New Silver Knights GM has used forward thinking in his baseball career
NASHUA – Sometime in the early 1970s, a Youngstown, Ohio, teenager had read that baseball great Jimmy Piersall, after he hit his 100th home run, turned and ran backwards around the bases.
He thought it was fantastic, and always kept it in mind. A couple years later, after a stellar high school season at age 18, he decided that the first time he hit a homer in his summer league season, he would do just that.
That first summer league game came, and that night his father was in the stands, sitting in-between a Detroit Tigers scout and one from the Twins. The Tigers scout, named Cy Williams, told his father, “We’re probably going to draft him in the seventh round as a third baseman.”
This teen’s first at-bat, he smashed the ball 400 feet, and true to his liking, he ran backwards.
The scouts closed their books, turned to the player’s father, and said, “We’ve seen enough.”
“I got home that night, and my dad’s in the living room with the look on his face, and said, ‘Do you know what you did? Do you know what you did?,'” new Nashua Silver Knights general manager Rick Muntean said. “I don’t know if that sunk in or not.”
Maybe not, but it may have been the night Muntean’s life turned from a certain future as a player in professional baseball to one as a minor league front office executive. That year, he was named the Most Valuable Player as a pitcher and third baseman for the now-closed Woodrow Wilson High School in Youngstown, Ohio. And thus, instead of signing a minor league contract, he ended up getting a scholarship to play at Youngstown State, where one of his teammates, pitcher Dave Dravecky, went on to play in the Majors.
“Dave went home after the games,” Muntean, now 61, said. “But Rick didn’t. That was the different.”
Muntean transferred to Ohio University, where he was able to focus on his studies. He majored in radio/television communications.
“I was going to be the voice of the Cleveland Indians,” Muntean said with a grin.
Instead, he’s now the face of the Nashua Silver Knights, which he hopes is the final spot in a career that has seen him live in a dozen different communities. Muntean, who took over for Ronnie Wallace in January, will enjoy his first opening night with the team in less than three weeks (June 1).
Rick Muntean first fell in love with baseball when he went with his brother and father to a game in Cleveland’s old Municipal Stadium and saw Jose Askew hit a home run during a twi-night doubleheader.
“Took the train up, first time I saw the grass, and saw the field,” Muntean said, adding that he saw Yankee Ralph Terry pitch and Mickey Mantle play.
“Ever since then it was, ‘I want to play,'” he said.
Muntean simply fell in love with the game. When he was 11, he would go to school with weights in his shoes, because he had heard that Ty Cobb had done it to get faster.
He transferred to Ohio University because he wanted to get away from the nightlife and graduate, which he did. That summer, after he graduated, he went to Rochester, New York, to visit a friend and saw what minor league baseball was all about with the Orioles Triple A affiliate, the Rochester Red Wings.
“I had never seen minor league baseball,” he said. “It was phenomenal. I had to do it.”
A businessman from Youngstown, Woody Kern, and another friend he played summer ball with ran the San Jose Expos, and Muntean got his first baseball job there. The GM, Muntean said with a chuckle, “remembered the guy who ran the bases backwards and was a little afraid of me. But I went out there and worked my tail off.”
He told the owner he’d “do anything to work in baseball. He took me literally. “The pay? A paltry $350 a month,” he said.
Muntean was on the phone from 9 a.m.to 9 p.m. daily trying to sell tickets.
“It was an impossible task,” he said. “They didn’t know who we were.”
A year later, in 1983, Muntean ended up running another minor league team Kern had purchased, the Wala Wala Blue Mountain Bears, a co-op team.
He was told to “go up there and stop the bleeding.” Muntean found out the hard way during a farmers market that he and the players literally couldn’t give the tickets away. An uphill climb for sure for a team that averaged just 200 people a game. It was an adventure, highlighted by the fact players, with the help of a vertically challenged coach, would break into the beer cooler late at night – until Muntean caught the 39-inch tall coach in the act.
Muntean found out that the minor league baseball business, especially 35 years ago, wouldn’t be a pathway to a rich life. In fact, having to buy a car left him with hardly any money to eat.
Behind a boarding house where he lived in San Jose, he would go out and throw rocks at grapefruit hanging from a tree to get his daily food.
“I ate that every day for an entire month,” Muntean said. “And to this day, I have never touched another.”
The travels have been many. Muntean worked in Kinosha, Wisconsin, after San Jose and got a visit from a minor league official who told him, “If you like working in baseball, you might want to find out if you can do something else, because once it gets in your blood, it will never get out.”
So, the impossible happened. He did something else – working as job recruiter in Kansas City, Missouri, for nearly two years, missing two baseball seasons.
But a call from an old friend, Bill Terlecky, changed everything.
Terlecky, now the general manager of the Futures League franchise in Lynn, Massachusetts, the North Shore Navigators (he’s on leave battling an illness) brought Muntean back into the baseball fold in Scranton, Pennsylvania, for the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Red Barons, the Phillies’ Triple A affiliate. Muntean was there for 17 years, the stories are too many to even mention.
While he was there, a lot of former Phillies were there for rehab – Darren Daulton, John Kruk, Curt Schilling – and some that came through the system were Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. Even former Nashua Pride standout Glenn Murray was there for a brief stay during Muntean’s time there.
