Joe Mantoni sat anxiously at his house in Northbridge last weekend, watching the stream of the Major League Baseball Draft on MLB Network. After 17 rounds in the books, he got bored.
Sure enough, soon after he left to go play pick-up basketball with some of his friends, he got a call from his father the Cincinnati Reds had drafted the former Hopedale star in the 18th round of the draft, with the 555th pick.
Mantoni, who served as Merrimack College’s designated hitter and closing pitcher this past season, led the team with 36 RBI; on the mound, he had a 1.61 ERA in 28 innings pitched.
“It’s a surreal moment honestly,” Mantoni said. “I had a feeling I’d get picked, I just didn’t know when. It happened earlier than I thought.”
The next day, Mantoni looked on at Tivnan Field as his younger brother Dan, a senior, pitched a complete game three-hitter to lead the Blue Raiders to the Central Mass. Division 3 championship. Dan took care of business in the batter’s box too, hitting a two-run double to break a 1-1 tie in the sixth inning. The win over Oxford came about a year after Hopedale lost a 1-0 heartbreaker to the Pirates in last year’s district final.
“We had a good sixth inning, Danny had a key hit,” Hopedale head coach Joe Small said. “My guys wanted to play them, we saw brackets and they were on the other side, they said we’d like to play [Oxford] if we we’re lucky enough to get there. Another good game, luckily.”
After the game, the coach quickly refocused his team on the goals that they had set.
“He was excited, he said he couldn’t be prouder of us in the way we battled. He also said don’t be satisfied, we’re still playing...typical Coach Small,” Mantoni laughed. “He was on to the next game already.”
Days later, Blue Raiders’ co-ace Ian Strom, a potential all-state candidate who is headed to play baseball at Division 1 UMass-Lowell, pitched a complete game against Western Mass. champ Frontier Regional, to give Hopedale a berth in the state championship game.
To add a little more sentiment to the equation, this season will be Small’s last year at the helm for the Blue Raiders. Small, a 1970 graduate of Hopedale High School, has been Hopedale’s coach for 24 years. Current and former players, including the Mantoni’s, say Small’s fire and energy on the bench has taught them motivation and discipline.
“So many different ways he’s helped us: him pushing us harder -- he’s as much a competitor as anybody on the team. He wanted to win that game just as much as anybody. It showed. The guy really wants to win, it did add some extra motivation,” says Dan.
Small praised Joe after getting taken by the Reds, adamant that Mantoni’s weight-room dedication was the reason for his impressive improvement at Merrimack.
“His body has changed...he got on a weight program--he’s a hard worker,” Small said. “He’s not going to wanna’ talk about it, though.”
Dan seconded his coach’s comment: “Joe’s too humble to really toot the horn about it.”
Joe says his dedication to working out explains why his fastball has jumped into the low-90’s.
“[Lifting] was a huge part, over my four years at college I got stronger every year, I gained good weight every year,” Joe said. “My fastball velocity kept rising each year. I knew that was a huge part of my reason for getting picked: I spent a lot of time in the weight room.”
Joe left on Monday, making his way to Arizona for training before he gets called to the Reds’ rookie ball affiliate in Billings, Mont. some time this summer. In reflecting on his brother’s journey from a Division 3 high school, to Division 2 college, to Cincinnati Reds draft pick—Dan says he hopes young local players take not of Joe’s hard work and dedication.
“He’s always been someone I look up to, admired, respected because of the way he plays the game. He works harder than anybody I’ve ever met. The work paid off for him and I’m happy, I try to follow his footsteps. It lets me push a little bit harder, every step of the game, that I can be like him someday. Him being there, he reached a dream that every kid playing Little League has.”
Dan continued, “I hope people, those who have seen him play and younger kids, can model his work ethic. You don’t see it happen that much...people can see this kid from Hopedale who went to a D2 college and got drafted. He got the opportunity, and took advantage of it. I look at him as a role model, and I hope other kids around here do too.”
Dan -- who will play college baseball next year at UMass-Boston and says he will play “wherever the coach wants me to be," -- will have the opportunity tomorrow to play for the Division 3 state championship against Middleborough. The win would mark the first of Small’s career as coach at the annual D3 power. Putting the 328 career wins and countless district championships aside, the veteran coach says there are but a few things he hopes that current and former players take from his tenure as coach.
“The key to this whole coaching stuff is discipline," he said. "I let them play ball, kids nowadays they don’t play enough ball -- it’s all drills. I learned in practice, sometimes you do some drills and then we play—we scrimmage a lot. If there’s one thing I want them to learn from me, is I don’t want them to think losing is fun. It’s not okay.”