The bongos come with him everywhere he goes. Players hear him pounding on them when they enter the clubhouse early in the afternoon. Coaches catch them late into the night after tense victories and frustrating defeats. Staff members structure their visits around his favourite times to hammer away. On long bus rides between minor-league towns, he’s in a front seat, headphones on, watching old videos of salsa and Son Cubano bands he wishes he’d been around to see. On humid spring training nights, when a handful of coaches lounge around a Florida backyard, more than a few empties on the table, he’ll play along to any Latin song YouTube can conjure. One time, on a trip to Cuba, he jumped in with the local band at a team reception, and you should’ve seen him up there killing it.
Hey, we’ve all got hobbies. His are playing the bongos, a daily run, and winning ballgames — just not in that order. A 53-year-old lifer with more than three decades in professional baseball, he’s played over 1,000 games and managed nearly 2,500 more. He’s won division titles, league championships, seen his number retired. He’s in a triple-A hall of fame. Considering all that, what he’ll accomplish when he begins his 32nd spring training this February, his first as an MLB manager, seems fairly ordinary.
It’s not. Only 30 guys get to run a big-league club at any given moment, and, these days, never guys like him. New hires in 2018’s MLB are young, relatively, and not far removed from being one of nine on a diamond. They’re polished, almost corporate, filling interviews with buzz words, speaking the language of their Ivy-league educated bosses. You see them on TV reminding everyone how in touch they are with the way the game’s played today. A new hire is never the guy who dutifully plugged away forever. The old head who gave his life to baseball and was perfectly content accepting whatever it gave back. The quiet professional who dedicated his career to helping others climb the ladder while he stood on the ground, holding it steady.
And yet, here’s Charlie Montoyo, the 13th manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. An unlikely candidate who didn’t even get a call until about a week before he accepted the job. A guy who’s spent a lifetime living in the moment, and whose moment has finally arrived.
A grasp of English was not one of the tools Montoyo possessed when he arrived in the United States from his native Puerto Rico in 1983. A rangy middle infielder with an unusual right-handed swing and a patient, tenacious plate approach, he’d earned a scholarship to humble De Anza College near San Jose through the Latin Athletes Education Fund, a trust that identified talented young Caribbean ballplayers and facilitated opportunities for them to attend U.S. colleges. While at De Anza, Montoyo was billeted by a local family, who helped him learn the language. Two years later, when he transferred to Louisiana Tech University in the heart of America’s, let’s say, “colourful” South, he had to learn the language again.
He didn’t have to relearn the game. Over three seasons in Louisiana, he reached base more often than he made an out, which isn’t how baseball’s supposed to go. In his final year, he hit over .400 with 16 homers and was named an All-American. He went down as one of the best players in Louisiana Tech’s history — his 172 career walks still stand as a school record. It inspired the Milwaukee Brewers to make him a professional in the sixth round of the 1987 draft.
After a four-year minor-league climb, he reached triple-A in 1991. He repeated the level a season later, and despite hitting .324 with more walks than strikeouts, the Brewers opted not to call him up. Frustrated and unsure what else he could do to prove himself, Montoyo welcomed an off-season trade to the Montreal Expos ahead of the 1993 season. He started at triple-A with the Ottawa Lynx, playing any position he was asked and impressing teammates with his commitment to the game in spite of being a 27-year-old stranded in the upper minors. “I don’t want to be too self-denigrating,” says Joe Siddall, a catcher on that 1993 Lynx team, “but we weren’t the greatest players. We were those career minor-leaguers. And because of that, guys like Charlie had to work so hard just to get to where he got. He had to work his tail off just to get to triple-A.”
From behind the plate, Siddall watched Montoyo operate all over the infield, and remembers him as a shrewd, instinctual player. He was the type of shortstop who peered in at the catcher’s signs and adjusted his defensive position depending on the speed and location of the pitch. The type of second baseman who knew the importance of footwork around the bag. The type of hitter who didn’t have to be told to take a pitch against an erratic arm or shorten up and put the ball in play with runners on and less than two out. “He really understood the intricacies of the game,” Siddall says. “He really motivated you and inspired you to be your best, because he played the game so hard and so well. I know it’s very cliché to say things like that. But that was truly Charlie’s makeup.”