The biggest thing Muntean learned there was, “That it’s really, really, really difficult to sell a baseball team. They had two teams when minor league baseball died in the 1950s that died. Thirty years later, they built this brand-new ballpark that looked like a mini-Major League stadium.”
And while he was at a function in Scranton, Muntean met a businessman who asked him what he did. When he told him he worked for the minor league team, the businessman said, “Start packing your bags, you’ve got three years and you’re out of here.”
Those were basically the same words that former Silver Knights president Tim Bawmann heard prior to the team’s first season in 2011.
“It’s tough,” Muntean said. “But that team gave that whole area a shot in the arm. It kept bringing money in from the outlying areas.”
“Here’s the deal. There are so many reasons to say ‘Ahhhh, there’s a cloud in the sky. It’s 90 degrees. The traffic is bad. The parking’s a dollar.’ There’s so many reasons. To overcome, stay positive and sell my product is the thing I learned in Scranton. And I don’t go anywhere without it,” he added.
Muntean has certainly moved around in his baseball career. His favorite five years were with the independent Northern League’s Kansas City T-Bones, where he succeeded in the wake of the popular Kansas City Royals. While there, he was named the Northern League’s Executive of the Year, and the team was the league’s Organization of The Year.
He left the T-Bones in 2009 for his first foray into the world of college wood bat summer ball, with a chance to become part owner of a franchise in St. Joseph, Missouri, the Mustangs. He arrived at a franchise that in his mind was poorly run and turned it into one that finished in the Top 10 in attendance nationally after one year, a goal he has for Nashua.
“We brought in The Chicken, we did fireworks, we took a place that was dead and brought it back to life,” Muntean said.
“One of the things we did was we brought in a horse. The horse, after a home run, would run the warning track. … Everybody in town talked about it forever. I had to look at my partner and say, ‘Just trust me.’ And it worked like a charm,” Muntean added.
Muntean thrives on the pressure. In independent ball – he went back to Ohio briefly in Lake Erie to run a Frontier League franchise – he says there was “daily pressure to get people through the gates.” But with summer college ball, he said, “If you do a good job selling the signs, the promotions and stuff like that in advance, you can make it work. The weather isn’t that bad of a factor.”
While he was in Lake Erie, Terlecky again reached out to Muntean, knowing how he liked the college game, and told him about the position in the Futures League’s expansion franchise in Bristol, Connecticut. So, for two seasons, he ran the Bristol Blues, the team averaged more than 1,500 fans a game and became a popular figure – and the Future League’s 2015 Executive of the Year.
But a combination of ownership wanting to make changes and Muntean’s daughter, Sarah, needing help to run what had become a very successful cleaning company in Kansas City while she was having a child, took him out of baseball for the second time.
But he missed it, even though he didn’t want to admit it.
“It was alright, because I was with my grandson,” he said. “You know what, I was going to try to transition out. But I never really put the effort into transitioning out. Then Terk called me and said, ‘Hey, Nashua’s open.'”
“You’ve got a veteran baseball guy who’s been in every possible situation,” Terlecky said. “The other thing is he’s really personable, always well-liked by the fan base.”
“With these teams, you’re hands on. Scranton now has something like 50 people working there. When Rick and I were there, it was just 12. So, he has that experience,” Terlecky added.
Indeed, Muntean has seen it all. While in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, running the Indians’ AA franchise Bills in the mid-1980s, he witnessed the “Great Potato Caper” by then-backup catcher Dave Bresnahan. Long story short, Bresnahan tricked a baserunner into thinking he had thrown to third by throwing a potato instead into left field. The runner on third heads home and is tagged out because Bresnahan had the actual ball. The leftfielder comes in with three pieces of a potato in his glove, and the call was reversed.
“We sent it to Cooperstown the next day,” Muntean said.
Bresnahan was released that night, fans were irate, but Muntean knew how to turn a negative into a positive, bringing him back the next year to retire his number. Fans could get in for a dollar with a potato.
“It was the biggest crowd we ever had,” Muntean said, adding that media such as ESPN, the New York Times, and even from Japan attended the Memorial Day, 1988 event. “It was unbelievable. Dave and I still stay in touch.”
“I’m more of a singles hitter,” Terlecky said with a chuckle. “With Rick, he can go pretty wild with the promotion thing.”
Muntean knows that with two franchises in close proximity – the Double A Fisher Cats in Manchester and the Single A Spinners in Lowell, Massachusetts – that promotions and visibility will be the key to keeping the Silver Knights’ success going.
“This franchise is in excellent shape,” he said. “Spectacular tools in Nashua, one, Holman Stadium. And a large market, with a lot of businesses here. And I want to talk to each and every one of them.”
His philosophy? Treat the fans “like gold” and use them to sell the product.
“Give them the second sentence,” he said. “Such as, ‘I went to the Silver Knights game last night. And … they had a horse run on the field. And … they had the best fireworks show.’ Give them some reason to go home and talk about it.”
Maybe they may even talk about a player running the bases backward. To this day, Muntean still looks back at that big move that turned off the scouts in the stands.
“How many times, I can’t tell you,” Muntean said. “Maybe thousands.”
But, thanks to that decision, inadvertently a general manager was born, one who wants to make the Silver Knights his signature job.
“This is it,” he said. “I don’t ever want to move again.”
That would be going backward, and Muntean did that once already.