Jon Paul Morosi

On Manoah’s journey to stardom, Morgantown remains memorable stop


Alek Manoah is from Homestead, Fla., a place he references proudly — and frequently — in any discussion of his path to becoming one of baseball’s top starting pitchers.

Homestead is where he saw the work ethic and sacrifices of his mother, Susana Lluch; where he played ball with his older brother, Erik, now a minor league pitcher; and where Alek built the bravado America witnessed during his on-the-mound narration of a three-punchout inning at the All-Star Game.

Manoah has a third home, too, literally and figuratively between South Florida and Toronto. Before he became the Blue Jays ascendant ace, Manoah had to mature into a leader capable of shouldering such responsibility.

He did that in West Virginia.

This weekend, Manoah will be as close to Morgantown, W.Va., as the Major League Baseball schedule permits. Manoah and the Blue Jays are in Pittsburgh to face the Pirates, including the season finale of MLB Sunday Leadoff on Peacock at 12pm ET.

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Manoah takes the mound in Friday’s series opener at PNC Park, in a perfect week for Mountaineers fans to make the 75-mile trek: One night before Manoah’s start, the West Virginia football team visits archrival Pittsburgh in the first Backyard Brawl in over a decade. The convergence provides a perfect occasion to explain Manoah’s significance to West Virginia athletics — and vice versa.

“He’s the turning point in the history of our program,” said Randy Mazey, the WVU head baseball coach since 2013. “When he’s pitching, there’s rarely a game that goes by when an announcer doesn’t say he pitched at West Virginia. We hosted an NCAA regional because of him and his teammates. He changed the face of West Virginia baseball.”

Manoah’s recruitment followed a deliberate pace, and some coaches speculated he was slow-playing the process. The reality was simpler: Manoah’s family lacked the money to travel across the country for the unofficial visits that produce commitments from 14- and 15-year-olds.

Derek Matlock, then the top assistant at West Virginia, was among the first to reach out to Manoah after his dazzling performance at the 2015 Perfect Game National Showcase. Manoah took official visits — with travel expenses paid by the school — to Auburn and Mississippi State. On one trip, he had dinner at a fancy steakhouse. He met Charles Barkley at Auburn.

As much as Manoah loved talking with Sir Charles, what he craved most was a family atmosphere. He needed to see a little of Homestead in his next home. Mazey sensed as much, which influenced the coach’s choice of location for Manoah’s recruiting dinner.

Mazey’s home.

When Manoah arrived, the first thing he did was play catch in the yard with Mazey’s son, Weston.

“If I was going to be a thousand miles from home, with no family of my own there, I kind of needed that family environment,” Manoah recalled in a recent conversation at Yankee Stadium. “It felt right.”

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Said Mazey: “When we started working with this program, we didn’t have much of a tradition . . . We had to be super relationship-oriented. That’s what attracted Alek. He came to our house. We cooked dinner for him. He got to know my kids and my wife. We weren’t going to be a turnstile program, where you run kids in and out of here. We pride ourselves on getting to know the kids and developing the kids . . . When you look at it that way, who cares where they’re from? You might not think a kid from Miami is going to end up in Morgantown, but boundaries didn’t matter to him. Relationships did, and he got the chance to meet a lot of people who will care about him the rest of his life.”

Sam Kessler, Manoah’s close friend and WVU teammate, has a vivid recollection of the first time Manoah experienced a snowfall on campus. “It was like watching a 6-year-old run around in the snow, throwing snowballs everywhere,” Kessler said. “I’ve never seen a grown man have so much fun.”

Manoah’s nickname within the program quickly became “AK” — a compressed version of his first name and nod to how often he had to spell his name for people who mistakenly called him Alex.

Manoah has a vivid recollection of his collegiate debut on Feb. 19, 2017. The Mountaineers led UNC Charlotte, 6-1, and he was brought in to record the final three outs. He did — but only after issuing two walks and surrendering two runs to the host 49ers.

