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Pirates Manzanillo displays a love of game on, off field

Saturday, February 24, 2001

By Robert Dvorchak, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

BRADENTON, Fla. -- His voice can be heard above the noise of training camp -- "Atta baby!" -- and he has an incandescent smile that's as wide as the Manatee River. He is Josias Manzanillo, who didn't become the 12th man on a 12-man pitching staff until mid-May but who might be the happiest man in baseball.

Josias Manzanillo: 3.38 ERA in 2000. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

"I love baseball. I have a passion for the game," he said. "I enjoy every single time I walk on that field."

That's because Manzanillo, who has been with nine organizations in 18 years, had arm surgery twice and another severe injury that jeopardized his career.

Last season, his first year with the Pirates, Manzanillo set career highs in games and innings pitched, going 2-2 with a 3.38 ERA. More important, when the starters struggled, he was able to eat up some innings, including 32/3 July 18 against the Dodgers.

"He has a fierce desire to compete," General Manager Cam Bonifay said yesterday. "We stretched him out a couple of times. He never backed off, never backed down. This year, he has a chance to play a much more important role."

He doesn't have closer stuff. But he won't be the guy at the end of the bullpen used in long relief either, especially if the Pirates opt to carry less than 12 pitchers.

Although Manzanillo seemed to come from nowhere, the Pirates knew about him. His brother, Ravelo, pitched two years in Pittsburgh. And Josias made a lot of progress when then-pitching coach Pete Vuckovich spotted a mechanical flaw last spring. The alignment of his shoulders was such that Manzanillo was always pitching up. Once corrected, he started throwing the ball down.

Manzanillo stands out because of his mannerisms, which add a touch of Dominican salsa to the game. He runs to the dugout if he gets an inning-ending out, and he taps his head and speaks to himself in Spanish in order to concentrate better.

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There's a fine line with such displays, and Arizona's Matt Williams did glare at him and exchange words in an Aug. 13 game. Manzanillo, 33, is aware an opposing pitcher might even retaliate against one of his teammates. But he says that's just his personality and he doesn't mean to offend.

"It's my nature. It's the way I play the game. I bring energy to the game. It's nothing I plan. It's not to show anybody up or to be a hot dog. I don't want to do anything that would put my teammates at risk. That's not good for the team, either."

What is he saying to himself when he hits his head? Manzanillo says he's cursing in Spanish. But fellow Dominican Enrique Wilson said it's nothing more than: "Let's go, let's go. Throw strikes. Get an out."

"It makes me concentrate better, to keep me from being stupid or foolish when I'm not doing what I'm supposed to do," Manzanillo said.

Manager Lloyd McClendon said he doesn't want to cool anyone's enthusiasm for the game -- as long as they have the talent to produce, and they don't cross the line.

"I love kids with personalities," he said. "I want my kids to be who they are. You should never show someone up, but we don't want to take away a kid's personality. He gave us a lot of quality innings last year. When you lose 93 games, I don't know if you can say anybody was big, but he pitched his butt off. If he can repeat, we'll be just fine."

Originally drafted by the Red Sox, Manzanillo pitched for five years in the minors before he missed the 1988 season recovering from shoulder surgery. He also missed the '96 season because of elbow problems. In '97, he had testicular surgery after he was struck by a Manny Ramirez line drive. And elbow problems flared up again in '99, when he was told he'd have only a 50-50 chance of pitching again.

Manzanillo throws a fastball and a slider. Asked what is his best pitch, he smiled and said: "A strike. That's the name of the game, to throw strikes."

He also senses a different atmosphere this year.

"I see a lot of hunger. For me, it's worse than ever," said Manzanillo, the 10th of 11 children. "We play as a team. I'm not the only one who's hungry and enthusiastic. Everybody's [eager]. This year, you're going to see true competition."

And some more antics.

During a recent batting practice, Manzanillo grabbed a bat, donned a helmet and shouted: "Show time."

Like all Latinos, he is aware of the trail blazed by Roberto Clemente, who suffered his share of indignities because some misinterpreted his basket catches and other mannerisms as more than just his fire for the game.

"Can you imagine, the way I play the game, what it would have been like in those days?" Manzanillo said. "There's no way I can succeed. I would be history."

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