Mike Pinto’s journey into independent baseball began when he stepped foot on the diamond as a coach for his son’s little league team. What started as a father teaching his son and teammates the game of baseball led to Pinto crouching behind home plate at Rent One Park, catching first pitches from his son and grandson in 2019.
A moment that he will never forget.
“I had a very cool experience with my grandchildren. In 2019, my son that lives in San Antonio, Texas, flew up and spent a few days with us. My grandkids came to the ballpark and got to see what grandpa does. On the last day they were there, my son and grandson threw out the first pitch to me,” Pinto said while speaking with Dugout Dish. “My grandkids had the time of their lives. We were going to take the kids to the waterpark on a day when we had a later game and my grandson asked if we could go to the field and play instead. I even have a video of me chasing my granddaughter around the bases. It truly warmed my heart and was a lot of fun.”
Once his son and teammates grew older, Pinto began working as an assistant coach at Oakton (Illinois) Community College. After three years, he became the head coach where he posted a record of 119-45.
During his time at Oakton, Pinto set several school records with the team under his guidance. “We had never been nationally ranked and in my first year, we were ranked fifth in the country. We won 41 games, breaking the school record, which had been 32.”
The team won 41 games and had the lowest team ERA with a 1.99 in a season while winning the Skyway Conference Tournament Championship and the Region IV Sectional Championship in 2003. In the 2004 season, Pinto coached the Oakton team back to the Region IV championship for a second-straight sectional title. And in 2005, he was named Junior College Coach of the Year by the Pitch & Hit Club of Chicago.
Along the way, Pinto’s friend Pete Caliendo recommended him for a scouting position under the Kansas City Royals. While scouting for the Royals, Pinto’s baseball journey continued to flourish.
While with the Joliet JackHammers (out of the former Northern League), Pinto served in various coaching capacities which included being a bench coach, third base coach, pitching coach, and player development, coordinator. The JackHammers finished third in the league with a staff ERA of 3.93 under Pinto as the pitching coach. Six of his pitchers on the staff that season went on to play for Major League organizations.
He continued his managerial career within independent baseball with the Sioux Falls Canaries of the American Association.
But baseball was never the plan.
“I never thought I would end up in baseball at all. This was never the plan. I didn’t play baseball in college – I had played when I was young and into high school, but I had a very successful rock band,” Pinto added. “I made money playing in a band, baseball wasn’t something I did for years and years. I only got back into baseball when I had my son and started coaching him.”
Before baseball, Pinto served as a booking agent and manager with Beacon Artists and Paramount – guiding the careers of major music artists. As the industry shifted, he went on to become a successful real estate broker and then sales manager for DuVal Caruso Realtors – who later became part of Baird and Warner Company.
By 1990, Pinto began his career as a consultant and professional speaker. With more than 1,000 presentations as a keynote speaker at corporate conferences and conventions throughout North America under his belt, he has spoken to more than a half-million people. Merrill Lynch, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, Ameriprise, Hyatt Hotels, and many others have used his presentations regularly to inspire their employees and management teams.
And then Pinto joined the Southern Illinois Miners and the rest was history.
The Miners began their road to success during their inaugural season in 2007. The team set a new Frontier League attendance record by hosting 259,392 fans. They also became the first team in league history to average over 5,000 fans per game for a season. And Pinto was there to lead his team to a 49-47 record, finished 2nd in the Frontier League West.
In 2008, Pinto made history by being able to work the first trade between a Major League organization and an independent team, agreeing to trade left-handed pitcher Clay Zavada to the Diamondbacks in exchange for first baseman Brad Miller. While the trade was officially blocked by Major League Baseball, the teams eventually agreed upon a sign-and-release deal that yielded the same result. Zavada went on to be named the top independent league prospect to sign with an affiliated club by Baseball American, reaching the majors in 2009. He became the first former Miner to make it.
For Pinto, it isn’t just baseball. For him, it’s personal.
“I’ve been told there are two Mike Pintos – there is the real Mike and there is also 7-10 Mike. The 7-10 Mike is focused on winning and that’s all they see in the other dugout or the stands. What many don’t see is me in the clubhouse with the guys,” Pinto stated. “I’m friends with guys who played for me 15-16 years ago. To me, this is personal. When it is no longer personal, I shouldn’t be doing it. Don’t get me wrong, I want to win tonight and every night but we’re family.”
As an example of what Pinto’s team means to him, he hosts Italian Heritage night for the team. “I do a thing called Italian Heritage night, where I spend three days cooking for the team. Last time, we did 144 handmade, hand-rolled meatballs.”
During 2008, 2010, and 2016, Pinto managed the West Division team in the Frontier League All-Star Game along with the entire Miners coaching staff. He and his staff also went on to manage the Experienced team at the 2018 All-Star Game.