“One fan was the only thing I could hear,” Manoah recalled. “HEY ALEK! YOUR STIRRUPS ARE OFF! I’M SWIMMING IN YOUR DOME! I was so nervous. It was my first college outing, all this stuff. I’m throwing gas but I can’t throw a strike. Then I start hearing this guy.

“I’ll always remember that guy’s voice in my head, but it taught me how to not listen to that stuff.”

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Kessler and Manoah developed a tradition as road roommates. If either of them had a bad outing, they’d order Chinese takeout food and watch “Friends” reruns. However therapeutic the ritual was, it didn’t exactly fit the diet of a future professional athlete.

“He was always serious about playing baseball, but as a freshman he wasn’t all that serious about a baseball career,” Mazey said. “He was a kid. He liked to go out and have fun. He had a big personality and loved the college scene. At one point, I told him, ‘AK, when you’re ready to commit to doing this for a living, you’re going to have to start getting serious about nutrition.’ Once he did that, the results followed. It wasn’t a flip of the switch. It was more of a developmental process.”

Manoah was named to the Big 12 All-Freshman Team in 2017 and pitched well as a sophomore, in addition to some at-bats as a part-time first baseman and designated hitter. But his summer with the Chatham Anglers in 2018 changed the arc of his career. While focusing exclusively on his work as a pitcher, Manoah led the Cape Cod League with 48 strikeouts, to go along with a 2.70 ERA in seven starts.

“He figured it out,” said Kessler, a minor league pitcher recovering from Tommy John surgery. “He took a lot of pressure off himself. He just decided he was going to have fun playing baseball against the best players in the country.”

Manoah’s momentum continued into 2019, when he was the unanimous choice as Big 12 Pitcher of the Year. The Mountaineers hosted an NCAA regional, but their storybook season ended on a sour note. They led Texas A&M, 9-1, in the seventh inning of the regional final — and lost.

“Complete devastation,” Mazey says. “The team was so upset — and the Draft was the next day.”

The Mountaineers knew Manoah was likely to go in the first round, but how could they celebrate in the aftermath of a crushing defeat? Still in shock over the result, Mazey asked Manoah where he wanted to watch the coverage. “Let’s do it at your house,” Manoah told him. “Let’s go back to where it all began.”

And so they did. Susanna traveled up from Florida to join Alek and his teammates. When the Blue Jays selected him 11th overall, Manoah’s Morgantown friends smothered his Homestead family in hugs and applause.

“We went from devastation to elation,” Mazey said. “He’s such a team guy. You love the kid. Leaders, to me — they call them influencers on social media — are able to influence how people play and also act off the field. That’s the way AK was here. You saw that in how his teammates wanted to share that moment with him.”

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Manoah’s easygoing demeanor coexists with a deep sense of obligation found in the lessons of his personal journey. He is the grandson of Cuban immigrants on both sides of his family. One of his grandfathers worked as a Pepsi truck driver for 30 years. At home, mealtime conversation was entirely in Spanish. “If you wanted to eat, you had to speak Spanish,” Manoah said, grinning, “and I wanted to eat.”

Manoah describes baseball as “a game of minorities” and feels an obligation to bring people together, in the Blue Jays clubhouse and beyond. At a camp he conducted last year for players from diverse backgrounds, Manoah shared information about college and professional baseball that he lacked as a teenager.

“Nowadays, 14-year-olds are late if they’re not commuted to a school,” Manoah said. “That’s not fair for a kid who didn’t have the money to go on an official visit. Now he’s 18, waiting for an official visit, and schools are like, ‘All we have left is a preferred walk-on.’

“There’s so many good kids who get lost in that negative environment. That’s where I truly believe God will open doors when they need to be. I feel like he’s going to use me to open doors for others.”

Seven years ago, a door opened at the Mazey household in West Virginia. Manoah walked in and hasn’t looked back. He may not be from Morgantown, but his baseball identity is. And this weekend, he’s almost home.

