The baseball career of Mike Pinto seemed destined to be confined in memories of a playground from his childhood.
"We'd play every day at Herzog School," remembers Pinto, 60, whose family moved from Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood to Des Plaines when he was in fifth grade. Summers to Pinto meant baseball all day, every day. When short a player or two, they'd leave a hole in the outfield and play "right field out." If even fewer neighborhood kids showed up, "we'd play up against the wall with a rubber ball," Pinto recalls. After it got dark, he'd head inside to play games on his Strat-O-Matic Baseball board game.
By the time Pinto made it to Elk Grove High School, baseball had given way to music. The son of a professional bass player who had a regular gig playing in the revolving restaurant atop the Holiday Inn on Lake Shore Drive, Pinto put his efforts into drumming for a very successful high school band.
"The band started making money and that became my life," says Pinto. He learned about money, marketing and sales, married his wife, Lynne, a flight attendant for United Airlines, and fathered two sons. He's now president of Schaumburg-based BrandChampions International and a regular speaker before his clients with Fortune 500 companies.
Baseball might have remained just a fond memory if not for 1984, when former Chicago Cub Randy Hundley's Fantasy Baseball Camp reignited Pinto's love for the game. Helping Hundley with marketing and branding of the camp, Pinto got to play in fantasy camps for the Cubs, Cardinals, Giants and Yankees. He got a photo of himself, his dad and young son (all named Mike) with Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle. He got base-stealing tips from Cardinal legend Lou Brock. The game he loved as a boy was calling. In 1986, Pinto made the roster for a semipro baseball team in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago.
"I'm the leadoff hitter and the pitcher has a 95-mile-an-hour fastball. What am I doing here?" thought the 33-year-old Pinto, who formed a baseball league for men 30 and older the following season. Self-described as "an average player who had a lot of speed," Pinto played alongside former Chicago MLB stars Jose Cardenal and Jerry Hairston, and was center fielder for senior league teams that won several World Series championships throughout the last decade. While coaching the baseball teams of his young sons, Michael and Steve, Pinto frequently turned to his friends in professional baseball for advice and soon earned a reputation as a pitching expert.
A stint as pitching coach for Oakton Community College in Des Plaines resulted in more opportunities. When Oakton's Hall of Fame manager Rich Symonds retired, Pinto took over the team and coached them to a then-school record 41 wins and national junior college ranking in 2003.
That led to a part-time gig as a scout for the Kansas City Royals, where he met former Yankees catcher Matt Nokes. When Nokes was named manager of the minor league Joliet JackHammers, he hired Pinto as a coach. That earned Pinto a job managing the Sioux Falls Canaries. When asked to apply as manager of the Southern Illinois Miners in Downstate Marion for the team's inaugural 2007 season, "I didn't bring a resume. I brought a book 2 inches thick," says Pinto, whose business plan for building a baseball operation from scratch earned him the job.
Named the 2012 Minor League Manager of the Year by Chicago's Pitch and Hit Club, Pinto managed his Miners to last year's Frontier League championship. He makes the playoffs most years and has never suffered a losing season. Many of his players are former college players hoping to catch the eye of a Big Leauge scout, or players who were recently released by a Major League Baseball team and hope to rekindle their careers.
"It's incredibly rewarding when you get to call a player in and say you've been picked up by a Major League club," says Pinto, who has been able to do that more than a couple dozen times and currently has nine of his players in the MLB pipeline. He also calls in players to tell them the Miners no longer will employ them, "and that usually means they are done," says Pinto. "It's tough to say, 'I'm a professional baseball player,' and then you're not."
Pinto, who notes he has turned down interview requests to move up the pro baseball ladder, is signed to be the Miners manager through the 2016 season, and sees no reason that he'll retire then. Every September, he goes from a life of extra-inning games, five-hour bus trips and cheap hotels as a baseball manager, to direct flights, one-hour presentations and four-star resorts as a business consultant. "I love what I do in business," he says, but clearly baseball holds a special place in his heart.
He sports an "obnoxiously big" championship ring, many awards and a collection of autographed hats from every player he's coached who has been signed by a Major League team. Hoisting last season's championship trophy "represents everything I've done in this game," says Pinto, who includes those years of coaching his sons and playing the game in his grade school playground. "That feeling cannot be bought."
Independent professional baseball gives him the gift of baseball, and all that baseball means to some of us. Finding time for a longtime Miners fan in the hospital, Pinto grabs a couple of his players and brings her a bat and an autographed ball.
"She burst into tears. We forget sometimes what kind of effect we can have," says Pinto, the baseball man. "I'm never going to be in the Big Leagues. This is my Big Leagues, and I love it."