For the 2010 season, he had his best year record-wise, leading the Miners to a 64-32 record – the second-highest single-season win total in Frontier League history at the time. During that season, the Miners put together a 20- game winning streak, the longest in league history. By 2011, Pinto led his team to the playoffs as a team posted a 58-38 record. During the process, Pinto recorded his 300th win in his career as a manager.
In 2012, Pinto managed the Miners to their first-ever Frontier League Championship. The Miners entered the playoffs as a wild card team after finishing their season at 55-39. After sweeping Traverse City in the first round of the playoffs, the Miners defeated the Florence Freedom three games to one in the championship series-clinching the title at Rent One Park in game four.
Pinto was named the 2012 Minor League Manager of the Year by the Pitch and Hit Club of Chicago and earned his 400th career win as a minor league manager in the process during a game on August 4, 2012, against the Beach Bums.
By 2014, the Miners and Pinto had the right to claim their historic season within the Frontier League. The team went 60-36, which included going 33-15 in their last 48 games. On June 5, 2014, the Miners won their 400th game as a franchise with Rick Teasley tossing the first no-hitter in franchise history against the Joliet Slammers. Continuing his success, Pinto earned his 500th career managerial win on July 19, 2014, to move into second place on the Frontier League’s all-time managerial wins list.
By 2016, the Miners became the second team in league history to win three straight division titles. The team included captain Steve Marino, Craig Massey, and Shane Kennedy – who all earned postseason all-star honors, the most they have had in their history. Kennedy went on to be named the league’s Rookie of the Year, becoming the first Miner to win the award while also leading in batting average with a team-record mark of .363. By June of 2016, Pinto had recorded his 600th professional win.
Pinto and his team continued to soar into the 2017 season, becoming the seventh franchise in league history to win 600 games. They also became the fastest team in league history to that benchmark, surpassing the Washington Wild Things’ mark by 92 games.
And in 2018, Pinto celebrated his 700th win when the Miners beat the Schaumburg Boomers.
“I tell players when I talk to them about coming to Southern Illinois – players go through five stages of independent ball. The first one is, man I can’t believe I have to go play in indy ball, this wasn’t the plan,” Pinto said. “They thought they were on their way to the big leagues and got released or injured, having to play independent ball.”
“The second stage is when they get to Marion and see the stadium. They see how they are treated and realize indy ball isn’t so bad. The third stage is when the guys realized their opponents and teammates are better than they first imagined. They get here and don’t understand that every other guy here is just like them.”
He continued on the other line with Dugout, “The fourth stage is when they start asking if organizations are calling about them and that’s when I have to have the conversation about being where your feet are, control the controllable things, and do your job here. The fifth and final stage, if they get there, is to go back to how you used to play this game.”
“Have fun playing and learn how to be better, learn how to win. I don’t care what round you were drafted in, what your signing bonus was, and I don’t care what college you played for,” Pinto added before pausing. “The best players play and there are no politics. We play to win every night. If that’s what you are looking for, then we’re the place for you.”
As far as the upcoming season, the Chief Operating Officer looks forward to having a season. “I’m looking forward to Opening Day. I think our fans will be getting an experience they have never had before.”
In 2015, Pinto took over the business operations for the Miners and looked to bring the best for fans of the Miners. “One of the first things I said was, who is the very best at what they do in the entertainment business? The first that came to mind was Disney. So, I went down to Orlando to the Disney Institute. I wanted to learn how they teach their executives to create such an environment. One of the processes they found is a simple technique that Walt said many years ago – have someone experience what you do and love it so much, they want to experience it again and tell others about it, even bringing them to experience it too.”
And what Pinto has created in Southern Illinois with his Miners and staff is nothing short of incredible. With the 2021 season looming, if fans of baseball get the chance to witness a home game at Rent One Park, they will see how special the team and organization truly is.
Among the star-studded talent returning for 2021
Bryant Flete, who led the league in hitting before being picked up by the Cincinnati Reds in 2019. After being released, Flete knew Marion was the only place he wanted to play. The big bat of Yeltsin Gudiño will be back in a Miners uniform. Fan favorites Gianfranco Wawoe and Arturo Nieto, who Pinto trusts coming up to the plate in big moments will be returning.
Nolan Earley, who has been featured previously on Dugout Dish will also be returning. Earley, who had been brilliant in three seasons with the Miners had not been eligible in 2019 due to age restrictions. With the new rules in the league, Earley returns to patrol the outfield.
For more information on Mike Pinto and Southern Illinois Miners, you can check out the team’s website. Special thanks to Mike Pinto for his time and allowing Dugout Dish to share his story.
(Photos courtesy of Mike Pinto’s social media)