Homecoming trip

Amherst’s Huntington visits Fenway with Pirates

Amherst’s Neal Huntington, right, shown talking to Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, is starting his 10th season as the Pirates general manager.

Neal Huntington, a former Milford High School standout and Amherst native, was sitting in the seats behind third base at Fenway Park Monday morning, a few hours before the start of the Boston Red Sox-

Pittsburgh Pirates season opener.

Chatting on the phone, he was looking directly across the diamond at first base, where he last stood as a player some 26 years ago. He was asked if he remembered playing in that New England College Senior All-Star Game at Fenway Park as if it were yesterday.

“I sure do,” Huntington, who is entering his 10th season as the Pirates general manager, said. “It was quite a day. It was a great end to the college season, and it was the last game I played in. I remember thinking in the eighth or ninth inning, if this is my last game, what a great place to have that happen. Really special.”

He was a first baseman for Amherst College who could hit, but many felt he lacked the size to play professionally. But this week, beginning with Monday’s Opening Day, Huntington is back home, you might say. Oh, he’s likely made a few scouting trips to Fenway over the years, during his time in the front office with the Indians and perhaps as the Pirates GM, but this week is the first time Pittsburgh has visited Fenway during his tenure that began in 2007.

“You know, we have the luxury of visiting two of baseball’s shrines,” Huntington said, referring to Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway. “It’s special to be able to do that.”

Huntington’s work over the last nine years has made the Pirates relevant again after two decades of losing. They’ve made the playoffs three out of the last four seasons, ending a 20-year drought.

“It drives us further,” Huntington, 48, said of the Pirates becoming relevant again. “It is nice to go out in Pittsburgh, to go to a Steelers game or go to a Penguins game and have people come up to you and thank you for, as you say, making the Pirates relevant again.”

Last year’s Pirate team was a half a game out of a playoff spot on Aug. 29 before a rash of injuries brought the good times to a thud, as they finished 79-83 and out of the postseason.

“We lost our All-Star left fielder, one of our best starting pitchers, our second baseman and setup man, all in a short span,” Huntington said. “That’s tough to overcome.”

Huntington has come under some fire in Pittsburgh for not making some moves to bolster a team that had won 98 games the season before, and now the rival Cubs look as dominant as ever. But one can’t deny he’s made the Bucs good enough for the Pittsburgh fans to care again, and he’s hoping a second influx of young players can fortify the stars, like Andrew McCutchen (who had a down 2016) that he has on the roster.

“There is talent here,” he said. “Remember, in 2013-15 we were picked to win 80-82 games.”

Most of Huntington’s immediate family has moved to Vermont, but he still has “plenty of friends and family in the Amherst area.” One of those he has talked with a couple of times in the last month, his former Milford coach Bill Twomey.

“I just talked to him last week; I was going to try to meet up with his grandson in Montreal,” Huntington said. “I don’t talk to him nearly as much as I should.”

That, he says, is part of the pitfalls of being the general manager of a Major League team.

“You get a little detached from a lot of people,” he said.

But, Huntington still pinches himself that he’s got the job he has.

“I count my blessings every day,” he said. “I grew up on a farm in New Hampshire. I was going to be a high school teacher and a coach.”

He ended up doing even more.

“This is my 10th year in Pittsburgh, and I hope to be here many more years,” Huntington said. “It’s going to be another great season in the game, and you’re going to have to show up every day to win.

“It’s a great way to start it off, being at Fenway. Such a special place for Opening Day. We just hope to spoil the party.”

That didn’t happen Monday as the Red Sox hung on for a 5-3 win, but the party wraps up on Thursday.

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