and his team. It is the first optimism I have had for them in a long, long time.
What is your background in playing baseball?: This part is a long story. I played through high school, but had a very successful band (it bought me a Porsche at age 18) and moved to music and the game (and college) got put on hold for me. I didn’t play again until a friend of mine (when I was 35), former Cubs catcher Randy Hundley, came up with the idea of Fantasy Baseball Camps. I helped him with his marketing and public relations, and in return I could participate in whatever camps I wanted to. He did the camps for the Cubs, Cardinals, Giants, Yankees. Through that I met Mickey Mantle (one of my prized possessions is a photo of me and Mickey in a Yankees uniform, with my father and my son). I met Whitey Ford, Moose Skowron, Bob Gibson, and Lou Brock, not to mention all the Cubs’ greats, many of whom have became long time personal friends.
From playing again I joined a semi pro team to play again in the Chicago for a couple of years and then started the Chicago North Men’s Senior Baseball League in 1987 for guys to play hardball, 30 and over. We play each year in the MSBL World Series and I have been fortunate to play on seven MSBL World Series teams. I play center field and can still run. (When my legs are gone, my career is over for sure.)
I coached my sons in baseball growing up. In 1994 I coached a team with some extraordinary pitching talent. I went to all the former major league pitchers I knew to find out everything I could about pitching. It became a focus for me so that I could master mechanics, how the body worked to be able to repeat the pitching delivery. Later on I became the pitching coach for a JuCo in the Chicago area, and took over as Head Coach when the 30 year coach retired. In our first year we went 41-11, broke a school record for wins, and were ranked 4th in the NJCAA, when the school had never been ranked before. Over the next three seasons, we had a .740 winning percentage.
A friend named Pete Caliendo, who is a technical commissioner for the International Baseball Federation, recommended me to Art Stewart from the Kansas City Royals, to scout for them, which I ended up doing on a part time basis. Through scouting I met Matt Nokes, former Yankees catcher and Silver Slugger Award winner. A couple years later Matt was named manager of the Joliet JackHammers and he called and offered me the job as third base and bench coach. I did that in 2002, also took over the pitching coach role in 2003 when Greg Hibbard went to coach for the Indians’ organization. Six of our pitchers that year went on to major league organizations, including Tim Byrdak, who is with the Mets. In 2004 I also took on Player Coordinator role.
Our assistant GM in Joliet took the job as President of the Sioux Falls Canaries, and offered me the manager job in 2005. Following the 2006 season our owner Ben Zuraw sold controlling interest in the Canaries and I was out of a baseball job.
How did you come to be manager of the South Illinois Miners?: Former Joliet GM Steve Malliet had purchased a team in our league with his father-in-law, the River City Rascals. He recommended me to Erik Haag, the Miners’ President. I interviewed with Erik and brought with me a binder with a five year plan for building a team from scratch for continued long term success.
They hired me with a two year contract, I received a three year extension and this year signed a five year extension. I truly believe I have the best job in Minor League Baseball. I make every baseball decision, choose my own team, build my own baseball culture with no baseball interference from ownership or management. But yet, they provide us with everything we need to have success on the field.
I treat the baseball operations of the Miners just like a business. From the branding of the team within baseball so that we get quality players each year, to the experience we want each guy to have in Southern Illinois that they tell other players about, to the use of analytics to build a roster and manage games.
I have devoured six books on the building of the Red Sox (color coded on topics with different highlighters). To say I am a fan of Theo Epstein would be a good assumption. I would pay big money to get a lunch with him.
Do you aspire to coach or manage in the minor leagues or majors?: I have had a couple of teams inquire about my interest in managing in a minor league organization, but honestly I already have a great job with all the benefits mentioned above. Organizations don’t give out five year contracts. Would I love to manage and coach in the big league? Of course. But the reality of that with me at 58 years old, that is not realistic. The Miners ARE my major leagues, so I treat it like that.
What is your proudest accomplishment in baseball?: A few, starting the Miners from the ground up and having us the only team to have a winning season every year of existence. A 20-game winning streak in 2010. And certainly the fact that I have had 26 of my players as a manager, and six as a pitching coach, go to or back to a MLB organization. I have had a coach move to an organization, maybe another one this off season. There is nothing quite like calling a player in and telling him that he is off to a major league club. The look on their face is indescribable.
Who are some of your favorite players you have worked with?: I have so many that would be difficult. These guys in many cases become extended family to me. Some long after they are gone and on with their lives continue to stay in touch, and reach out for advice in their lives or in business.
I do have a deal with all my guys. When they go to war for me, I will be a coach for their lifetime, but it comes with a price. The price is that if they go on to a MLB organization, they owe me a fitted cap from every team they play for (the same if they go into coaching), with their autograph across the brim of the cap. I have them in a cabinet with a sign that says, ‘Will you be next?’ It is a reminder to all the guys here as to WHY they are here. I have an awful lot of caps.
You are accomplished in public speaking and marketing; can you talk a little more about that?: I have been speaking professionally for just over 20 years. I do two presentations. One is for Financial Services people (my biggest client is Boston’s John Hancock). That presentation is built on the concept as to how an adviser can brand themselves and differentiate themselves in an industry where everyone looks the same.
I developed a program for John Hancock called ‘The Essential Advisor,’ for their people to train advisers on business building strategies. The other is a corporate motivation type program about overcoming fears and challenging yourself to higher standards. I use a lot of multimedia in it. It’s engaging, fun, and hopefully I can trick them into absorbing what I talk about. (More information about Mike’s website is available at www.brandchampions.net.)
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