Miami Dade assistant recalls his journey, which began at JUCO World Series in '71
Jim Mansilla came to Grand Junction in 1971 thinking all he was here to do was play in the Junior College World Series.
What he didn’t know was he was standing at the gateway to what would become his wonderful baseball life, one that would take him around the world to coach the game he loves. One that would take him to the Olympics, coaching a country he’d never been to.
Forty-three years later, Mansilla is back in Grand Junction as an assistant coach for Miami Dade College (Florida), the same school he was with when he played at Suplizio Field, only it was Miami Dade-North back then.
While he was in Grand Junction, he was recruited by and signed with the University of Toledo, whose coach, Stan Sanders, had a series of questions for the young baseball player.
“He asked me if I wanted to go to the University of Toledo on a scholarship,” Mansilla recalled while standing under the bleachers of Suplizio Field on Monday. “I said, ‘I sure would.’ He said, ‘How would you like to go to Italy?’ I go, ‘Italy?’ He goes, ‘Sure, you’re Italian aren’t you?’ I go, ‘Yeah, I’m Italian.’ He goes, ‘Write this guy a letter.’
“I don’t know what made me write that letter, but I wrote the letter here in Grand Junction, mailed it, never thought a thing about it until I got back to Jersey.”
That’s when Mansilla got a call from an airline to inform him he had a free ticket to Italy waiting for him. So, Italy it was.
Mansilla went there for six weeks in the summer of ‘71, then the 21-year-old came back to the United States to pursue his degree and play baseball at Toledo.
Italy was going to come calling again. And again.
Mansilla spent several different stints in Italy as a player, then as a coach, with the years adding up to 15. And his success as a coach for four years in Rimini — “It’s on the Adriatic Sea, beautiful place,” he said — got the attention of some pretty important people, the ones who asked him if he would coach the Club Italia baseball team, the national team, the one they hoped would qualify for the Olympics with his help.
That was 1980.
“My job was to go around the entire country of Italy looking for the best 18- to 22-year-olds the country had,” Mansilla said. “We put together this young team for five years, and ... if we did everything right and we had a chance to get into the Olympic Games, that team was going to go into the Olympic Games.
“So, we went all over the world, playing against the best competition. We were in Cuba five years in a row. We went to China, Japan, all over to play and to groom these guys to really be prepared for an Olympic Games atmosphere, and we ultimately got there. It was an incredible show.”
Mansilla said Italy won its first game in the 1984 Summer Olympics, defeating the Dominican Republic despite facing future Major League Baseball pitcher Ramon Martinez.
The United States was the next opponent, “and we got smoked,” Mansilla said. “I think we lost 16-1, then we lost 10-nothing to China Taipei, so we won one out of three.”
That U.S. team boasted a lineup of amateurs who went on to greater things in the major leagues.
“They had (Mark) McGwire, Will Clark, Cory Snyder, Barry Larkin, Oddibe McDowell,” Mansilla said. “They had so much talent, and to see them not win (the gold medal) was an incredible thing, because they were the best team there.”
Mansilla said he came back to the U.S. to become an assistant coach at Miami Dade in 1987. Like Italy, it was a place that kept asking him to return, and he’s been there ever since as a professor and an assistant baseball coach.
Make that associate head coach to Miami Dade head coach Danny Price, another accomplished veteran, having won more than 1,000 games at NCAA Division I Florida International.
Price said Mansilla provides stability because “Jim’s been around a while,” and his answer to a question about Mansilla’s greatest strength as a coach was immediate.
“Communication,” Price said. “Players flock to him. ... He’s the granddad of the staff. … He’s the guy that’s always got that shoulder, you know. And he sticks up for players a lot. They know I won’t bend, but they can go to Papa Cheech, and things are all right.”
Miami Dade catcher Mario Amaral verified Price’s claim, but with a qualifier.
“He’ll tell you when you mess up,” Amaral said, “but he’ll always put a positive spin on something and let you know the way to go about things.”
Another thing Price didn’t know 43 years ago as a player at JUCO was he was destined to work with baseball players Amaral’s age, whether they were preparing to become Olympians, earn NCAA Division I scholarships or get drafted by the pros.
Or maybe they were just preparing to play in the Junior College World Series, which can open doors to the world.