In George Springer’s family, generations of impact comes from a single name

Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Blue Jays center fielder George Springer became a father for the first time last year when his wife, Charlise, gave birth to their son.

They named him George.

As in, George Chelston Springer IV.

“I was going back and forth…and then something felt right about it,” Springer said in a conversation earlier this season. “I told my dad, and my dad was extremely happy. It means a lot to my family and obviously means a lot to me.”

In time, young George will know the history of his name.

He will learn that his father, George III, is a four-time All-Star, 2017 World Series MVP, and past nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award because of his extensive community involvement.

He will learn that his grandfather, George Jr., is an esteemed attorney who has argued cases before the United States Court of Appeals and Connecticut Supreme Court. George Jr. is a former president of the New Britain (Conn.) Walicki Little League and current chairman of the Hartford HealthCare Central Region Board of Directors.

And he will learn that his great-grandfather, George Sr., was born and raised in Panama and immigrated to the United States at age 17. George Sr. earned his teaching degree at Central Connecticut State, enlisted in the U.S. Army, and returned to Connecticut to embark on his career as a schoolteacher and coach. In time, he entered union leadership and became national vice president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Over his seven seasons in Houston, George III worked with the Astros Community Leaders program and Urban Youth Academy. He also has utilized his platform in baseball to become a national spokesperson for SAY: The Stuttering Association for the Young. With support from the Jays Care Foundation, Springer is working to expand SAY’s offerings in Canada.

George III has spoken with children at Camp SAY about how he’s worked to overcome his stutter, including the powerful symbolism behind his decision to wear a live microphone during the 2017 MLB All-Star Game broadcast on FOX. George Sr. said he received “countless” emails from parents after that game about how the interview impacted their children.

“George’s message to everyone is that you have value, and you have a voice, even if it might take you longer to say it,” George Jr. said.

George III is showing the same commitment to service and community engagement that led both George Sr. and George Jr. to serve as president of the NAACP branch in New Britain, Conn.

So when George Jr. learned he would be the grandfather to George IV, you can imagine his reaction.

“I was absolutely delighted,” George Jr. said during a recent telephone interview. “Not so much because it’s my name, but because it’s my dad’s name, too. That probably meant more to me than anything.

“I can’t think about a person who has had a greater involvement in my life. He passed away in 2006, much too young. You wouldn’t find anyone with a greater intellect and greater empathy and compassion for others than my dad.”

Thus, George IV carries a name associated with decades of deep, meaningful community impact. He’s also familiar with the primary job description of any 1-year-old: source of joy and exhaustion for the grownups around him.

“Greatest thing on the planet,” George III replied, when asked about his experiences as a father. “It’s tiring, but I have a much different perspective on life. I’ve got to be Dad. I get to watch my kid play in the grass, have fun, and just be himself.

“For me, it really changes things. He doesn’t care if I go 4-for-4 or 0-for-4. He just wants to play. It helps me kind of let things go a little bit…Yeah, this is my job, but there’s so much more to life. I don’t want that to sound like I don’t take this seriously, because I do, but it really is just a game. He’s taught me to enjoy the moment and enjoy life a lot more.”

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George III said one of the best parts about being a dad is watching his own parents relish their role as grandparents.

“I ask my dad all sorts of stuff,” George said. “It’s fun to watch them interact — to watch him see how happy I am. Then it’s kind of the reverse effect: I get to watch him and my mom play with my son and do things that only a grandparent can do. It’s pretty special for me, to see them happy.”

George III always had a close relationship with his grandfather, and so he reflects often on his namesake during quiet family moments.

“Not a lot of people know who he is, and that’s cool, but the ones that do, know what he did as a person — his efforts in the community, his efforts with us,” George said. “He was a great overall man. I wish he was still around to meet my son, but it’s definitely cool to know that I have his name, and my son does, as well.”

