Mr. Little League
After 49 years with Grand Mesa, Dave Mantlo honored as Little League's International Volunteer of the Year
It was spring 1964 and Dave Mantlo was at a Little League game with a pretty blond girl.
Mantlo was 18 years old, and he recalls the day with great affection because it was the beginning of two things that would remain at the center of his life.
Grand Mesa Little League just started the year before, so it was something new to Mantlo.
Sitting in the stands, his date’s dad came over and asked for a volunteer to umpire the game. It was a no-brainer for Mantlo: Call balls and strikes or risk striking out with his date.
“I’d played baseball in high school, and I wanted to impress her, so I said I’d do it,” he says.
It was the beginning of quite a love affair.
He married the girl, Linda Nicholson, in the fall, and the next year he was helping coach a Little League team with her dad, I.J. Nicholson.
Nearly a half century later, many things have changed, but Mantlo is still married to Linda, and he’s still volunteering at Grand Mesa Little League.
And now he’s been named the International Volunteer of the Year, Little League’s highest honor — an honor that has gone to just one person annually since 1973.
“It’s a huge honor for me,” Mantlo said proudly.
But he admits he’s still a little befuddled by the honor.
“I’m proud, overwhelmed and humbled,” he says. “I never thought that someone from little old podunk Grand Junction would ever get something like this.
“I’m basically just the janitor down there,” he says in his frequent deadpan style.
Mantlo actually spews out deadpan lines like Little Leaguers chattering on the diamond.
“I’m celebrating our 48th, and she’s crying,” he says about his and Linda’s Oct. 7, 1965, wedding anniversary.
“If I ever quit, she says that she will divorce me,” he says about leaving Little League.
But when he turns serious, he says Grand Mesa Little League shaped and molded his life, and the purity of the game of baseball seen in the faces of youngsters remains a great source of joy for him.
“I readily admit that I enjoy the hell out of it,” he says about his volunteer work. “Outside of my family, it has been my life.”
He’s done it all
For 49 of his 67 years, the Grand Junction native has volunteered for Grand Mesa Little League. Since that first time behind the plate as a cocky kid of 18, trying to impress that pretty blond, when the field was located near where The Brass Rail is today, to its current location on 28 3/4 Road, Mantlo and Little League have gone together like a friendly game of catch.
Stella Garcia, who put together Mantlo’s nomination letter, has volunteered at Grand Mesa Little League for 17 years, and she has seen the amazing impact Mantlo had on the region.
“If there’s anyone who deserves it, it’s him,” Garcia says about the volunteer award. “He has put in 49 years to this community, and I have seen him give more than he can ever, ever be paid for.”
Garcia said it was such a great moment when they heard Mantlo received the award.
“I cried, I just cried, because I know how meaningful it is to him. He’s just been glowing,” she said.
Over the years, Mantlo has done it all and then some. In 1967, he coached his first team as the head guy, in 1972 he was elected to the board, in 1979 he became the president of the board, and he has been the president on and off ever since. And of course, he’s been the janitor, grass cutter, flag hanger, re-sodder, sprinkler expert, bathroom cleaner, head grounds keeper, trash collector and much more.
After 49 years, Mantlo’s stories weave together a majestic quilt of what Little League has meant to him and so many others.
When it came to his three sons and two daughters, they all played Little League, but Mantlo said he coached only one of them.
“If you’re coaching your own kids, you’re their dad, not their coach,” he says.
That’s why he traded coaching responsibilities with his friend Joe Coleman.
“He coached my kids, and I coached his,” Mantlo says.
It’s about baseball
Over the years, Mantlo says it hasn’t always been a glorious field of dreams. Besides all of the long hours — 75 to 80 hours a week at times — and endless chores, he’s seen a growing trend of overbearing, unrealistic parents chisel away at the purity of the game.
“It’s gotten worse every year,” he says.
As board president and the guy who’s been around for 49 years, he’s the guy with the target on his back when it comes to complaints.
“You don’t hear the good, you just hear the bad,” he says. “They think I can solve everything, but I can’t.”
