Charlie Montoyo goes to The Show
Charlie Montoyo. Photo courtesy of the Durham Bulls.
Just a quick note here while the news is fresh. Word came today that Charlie Montoyo, who has been the Durham Bulls’ manager since 2007 and is the all-time franchise leader in wins, has been promoted to the major leagues. He’ll be the third base coach for the Tampa Bay Rays, who have moved field staff around in the wake of manager Joe Maddon’s departure for the Chicago Cubs.
Analysis and all that can come later. The purpose of this post is just to say thank you to Charlie Montoyo. Not on behalf of the Bulls and their fans, or even on behalf of Bull City Summer, but thank you right from me to him.
I was a total rookie in 2009 when I started covering the Bulls. I don’t mean just a Bulls-beat-writer rookie. I mean I had never been in a baseball locker room or interviewed a ballplayer or manager in my life. I had, basically, no idea what I was doing. I learned how to do my job with Charlie’s indirect but consistent and formative mentoring, which was gracious, plainspoken, modest and laden with long experience — and, above all, patient. He let me figure it out, night by night, five postgame minutes at a time.
“The are no classes for beginners in life,” Rilke is said (by James Salter) to have written. “The most difficult thing is always asked of one first.” The very first time I ever interviewed Charlie was after a wild game at Durham Bulls Athletic Park in which the Bulls erased a huge late-inning deficit to send the game into extra innings, lost the lead again, and then won the game on (incredibly) the second grand slam of the game by the team’s closest comp to Crash Davis, veteran first baseman Chris Richard. His amazing and historic feat had not been accomplished in the International League since the 1950s. Right after the game, I interviewed Richard, who was still panting from his game-winning trip around the bases; then a Bulls official ushered me, to my surprise, into Montoyo’s office.
At the time, I was the only member of the media covering the Bulls. The Durham paper had laid off their beat reporter, and there were no other writers in the press box that week. So it was just me and Charlie. He could have been suspicious of me, a playwright by training moonlighting (really masquerading) as a sportswriter; or he could have been outright dismissive of some upstart barging into his professional habitat, a wide-eyed newb he’d now have to break in and tolerate going forward. There are a lot of lame sportswriters in the world, and he had no reason to think that I, with no background in the business, wasn’t one of them. But he took my questions cheerfully (why not, I guess, since his team had just won an unlikely thriller?) and gave me five sincere minutes of his time. We’d have hundreds more sessions like it over the next five years.
I can’t recall most of the contents of our first interview that night, but one thing stuck with me. At some point, I made reference to game-hero Chris Richard’s long tenure with the Bulls in Triple-A, and how it must have been nice for Montoyo to have Richard’s steadying, well-worn, older presence in his clubhouse and lineup year after year, not only for the continuity Richard provided but also for his mentoring of prospects on their way to the big leagues. I knew full well that a good number of the guys on every Triple-A team are considered mere roster filler, with no chance of reaching the majors, and that Richard was one of those guys. I was trying to let Montoyo know that, although I was new to the job, I wasn’t new to the realities, nature and purpose of Triple-A.
But Charlie fixed me with a pointed look and said, firmly but not at all unkindly: “I’m trying to get all these guys to the major leagues.”
He was telling me that I may have arrived already Triple-A jaded, but he was not. He had not given up the dream on his players’ behalf. He had his sights set on the summit for everyone, including Chris Richard. I stood corrected — not just in theory, but in practice. Late that season, Chris Richard was called up to Tampa Bay. It was his first trip to the big leagues in six seasons. Just because it hasn’t happened and seems like it never will, it still can, and it does. Even if it takes six seasons.
And six seasons after that interview, Charlie Montoyo will be dressed in a Tampa Bay Ray uniform. He himself turns out to have been one of the guys he was trying to get to the major leagues. He’ll even get to keep jersey no. 25. For Charlie, it’s his first call-up since 1993, when he was still playing. He got into a grand total of four games. This time, he’s going to suit up for many more than that.
In Bull Durham, when Nuke LaLoosh gets called up to the majors, he tells Annie Savoy, his minor-league lover, that he’ll see her again soon. She corrects him as insistently as Charlie corrected me that night in 2009: “When somebody leaves Durham,” she says to Nuke, “they don’t come back.” In real life, guys do come back, all the time. That’s how Triple-A works. But the best way I know how to express my gratitude and congratulations to Charlie is to tell him that I hope he never does.