George Jr. marvels at the arc of his father’s life, which reads like a vivid textbook of 20th century history. He traveled throughout the country and world, motivated to engage with causes ranging from civil rights and voting rights, to environmental protection and help for working families.

George Sr. attended the March on Washington in 1963. He was an election monitor in South Africa during the historic 1994 vote that led to Nelson Mandela becoming president. When Nigeria resumed democratic elections in 1999, George Sr. traveled there in a delegation led by former President Jimmy Carter to observe the peaceful transfer of power.

George Springer Sr. delivers a speech to attendees at an AFL-CIO convention in Connecticut. (Photo courtesy of George Springer Jr.)

Closer to home, the eldest Springer brought George Jr. with him whenever he could. George Sr. worked on the 1970 U.S. Senate campaign of Joe Duffey, which meant George Jr. was assigned to one of the most vital roles: helping to prepare the campaign mailers. The younger Springer was immersed in his duties one day in Forestville, Conn., when he recognized the man working beside him: Paul Newman, the Academy Award-winning actor and co-chairman of Duffy’s campaign.

When New Britain High School needed a soccer program, George Sr. started one. When at-risk teens needed a place to go after school, he ran a center for them. When he saw kids were arriving to school hungry, he worked to influence policy decisions at the state level.

The work brought intense demands on his time, but George Jr. and his two sisters grew to understand why.

“You want to make your kids the priority, but you also think of people who make decisions that cause them to be away from home, in order to improve the conditions of the world,” George Jr. said.

“To me, those choices are not inconsistent. They’re part of the same continuum. That’s something I’ve thought about a lot and always talked with my dad about. There’s always going to be tension in the decisions that take you away from home, but that’s why it’s important that you balance everything. If you put your kids first, you’re never going to make a wrong decision.”

George Sr. had once aspired to a career as a professional baseball player, and he passed on his love of the game to his children and grandchildren. George Jr. played in the 1976 Little League World Series and met his wife, Laura, while they were student-athletes at the University of Connecticut. George played football, and Laura was a gymnast.

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George Jr. coached in the Walicki Little League for 11 years, including George III’s district All-Star teams. Laura coached the couple’s daughters, Nicole and Lena, at the minor and major levels. Nicole went on to play softball at Central Connecticut State, Lena at Ohio State; both represented Laura’s native Puerto Rico at international tournaments.

George Jr. served on the Little League International Advisory Board, and he and Laura were named the 2016 George and Barbara Bush Little League Parents of the Year.

George Jr. can point to any number of proud family moments at baseball and softball fields, but the emotions hit differently when his children mention something that they learned from their grandfather. And that happens quite often.

Nicole, a Type 1 diabetic, left her job at a bank this year to begin her new career as a nurse in the endocrinology department of a hospital in Farmington, Conn. Lena made plans to attend law school and was on the verge of enrolling when she decided her true passion was in helping student-athletes reach their full potential; she’s now the pitching coach for the softball program at Texas-El Paso.

In Houston, George became the first major league player to donate to COVID-19-related ballpark employee income support. Last summer, George donated $75,000 to Perfect Game to help children of color gain more opportunities to play baseball.

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“He’s one of the most decent, caring individuals that I’ve known — it just happens that he’s my kid,” George Jr. said. “He’s always wanted to be the best that he can be, but it’s with a purpose in mind. There’s always a greater goal. In baseball, his focus is less on what he’s doing statistically than if the team is doing well. He’s always been that kind of person. He’s worried about everyone around him, professionally and personally. And I’ve seen that with him from the time he was seven or eight years old. If there’s a person struggling, he’s going right to that person.

“He’s always had this sense that it’s really important to be concerned and take care of people around you. Now all of that is transferring to his son and other kids he might have in the future. To have another person in the world who shares those values, we all benefit from that.”

In considering his father’s legacy, and watching his son today, George Jr. thinks about something he once heard from a minister: You don’t need a Ph.D. to be great. You need the capacity to serve others.

“That is the essence of my dad’s life, and it also describes the person my son has become,” George said. “It has been a blessing for me to see that relationship between the two of them grow over time.”