A brief call-up to the Expos finally came in September of that year. Montoyo arrived at the ballpark only 10 minutes prior to first-pitch. A couple hours later, in the seventh inning, Expos manager Felipe Alou told him to grab a bat. Montoyo stepped in and hit a game-winning, two-out, pinch-hit RBI single in his first big-league plate appearance. He made only four more that September — and in his career — but got himself another hit, this time a two-run double, inspiring perhaps the longest running joke of Montoyo’s career: He calls himself the last MLBer to hit .400.
Montoyo spent the next two seasons back in triple-A with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, running out his late-20s as a veteran role player. Steve Bieser, another career minor-leaguer who played 60 games in the majors, was an outfielder on those teams. “He was so hard working, so dedicated. He was one of my favourite teammates I’ve ever had,” Bieser says. “He had a real identity as a hitter. His only goal was to have a positive at-bat to help the team succeed. You love playing with guys like that.”
With his ambitions of a major-league career all but extinguished, Montoyo focused on improving as a role model and leader with an eye towards transitioning to coaching. A triple-A clubhouse in the mid-’90s wasn’t always the most positive environment. Few players wanted to be there to begin with. Bitterness and discontent abounded. Cliques often formed along cultural lines. Montoyo took it upon himself to mitigate that, building relationships with all comers. “He was never complaining — everything was positive. And that’s hard to find in some of those minor-league clubhouses,” Bieser says. “I don’t know if there’s anybody in the world that has an ill feeling towards Charlie. He’s just a special human being — that’s the best way to describe him.”
Tom Foley — a fellow baseball lifer who helped build the Tampa Bay Rays from inception in the ’90s — remembers first encountering Charlie Montoyo. It was 1995 and a 35-year-old Foley was playing shortstop for the Lynx in the final season of his career. Montoyo was playing short for Scranton. “I saw this guy walking up to the plate choked up three inches and he hit a home run,” Foley remembers. “I’m watching this guy round the bases, like, ‘How the hell did he do that?’”
The following spring training, now working as a field coordinator and farm director for the nascent Rays, Foley visited with a bevy of MLB teams trying to learn how, exactly, a professional baseball organization is run. One day, while Foley was spending time with the Expos in West Palm, Florida, the guy who choked up three inches walked over to introduce himself. He said he knew his playing career was coming to an end but he wanted to stay in the game as a coach. He asked Foley if he’d keep him in mind as he was building out Tampa’s staff. “I definitely felt highly of him. For him to walk up and express that to me, and to have a really sincere conversation about his desire to stay in the game, that went a long way,” Foley says. “When I spoke to him, we didn’t have many coaches; we didn’t even have any players in the organization. So, why not give him a shot?”
Foley called that October, and the ensuing spring Montoyo’s managerial career began with the rookie ball Princeton Devil Rays. He earned a promotion to the short-season Hudson Valley Renegades a year later, and another to the single-A Charleston RiverDogs a year after that. Montoyo met his wife, Samantha, in Charleston, and she went with him as he continued to climb the Rays’ ranks, eventually arriving in double-A with the Montgomery Biscuits in 2004. In his third season managing Montgomery, Montoyo led the Biscuits to a 77-62 record and won his first championship. Justin Ruggiano, who went on to play nearly 500 games in the majors, was an outfielder on that team. “Charlie was super hard-working, super hard-nosed. He’d challenge you. He expected you to play a certain way,” Ruggiano says. “He’d jump your butt for not hustling a groundball. Even if it’s a groundball to the pitcher. If you dog it and disrespect the jersey, he’s pulling you out of the game right then and there. It could be the last week of the season, you’re exhausted — it didn’t matter. He always expected the same thing. I’m putting you in the lineup, you need to give me 100 per cent.”
He’s a calm, mild-mannered presence today. But this was a different Montoyo. Fiery and combative, he wouldn’t hesitate to chew out umpires, to dress down a player in the dugout, to tear a strip off his entire team in the clubhouse after a game. When he was ejected, he’d make it worth his while, sometimes needing to be physically restrained and shepherded back to the dugout. As a player, you did not want him to catch you slacking. Ruggiano says he can’t recall how many times Montoyo benched him — there were too many to count.
