It was always baseball for Neal Huntington.
The game motivated him in ways the long afternoons on his family's bucolic New Hampshire dairy farm never could.
"I grew up doing chores, working in the fields, the barns, with the animals. I learned about family, character, work ethic. I learned so much just from living that experience," Huntington said. "As I look back, it created a lot of the foundation of who I am. I was watching my mom and dad go to work every day loving what they do and knowing I needed to find something that made me feel that way. It was always going to be baseball."
And so began the journey from a small New England town to a Major League Baseball front office, where this year Huntington, at 44, reaped years of a systematic rebuilding plan for the Pirates in the form of a winning season and playoff berth -- one of the greatest narratives in baseball this summer.
The Pirates general manager is a frontrunner to be named MLB Executive of the Year by his peers, an award given annually by the Sporting News since 1936 and shared by men like Branch Rickey, Billy Beane and Frank Cashen.
He will compete with many accomplished executives, including Red Sox general manager Ben Charington, St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak and L.A. Dodgers GM Ned Colletti, among others.
Whether he wins or not on Monday night, those around him say he is deserving of the honor.
"The most interesting part about it was that Neal wasn't any different this year than he was last year, two years ago, three years ago," Pirates president Frank Coonelly said. "He has a very sharp focus on process, a strong process with good research and strong information. Analytical and scouting information will result in good decisions ... It's nice to see his name in the running for executive of the year. I certainly firmly believe he deserves it. The one thing I do know, it won't change who Neal Huntington is."
Measured in his demeanor, and supremely focused, Huntington keeps things close to the vest -- a vestige of classic New England introversion.
Huntington left New Hampshire to play first base for Bill Thurston at Amherst College in western Massachusetts.
As a lefty standing at 5-foot-9, his options in the field were limited. But he could hit.
Huntington still holds the school record in batting average and RBIs -- at .476 and 49 -- recalls his former coach.
"He was so good you forgot he was 5-foot-9," said Thurston. "He played like he was 6-foot-2. Could jump, receive throws in the dirt."
Huntington's career as a player ended there. But his sights were not limited to playing on the diamond.
Huntington's first job after college came when Dan Duquette, also an Amherst alum and then the assistant general manager of the Montreal Expos, called Thurston to see if he had any recommendations for his front office.
As the story goes, recalled Thurston and corroborated by Duquette, Thurston mentioned a hard-working, focused kid from New Hampshire he thought might be a good fit.
Huntington, he said, would take notes in his office during phone calls with scouts. He asked good questions and could discern what information was important from the volumes that would pile up in a coach's office.
The only stipulation was that Huntington wanted to first get a master's degree and spend a year coaching before moving into baseball administration.
"I told him if you can wait, he's going to be worth it," Thurston said. "Dan hemmed and hawed. Then he said 'OK.' Later when Neal went to work in the front office, Dan said to me, 'Coach, that was a great recommendation. He will be a general manager one day.' He picked up just how good Neal was, how hard he worked, how focused."
Duquette, who went on to be the general manager in Boston, is now the executive vice president for baseball operations for the Baltimore Orioles.
"He told me Neal is this real industrious kid, intelligent and he had integrity. And so really, all he needed was an opportunity," Duquette said.
His first day on the job was June 1, 1992. He moved on to the role of video advance scout, then assistant director of player development. He took a job with the Cleveland Indians in 1998 to direct the club's minor league operations and eventually become director of player development.
By 2001, Huntington was assistant general manager to Mark Shapiro, with a hand in the club's long-term strategy.
When he was hired in Pittsburgh in 2007, Huntington was quoted in an Associated Press story saying: "We will systematically work to change the culture of this organization and to return it to a consistent winner."
Six years later, his diligence paid off.
The Pirates have changed the way they evaluate players using advanced metrics, sunk more resources than any team in baseball into the first-year player draft since 2008, and are among the leaders in baseball in defensive analytics.
"My background has always been core baseball and scouting and player development," Huntington said. "The best front offices, best scouts, best evaluators have always used numbers -- there's just a more advanced set that are more applicable in this day and age and they are continuing to grow and get better."
This year, it translated into 94 wins and a baseball renaissance along the banks of the Allegheny River.
It's no small feat, Duquette said.
"He built the Pirates from the ground up. He built a good player development operation. He was able to get the team into the win column and turned around the club. He deserves a lot of credit," Duquette said. "It wasn't done overnight. It was done with a lot of foresight. He had a plan to develop the team through the farm system and advanced pitching."
And now, he will be tested like never before, as he is charged to keep the Pirates moving forward.
Jenn Menendez: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @JennMenendez. Bill Brink contributed to this report. email@example.com and Twitter: @BrinkPG