Mantlo says those irritating things wear on him, but he has a simple way of realigning the perspectives.
He moseys down to the field and watches the littlest Little Leaguers play tee ball.
“They are just there to have fun. You can see them having fun. All they want to do is play baseball and go get a Coke,” he says.
That’s the purity of the game that has kept Mantlo around and now in the on-deck circle of a half century at Grand Mesa Little League.
“If you’re not having fun at Little League, then we need to turn the field back into a horse pasture,” he says bluntly.
His memories are bottomless. He recalls his oldest son drilling a walk-off home run when he was 11 years old to beat Montrose in 1992.
Mantlo was announcing the game when his son belted a two-out, 0-2 fastball over the right-field fence.
“I jumped up and hit my head on the roof,” Dad says.
Then there’s Major League hopeful and former Grand Mesa Little Leaguer Kiel Roling, who just set the career record for the Double A Tulsa Drillers for home runs with 45.
“Seeing him get drafted was a great moment,” Mantlo says, adding his family and Roling’s have been friends for years.
“I told his granddad when Kiel was 11 that he was going places. I watched thousands of kids play Little League, but he was really something. He would hit balls across the street on top of houses. He’s good,” Mantlo says.
Very special honor
Being named the International Volunteer of the Year is a huge honor, Mantlo admits, but he says so many people in the community have been responsible for helping make Grand Mesa Little League what it is today.
Mantlo retired from the railroad after 37 years in 2005, but he says his time devoted to Little League didn’t increase too much with his retirement. He’s always put in a lot of time year-round.
Grand Mesa Little League District Administrator Dana Palmer, who has worked with Mantlo since 1985, said he earned the recognition.
“Dave has been involved with Little League for a lot of years and has always stood up for Little League,” she says. “It’s awesome that he got that honor. He does a lot of work down there. I think it’s great to see that people do appreciate all he does.”
She’s even seen him dig into his wallet to help pay for gloves or cleats or lunch for youngsters whose parents couldn’t afford things.
For Garcia, Mantlo’s dedication and commitment means one thing: “Dave Mantlo is Grand Mesa Little League, that’s what it comes down to.”
Even this week, there’s no rest for the International Volunteer of the Year. He’s out getting the fields ready for a regional Little League tournament.
Through all of the years and his dedication to Little League, Mantlo gives much of the credit to that pretty blond he married 48 years ago.
“I owe half of everything to my wife. She’s been the greatest. She’s never told me that I’ve spent too much time at Little League,” he says.
On Aug. 18, he and Linda will head to Williamsport, Pa., home of the Little League World Series, to be recognized at a ceremony Aug. 22.
In 2000, the Mantlos went to Maryland to visit a son who was in the military. They took a road trip to Gettsyburg because Mantlo says he loves history. Then he looked on the map and spotted Williamsport.
“I told my wife it’s only 90 miles away, we gotta go. It’s like the Holy Land for Little League Baseball.”
The park was closed, but he said they walked around, soaked it all in, and goose bumps attacked.
Since its inception in Williamsport back in 1939, Little League baseball has provided summertime memories for thousands upon thousands of youngsters every year.
Now Grand Mesa’s Mr. Little League will return to this game’s birthplace to be recognized with its highest honor.
Mantlo gets a little emotional when he talks about the honor. He says Linda cried, and he admits it’s a moment that he won’t ever forget.
“It’s just so overwhelming. I know it’s just Little League, but to be one of just 40 people in the world. That’s a special group,” he says about the volunteers recognized since 1973.
Only one minor problem with the honor.
“I have to buy a sport coat,” he says. “I’ve never owned one. You don’t need a sport coat to mow the grass and rake the field.”
He’s watched the Little League World Series many times on TV, and now he will see it in person.
“Then I get to watch a bunch of kids play baseball. I won’t even have to grab a rake,” he says.
He won’t have to call balls and strikes, either. He just gets to sit in the stands and watch the glorious game of baseball with a pretty girl he must have impressed 49 years ago.