No one was spared. Criag Albernaz signed with the Rays that year as an undrafted catcher out of Eckerd College, an unheralded Div. II program. When one of Montgomery’s catchers was injured in a home plate collision, Albernaz was called all the way up from rookie ball right before the Biscuits playoff run. Raw and still learning how to call a professional game, Albernaz committed a slew of minor mistakes, the kind of subtle errors that go unnoticed by many fans but drive coaches nuts. Montoyo didn’t let him get away with any of them. “I could tell when I first walked in that clubhouse — it was Charlie’s team,” says Albernaz, who’s now a manager himself in the Rays organization. “Whatever happened on that field or in that clubhouse was what Charlie wanted. And all the players had the utmost respect for him. You could see that right away. Everyone bought in.”
It wasn’t just his players — Montoyo was hard on his coaches, as well. Xavier Hernandez, a veteran of 10 major-league seasons who worked as Montoyo’s pitching coach in both Montgomery and Durham, remembers taking issue one night with the way the club’s bullpen was being deployed. He barked at Montoyo in the dugout, asserting that it was his pitching staff. A heated Montoyo rose from his seat and got right in Hernandez’s face: “Bullshit, it’s my pitching staff!” A Rays roving coordinator who was with the team at the time had to separate the two, and explain that as coaches, they were there to serve the players, not the other way around. “Charlie and I, we were nose-to-nose,” Hernandez remembers. “He’s a strong-willed man. Charlie didn’t back down from anything. And you respected him for it. I loved coaching for him, coaching with him. That confrontation we had, it taught me a lesson that’s remained at the forefront of my coaching philosophy to this day.”
Montoyo was stern, sure. But another reading — the one most have of his style — is that he was honest, direct, and genuine. Players appreciated knowing where they stood, and recognized Montoyo’s sincere desire to help them improve and achieve their goals. “He’d get into you, but you always knew he had your best interests in mind,” Ruggiano says. “We’ve all had a lot of managers throughout our careers. And some of them, you’re not really sure where their heart is. With Charlie, if he was benching you because you didn’t hustle, he was doing it to prepare you for the next step. It’s just not until you get to the next step that you realize how grateful you are for what he did.”
Let’s just say that 2006 was not a banner year in the storied history of the Durham Bulls baseball club. The season was barely three weeks old when top Rays prospect Delmon Young, in a fit of rage following a called third strike, helicoptered his bat into an umpire’s torso. A day later, another outfield prospect, Elijah Dukes, had a physical altercation with the club’s hitting coach, earning his first of multiple suspensions that season, one of them for choking a teammate in a hotel lobby. In June, the club’s starting shortstop, B.J. Upton, was pulled over in his Mercedes at 3:30 a.m. and charged with driving while intoxicated. The Bulls finished 14 games under .500 and missed the playoffs by a mile, which was the least of anyone’s concerns.
Durham’s entire coaching staff was fired at the end of the year. In their place, the Rays wanted someone who could take control of an unruly clubhouse. They turned to Montoyo, who was coming off that championship campaign with Montgomery in his 10th managerial season. “Charlie comes in and really just righted the ship immediately,” says Mike Birling, who’s run Durham’s baseball operations since 2002. “He straightened things out — not just from a detail standpoint, but from a discipline standpoint.”
The Bulls went 80-63 in Montoyo’s first year, won their division, and reached the International League finals — the Governor’s Cup. Ruggiano, then on the verge of earning his first major-league call-up, led the team in practically every offensive category. “Charlie made sure everyone understood — there’s a standard that we play by here,” Ruggiano says. “And if you don’t, well, it’s going to be a long road for you.”
It was supposed to be a cheerful time for Montoyo off the field, as well. Samantha was expecting the couple’s second child. (Their first, Tyson, was born five years earlier.) But when Alex Montoyo arrived a month after the end of Durham’s season — on October 17, his father’s 42nd birthday — he did so with a congenital heart defect called Ebstein’s anomaly. Less than 24 hours old, he was taken from his parents and airlifted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital where, days later, he underwent open-heart surgery to save his life.
Alex stayed in Phoenix for a month, breathing with the help of a ventilator and eating through a feeding tube while doctors pondered a heart transplant. Eventually, he was airlifted to UCLA, where he underwent a second open-heart surgery. Alex stayed at UCLA for months, his medical expenses running north of a half-million dollars. The baseball community rallied around Montoyo, as former players and colleagues began reaching out with donations. In Montgomery, a fund was established that raised over $10,000. In Durham, Birling and the Bulls set up a separate fund on top of the $10,000 the franchise contributed.
