NORMAL — Billy Horn left baseball twice for more lucrative employment.
“I’m an adult. I need to afford life,” Horn said. “It was a shirt and tie kind of thing. I really hated it, but I made decent money.”
Yet the siren song of the diamond was unrelenting.
“Every time I talked to friends, they would say ‘you’re not a salesman. You’re a baseball guy,’” said Horn. “I always knew from the time I was a kid my passion was baseball.”
That passion has delivered Horn to the manager’s office at the Corn Crib. The skipper of the Normal CornBelters won his first game Friday, 11-6. Saturday’s contest was still in progress at Pantagraph press time.
“I’m really excited,” Horn said. “I’m very fortunate and blessed to be in this position.”
Horn follows in the managerial footsteps of friends and mentors Hal Lanier and Brooks Carey. Lanier managed Normal for the first two years of the franchise’s existence, while Carey guided the Belters the past five years before taking a similar job in another independent league.
“The three of us joke we are keeping it in the family,” said Horn. “Hal is kind of like my dad in baseball, and I look at Brooks as my uncle in baseball. Those two guys really helped me along the way. I feel really privileged to be in the company of those guys.”
Horn, who became acquainted with Carey while evaluating talent at various winter leagues, was Lanier’s pitching coach and in charge of player procurement at Ottawa of the Can-Am League in 2015 and a league championship season of 2016.
“Hal and I would sit in his office every night after games talking baseball and playing cards,” Horn said. “I was putting the club together and had full control of the pitching staff. In 2016, I got a lot more responsibility.
“Hal told me ‘I’m grooming you to be a manager. One day you’re going to manage. And when you do, I’ll be proud of you.’”
His application bolstered by a strong recommendation from Carey, Horn received his first managerial opportunity with Normal after spending 2017 as pitching coach for Long Island of the Atlantic League.
“Hopefully, I’ll be a better coach than I was a player,” said Horn, who pitched at Division II power Lynn University. “I was a middle of the road reliever, mid-80s (velocity), nothing special.”
But while playing in a men’s league after graduation, Horn noticed an uptick in his fastball to the upper 80s range (“no steroids, I swear”). He played in an Italian professional league in 2003-04.
“They (Italy) were looking at bringing me in for the Olympics in Greece in 2004. But I dislocated my non-throwing shoulder,” Horn said. “Unfortunately, I missed my window. I remember I was throwing with a sling saying ‘hey, I’m ready to go.’ But they passed on me.”
Horn, whose first coaching job was with the Roswell Invaders of the Pecos League in 2012, has become an industry recognized player procurement authority. His Facebook page “Meet a Prospect” has over 4,000 members and connects aspiring players with needy teams throughout independent baseball.
Horn’s love for baseball was cultivated at an early age by his parents, Tom and Fran Sponito.
“My mom and biological father got divorced when I was one,” said Horn, whose 39th birthday is next month. “Tom is my step dad, but he’s my dad. He’s been with me since I was one. He raised me. He put the ball in my hand.”
Tom is a former New York City policeman who frequently took Billy to New York Yankees games.
“That was pretty awesome. We used to get in free. Games weren’t that expensive in the mid 80s. The Yankees weren’t very good,” Horn recalled. “My dad loves the game. He’s a big baseball historian. My mom is a big baseball fan, too. She knows the game pretty well.”
The Sponitos live in Boca Raton, Fla., and have multiple trips to Normal planned. When they stop in the manager’s office at the Corn Crib, they won’t find a salesman.
Inside will be a son. And a baseball guy.