George IV will learn that story one day.

And then he’ll write his own.

For Buck O’Neil, Hall call confirms legacy he always carried

Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The crowd came to celebrate. They wept instead.

Several hundred people had gathered at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum on that February day in 2006. Buck O’Neil was going to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. That was the proper outcome for a man of his achievement, resiliency, and legendary optimism. O’Neil was on hand and poised to share the moment with friends and family members.

O’Neil had been one of the greatest first basemen in Negro League history; managed the storied Kansas City Monarchs; signed eventual MLB Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Lou Brock, and Lee Smith as a Chicago Cubs scout; became the first Black coach in Major League history; led the effort to establish the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City; and earned esteem as the preeminent storyteller of the transformational period before, during, and after the integration of America’s national pastime.

O’Neil possessed a unique résumé among all the Negro League players, executives and managers under consideration by a special Hall of Fame committee.

He fell one vote short.

“I shed tears that day — tears of anguish,” recalled Bob Kendrick, O’Neil’s close confidant and NLBM president since 2011. “I was the one who told Buck that he didn’t get enough votes. To this day, it was one of the most gut-wrenching conversations of my life. But who handled it better than anyone? Buck.”

Despite the heartbreak, O’Neil accepted the invitation to travel to Cooperstown for the 2006 induction ceremony and speak on behalf of inductees who had been elected posthumously. O’Neil delivered a stirring, joyful address without a hint of resentment about his own result.

“Think about the type of human being it takes to do that,” marveled Smith, the Hall of Fame closer. “He was never bitter about that situation . . . I’m telling you, for him to be part of that ceremony, it’s because he was always giving everywhere he went.”

John “Buck” O’Neil died two months after delivering that speech. He was 94.

Sixteen years later, the mystifying wait for recognition will end. O’Neil will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on July 24, following last year’s vote of the Golden Days Era Committee.

O’Neil’s niece, Dr. Angela Terry, will speak on his behalf.

“It is a little bittersweet, because we won’t get to high-five and chest bump with our guy,” Kendrick acknowledged, “but that doesn’t diminish the accomplishment, and it doesn’t diminish the opportunity to celebrate all that he did.”

“I’m sure when we get to the moment on July 24, I’m going to be overcome with emotion. But these will be tears of joy, not the tears of anguish we shed in 2006, because my friend’s baseball legacy is fully in place. He’ll take his proper place among the immortals of our game. Of course, as we both know, his legacy is far greater than baseball.”

That legacy is growing stronger through the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center in Kansas City, now under construction at the former Paseo YMCA building near the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. The Paseo YMCA has deep significance to O’Neil’s story; it was there that Andrew “Rube” Foster held the 1920 meeting that formalized the Negro National League.

The NLBM had organized numerous events to celebrate the centennial in 2020, but they were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In that sense, O’Neil’s Hall of Fame induction is Right on Time, to borrow from the title of his autobiography. The celebration of his career is infusing new energy to the “Thanks a Million, Buck” campaign to raise $1 million in support of infrastructure and programming at the Education and Research Center.

“It’s almost poetic, after having lost 2020,” Kendrick said. “When we were celebrating the 100th anniversary, we thought that was going to come with a lot of financial support for this project. But now we get to use the Hall of Fame induction as the springboard to help take care of the House that Buck Built.”

O’Neil was born and raised in Florida, where Jim Crow laws prevented him from attending Sarasota High School. Kansas City became his hometown through playing for and managing the Monarchs. He worked for decades as a scout and ambassador for the Royals, who have recognized his impact during every home game since his passing; each day, one fan who exemplifies his spirit is invited to watch the game from the Buck O’Neil Legacy Seat behind home plate.

“He’s one of the greatest ambassadors for the Royals, and the game of baseball, that we’ve ever had,” said Dayton Moore, the club’s president. “With what he has meant to this community, we celebrate him 81 dates per year by honoring a citizen in our community who we feel represents the spirit of Buck O’Neil.”