A day before he turned five months old, Alex was released from hospital. Montoyo travelled with Samantha and the kids back to Tucson, Ariz., where they spent a night at home as a family for the first time since Alex was born. But it was mid-March and, in Florida, Rays spring training was already in full swing without its triple-A manager. The Bulls opener was less than three weeks away. After two days at home, Montoyo left to go back to work.
Still living with a feeding tube and ventilator, Alex couldn’t travel. That meant Montoyo would go months at a time without seeing his family, while Samantha cared for Alex and Tyson in Arizona. After leaving in March, Montoyo didn’t see them again until May, when he left the team to be present for another of Alex’s surgeries.
From there, he was only able to get home on off-days, which the Bulls had just once a month. That meant flying cross-country first thing in the morning to be with his family for less than 24 hours, before making the same long haul back to Durham in time for the Bulls next game. Jet-lagged and running on little sleep, Montoyo would turn up at the ballpark and carry himself like he always did. “Like it was nothing; as if he’d slept in his own bed in Durham,” says Albernaz, who joined his old Montgomery manager with the Bulls. “He loved being at the field, he was so invested with us. But we all knew what was going on. It had to be tough on him. But he barely showed it. That’s just the type of person he is. He’s a very loyal guy, a great family man, great father, great husband. In his mind, that’s just normal to go through all that. Like, ‘Yeah, of course I’m going to go home on the off-day. What else would I do?’”
Life went on; baseball went on. Managing with photos of Tyson and Alex tucked into his pants pocket, or sometimes the front panel of his cap, Montoyo led the Bulls to another division title in 2008 and back to the Governor’s Cup. In 2009, he had Durham out to one of its best starts ever. The Bulls were 16 games over .500 in early June and running away with the division. But the club hit a skid, losing 10 of 11. Meanwhile, Alex, not even two-years-old, was preparing for another life-threatening surgery.
Montoyo was due to leave the team to be with his son; he wasn’t sure when he’d be able to return. Understandably, the mood around the Bulls was sullen. Montoyo had been doing plenty of talking over the previous 11 games, about his own situation and Durham’s, to little effect. So, on the morning he flew home, he posted a handwritten note on the wall at the entrance of the Bulls clubhouse. It was a plea for his players to not worry about him, and to concentrate on the task at hand. To focus on having fun again. The Bulls won that night, and then rattled off 12 of their next 15. “Charlie always had a face-to-face, personal approach with people. That’s the only time I can remember him actually writing a note for the group,” says Neil Solondz, who was Durham’s media liaison and broadcaster at the time. “In a really challenging personal situation, he made it about his players and not about himself.”
That summer, Durham claimed another division title, the Governor’s Cup, and the club’s first triple-A national championship. A year later, in 2010, the Bulls set a triple-A franchise record for wins, and played for the Governor’s Cup for the fourth consecutive season under Montoyo. That was also the first year Alex, three open-heart surgeries and a major stomach operation behind him, was healthy enough to visit his father in Durham. It was only for a short time, but it was the beginning of what became annual summer visits, even after Alex’s fourth open-heart surgery when he was five. Dragging a whiffle ball bat around the field during batting practice, running from stall to stall in the clubhouse before games, giving players high-fives after wins — Alex became a part of the team.
Now spending more of his off-days in Durham, Montoyo organized regular team visits to Duke Children’s Hospital. Not a requirement; never any pressure. Just a sign-up sheet posted in the clubhouse for any players who were interested. Often, Durham’s community relations staff wouldn’t find out Montoyo was planning a visit until he showed up in their offices a couple days prior, asking if the club’s mascot was available to tag along. “That’s the kind of person he is. He understood the impact he could have on other people’s lives,” Birling says. “And, honestly, I think it helped him. With Alex being in Arizona, I think it helped him mentally, emotionally, to be able to go talk with kids, put a smile on their faces.”
