Black Bears, Local Sports, Sports

Black Bears’ Sainato fulfilling dream with hometown team

MORGANTOWN — Leighann Sainato says going to a baseball game is the perfect mix of relaxing and excitement.

“It’s hard to explain, but anyone who’s ever been to a game on a warm, Sunday afternoon knows exactly how that feels,” said Sainato, the recently promoted general manager of the West Virginia Black Bears.

She gets to experience that feeling of relaxation and excitement 40 times a year during a MLB Draft League season at Monongalia County Ballpark, though the job tends to be much more exciting (and sometimes stressful) than relaxing. Sainato does get a joyous, prideful feeling knowing she is partially responsible for bringing families and friends together amid the backdrop of the national pastime.

“There are new challenges all the time and I enjoy finding creative and efficient ways of overcoming them,” Sainato said. “And, I mean, who else gets to walk into the view of Monongalia County Ballpark every day? I try not to take for granted how fortunate I am that I enjoy what I do and where I work. I’m sure most people would appreciate the view more than the challenges, but I enjoy both.”

Sainato, 34, assumed the role of general manager on Feb. 24 following the departure of Matt Drayer, who helped transition the Black Bears organization from the former Jamestown Jammers in the New York-Penn League. Sainato has been with the Black Bears for the past six years serving in the positions of community relations assistant and ticket operations and public relations manager.

She is the only female GM in the MLB Draft League as well as within the Black Bears’ parent company, Rich Baseball Operations. There are currently seven female general managers in Minor League Baseball’s 120-team player development system.

“Being a woman in sports is tough, but rewarding,” Sainato said. “I am grateful for all the women who broke barriers, and I hope that I’m able to continue that for younger generations. Everything begins with visibility, and representation matters. If I can open a door for someone else to walk through, I’m excited to do so.”

A Westover native, she attended University High before earning four degrees from WVU — dual bachelor’s degrees in English and history, a juris doctorate from the WVU College of Law and a master’s degree in sports management.

Sainato worked in Pittsburgh doing contract law for a few years but yearned for something more. A passionate Mountaineers, Pittsburgh Pirates and Pittsburgh Steelers fan, plus a sucker for a good sports movie with a great soundtrack, she felt a calling to get in the game.

“For me, staying engaged in what I’m doing (is the best part of the job),” Sainato said. “I hate being bored and I like working toward a goal. The sports industry is dynamic and if you enjoy multifaceted aspects of a job like I do, it’s hard to be bored. I like the business of baseball for that reason.”

There really is no typical day in the sports world. For the Black Bears, Sainato sees herself making sales, working with stadium sponsors, writing press releases, planning promotions, answering phones, delivering helpful customer service, coordinating events with the players and “putting out fires on gamedays.”

“The trick is learning how to prevent them and thinking five steps ahead of a problem,” Sainato said. “Big shout out to Craig McIntosh for that — he’s the king of planning for contingencies.”

McIntosh, a Morgantown native, has been with the Black Bears since their inception in 2015, starting as the team’s groundskeeper. He was recently promoted to the role of director of ballpark and team operations. There are a total of five front office employees for the Black Bears and all are natives of West Virginia. 

“It’s always a great feeling when you can represent your hometown in a positive way,” Sainato said.

The Black Bears season starts June 7. The 40 home games are the most in club history and Sainato said each day will be packed with fun on and off the field.

June 25 is Star Wars Night and each Friday will have post-game fireworks.

The inaugural season of the MLB Draft League resulted in 94 players signing professional contracts, including 16 who played for the Black Bears.

The team also provides internship opportunities for college students.

“Be prepared to work hard,” Sainato said. “When hiring, I always look to see what different experiences people have outside of sports. (It’s important to) be adaptable and take initiative.”

It’s what she has had to do throughout her career, too. Sainato’s parents, Tony and Jackie, encouraged her and her brother, Adam, to follow their dreams and do their jobs to the best of their ability.

Sainato is living that dream with her hometown team. But her most rewarding job is that of a mother to her son, Kade. 

A mom and a GM — a true power hitter. 

“Being a parent is extremely helpful — not just because you understand how to do things on the fly and improvise,” Sainato said, “but because you need a tremendous amount of patience depending on the day.”