“He was always caring for and loving on people. He served others in the community. He lived with a spirit of optimism and hope and forgiveness.”

Moore moved with his family to Kansas City in 2006, several months before O’Neil’s passing, but the two had met in 1994. At the time, Moore was an assistant baseball coach at George Mason University. O’Neil was receiving national acclaim for his role in Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary, and George Mason was chosen as the site of O’Neil’s interview with Ted Koppel on Nightline.

Moore described O’Neil as “one of those individuals you want everyone you know or care about to have met.” Moore also believes it’s more vital than ever that Americans — not only baseball fans — learn about the grace with which O’Neil faced and overcame prejudice.

“We’re all looking for examples of greatness and people who model the characteristics we want to see in our communities,” Moore said. “Buck O’Neil modeled that better than anybody . . . I’ll always remember him as a person who celebrated the gift of life every single day. He was thankful for everything he experienced, and he told stories about those times in his life in a very forgiving and hopeful way.”

In 2008, the National Baseball Hall of Fame honored O’Neil’s legacy by creating the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award. The award honors “an individual whose extraordinary efforts enhanced baseball’s positive impact on society, broadened the game’s appeal, and whose character, integrity and dignity are comparable to the qualities exhibited by O’Neil.”

The Hall created a permanent exhibit to recognize the award, with the list of honorees accompanying a life-sized statue of O’Neil. The O’Neil display is located so close to the Museum entrance that visitors feel as if Buck is welcoming them to Cooperstown — a perfect tribute to his warmth and graciousness.

Smith, a 2019 Hall inductee, cried the first time he saw the smiling statue of the man who believed in him.

“I went back to when I was 17 years old,” Smith said, recalling his reaction. “Buck was chasing me down in Louisiana. He’d come back to watch me play sandlot ball. I was actually catching one day, and he was there.

“He always called me ‘Lee Arthur.’ I had my chest protector and mask on, but no shin guards, because I didn’t have enough money for shin guards. Buck saw me and called out, ‘Lee Arthur! Get out from back there! We’re thinking about drafting you!’ I said, ‘To the Army?’”

Smith laughed over the phone.

“I had been lined up to play college basketball,” he continued. “Buck O’Neil saw something in me that I’d never seen myself.”

Smith will return to Cooperstown in July and sit on the dais as his mentor is welcomed into the community of baseball immortals — thus strengthening the bond between the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, two historic institutions separated by 1,200 miles.

Long after the ceremony is over, O’Neil’s impact will grow at the NLBM Education and Research Center inaugurated in his name. Kendrick envisions the organization as a worldwide headquarters to study the intersection of Negro League baseball and social history.

In that way, Kendrick believes the NLBM’s mission has taken on a heightened focus in the two years since the murder of George Floyd.

“In the aftermath of this heinous and vile act, people reached out to us, seeking thought leadership,” Kendrick said. “We truly embraced the fact that this museum is a social justice museum, and a Civil Rights museum, seen through the lens of baseball. This museum is the story of triumph over adversity. We needed that story during that critical time when the country was going through a realm of social and civil unrest similar to the 1960s.

“The museum helps us to say, ‘You’ve seen my struggles. You’ve seen me try to navigate toward equality in this country. You’ve seen me sprayed by fire hoses, attacked by police dogs, subject to police brutality. But now see my success stories.’ Negro League Baseball is one of the great American success stories. ‘You won’t let me play in the Major Leagues? OK, I’ll create my own league, and my league will rival and in many cases surpass your league in popularity and attendance.’

“There’s something very American about that spirit.”

And no American, past or present, better exemplifies that spirit than John “Buck” O’Neil. The first two floors of the Education and Research Center in his name are set to open following the Nov. 12 fundraiser gala.

There’s a pretty important ceremony coming up in a few weeks, too. Buck O’Neil is a Hall of Famer, long overdue and right on time.