It would be impossible for a situation like Alex’s not to have a massive impact, not to provide perspective. And those who know Montoyo well say it definitely changed him. He’s mellower now; less excitable; a little easier on umpires. He doesn’t dwell on tough losses as much as he once did. No one has to walk him back to the dugout. “To be a manager at the pro level, you have to have this edge about you,” Ruggiano says. “And I feel like Alex softened that edge a little bit. Just enough to help [Montoyo] relate to the players, and to make us all love him. We saw him go through his struggles. He handled it all with such strength and grace. While still putting in all the effort that he needed to for us.”
On the field, Montoyo’s teams never stopped winning. He claimed division titles in seven of the eight seasons he spent with Durham, making six Governor’s Cup appearances. Meanwhile, he graduated a steady stream of polished, well-rounded players to the majors, including several key contributors to the Rays’ four postseason runs during his time with the Bulls. “Year after year, no matter who was coming up to join us from triple-A, they were producing,” says David DeJesus, who played parts of three seasons with Tampa beginning in 2013. “There was clearly something special going on down there. There was something that the guys really loved about him.”
It was actually a combination of things. Coaches rave about Montoyo’s feel for his clubhouse — his ability to know exactly who needs a day off, who needs a push, who needs a reassuring sit-down to quell any frustration. And if you were on the roster, you were going to see the field. Montoyo’s philosophy was that a team is only as strong as its weakest link — and the weakest link won’t be strong if he never plays. No one would sit more than a day or two, regardless of slumps, regardless of prospect status. Montoyo took plenty of heat — both internal and external — for awarding playing time to end-of-the-roster players or ones battling slumps, particularly in the thick of playoff races, but he never wavered. And the decisions often worked out. “I wasn’t even wearing cleats for some of the games and he’d take the time to talk to me and make me feel like a big part of the team,” says Albernaz. “And then as soon as I was active, boom, he played me right away.”
Triple-A is baseball’s toughest level to manage. It’s not only the long bus rides, the grueling schedule, and the inadequate pay. No player truly wants to be there. Some are on their way up, upset they haven’t reached the big leagues yet. Some are on their way down, upset they’re no longer in the majors. And some are stuck in the middle, upset the game has overlooked them. Meanwhile, your pitching staff and lineups are in a constant state of flux, a challenge nowhere more evident than with the Rays, one of baseball’s most aggressive teams in fully utilizing its 40-man roster. It’s mayhem. “All too often, many of the guys at triple-A are disgruntled because they think they’re getting screwed by the organization,” says Hernandez, who was Montoyo’s pitching coach for six years, four of them at triple-A. “To be able to manage all those personalities, and relate to players at different stages of their careers, and get all those guys to come together and play hard, is very difficult. But he found a way to be a very good player’s manager. Guys just love to play for Charlie.”
F— you,” Montoyo said, his voice booming through the phone. “You’re in the big leagues. Don’t give me that shit. I don’t want to hear it.”
There is a common misconception about Montoyo: that if his MLB opportunity never arrived, he would have been perfectly happy to keep working in triple-A, grinding away year after year until, one day, he quietly disappeared. It exists because Montoyo never publicly campaigned for a major-league job. He didn’t make calls when openings arose; he didn’t play the careerist game; he didn’t try to push his way up the ladder. But, privately, Montoyo did share his major-league aspirations. He knew quite well how good life in the majors was, and knew he wanted to join some of his closest friends up there sooner rather than later. Including Jamie Nelson, the guy he told not to give him that shit.
It was August 2014. Nelson was in his second season as an assistant hitting coach on Joe Maddon’s Rays staff after spending 13 years as a manager and roving catching coordinator in Tampa’s minor-league system. Nelson and Montoyo grew extremely close after first meeting in 2000, and have lived together during Rays spring trainings for 10 years. One of the great traditions for Rays coaches is the casual drop-in dinner parties Montoyo and Nelson hosted throughout camp — a bunch of baseball obsessives, and sometimes their families, sitting around, having a few beverages, sharing stories and laughs late into the night.
Throughout the season, the two coaches spoke all the time. On this particular occasion, Nelson was telling his friend about an exceptionally tough stretch of losses late into the drudgery of summer. The Rays had only two off-days that August and spent more than half of it on the road. They finished the month losing 10 of 15. Nelson was telling Montoyo how tired he was; how tired everyone was. How much of a grind the month had been. Montoyo, evidently, wasn’t having it. F— you — you’re in the big leagues.
At that point, Montoyo was in his 18th season working for the Rays in the minors. When MLB opportunities had opened up, he’d been routinely overlooked, returning dutifully to Durham to win another title, chase another championship. He spent so long at triple-A, and was so successful, that he was inducted into the International League Hall of Fame.
His break finally came, somewhat fittingly, when he was passed over for another vacancy after Maddon left the Rays for the Chicago Cubs. Turns out the Rays were trendsetters when it came to MLB’s hiring spree on young managers, as Maddon was replaced by a first-timer not long removed from his playing days — Kevin Cash. With Cash inheriting a young, mostly homegrown roster, Tampa’s front office felt strongly about having someone from the club’s system who was familiar with the players on the major-league staff. It would have been ludicrous for Montoyo’s name not to be the first to arise in that conversation. Foley, the old field coordinator who gave Montoyo his first job in 1996, had been the Rays third-base coach for more than a decade and was moving up to serve as Cash’s bench coach. Montoyo was a natural successor. “I was over there at third for 13 years. I know what goes into it. I watched everything he did,” Foley says. “And he made some really great sends, took good chances, pushed buttons that paid off for us. He did a heck of a job for us over at third base.”
In his sophomore season, Montoyo’s responsibilities expanded. Having quickly made himself comfortable with the wealth of data the Rays utilize when decision-making, Montoyo was put in charge of implementing the team’s infield shifts. Foley and Nelson both remember several times in his first season when Montoyo suggested a slight positioning change that made a big difference in games. Now, he was in charge of it all — and for the Rays, that’s a big task. Only the Houston Astros shift more often than Tampa Bay, and no club has been more aggressive in shifting against right-handed hitting than the Rays over the last three seasons. After 2017, when Foley vacated his bench coach position to move to the front office, Cash’s choice to take over the role was an obvious one. “It was an easy transition for Charlie. He was ready for it — he knew it, Cash knew it,” Foley says. “It just comes naturally for him. He sees the game so well, so easily. It’s not fast for him.”
And now, after a year as Cash’s bench coach on a young, innovative, 90-win team that finished top-six in baseball in both ERA and wRC+, Montoyo enters the first season of his coaching career as a member of another organization. He inherits a Blue Jays club in transition. He knows he’ll have the best prospect in baseball, which helps. He’ll have a young team, much like the ones he led with such success in Durham. He’ll have an opportunity — decades in the making — to prove he should’ve been in this position a long time ago.
And, for at least some of his first season in Toronto, he’ll have his family with him, which hasn’t always been possible. He’ll have welcome job security, too, with a three-year contract and the largest payday of his career. It means more than you might think. Minor-league managers and coaches lose their jobs and move around all the time. None of them get rich; few are on anything longer than one-year contracts. If Montoyo had lost his job when he was with Durham, his health insurance would have gone with it. The Montoyo’s relied desperately on that support as Alex went in and out of hospital. He’s 11 now, and a devoted fan of the game that employs his father. He lives a happy, stable life, although there could still be complications related to his condition and potentially another surgery in his future. But for now he’ll spend time in a new city and a new clubhouse with his dad, the new manager.
“The poor kid’s been through all kinds of stuff. And, obviously, Sam, Charlie and Tyson went through hell, too. But it’s made Charlie a better man,” says Montoyo’s old roommate Nelson, whose wife, Lee Ann, has experienced heart issues herself. “Toronto’s getting a great leader. A guy who’s going to give it 100 per cent towards winning, and playing the game the right way, with good effort. A guy who knows how to manage people. A really good communicator. A tremendously prideful man.”
Montoyo won’t be in the coach’s house at Rays spring training this season. No late nights playing his bongos in the backyard. Now, there are only memories. One of Nelson’s favourites came in 2015, Montoyo’s first year on a big-league staff. It was mid-August, and the Rays were in the midst of a three-city, 10-game road trip which featured a pair of extra-inning walk-offs that didn’t go Tampa’s way. Boarding the team charter, Montoyo sat in front of Nelson, took a deep breath, and turned around to confide in his close friend. “Man,” Montoyo said, “I’m exhausted.”
Nelson paused for a perfect beat, remembering the conversation they’d had a year prior, his friend’s voice booming through the phone. He looked Montoyo right in the eyes.
“F— you,” he said, grinning. “You’re in the big leagues.”
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