It has been an eight-month speed date for Charlie Montoyo, his players, his coaches, his bosses and the fans of the Toronto Blue Jays. They met at spring training way back when, as virtual strangers, and by now they all know each other a whole lot better.
The circumstances have certainly been trying. When you lose nearly 100 games in a baseball season, it’s enough to test anyone’s good humour, loyalty and patience.
It would be reasonable to expect some fraying around the edges in those relationships, and naturally there was a bit. One coach was reassigned mid-season. Players were traded away, in some cases unhappily. Injuries and a lack of depth in the pitching staff meant that some days and nights felt hopeless before the umpire yelled “Play ball.”
But the clubhouse mostly held together. There was no insurrection. And even playing through a brutal schedule in the final months of a lost season, there was no sign of surrender.
That last part is especially a point of pride for Montoyo as he wraps up his first season as a big-league manager.
“Losing eats me alive,” he says. “But from experience, being around baseball for a long time, I know how to deal with it. I know how to stay positive. One thing I learned from my years in the minor leagues is that negativity doesn’t help anybody. Me and my coaches stayed positive the whole time. Whenever we lost a game, we forgot about it and we tried to win a game the next day.
“I remember having meetings with the coaches and saying, ‘Make sure these guys don’t get used to losing. Play to win every day.’ And we did. In the second half, we had probably the toughest schedule in baseball – the Dodgers, Houston, Tampa Bay, the Yankees, Atlanta – and we competed every day. We ended not losing 100 games because we competed. I’m proud of my coaches and I’m proud of my players for not quitting – ever.”
The next part, of course, is the tricky part – moving from not losing as many games as you could have, to winning as many you lose and, finally, to actually winning something. Over the course of this lost season, Montoyo has offered clues as to how he plans to do that, though tactically many of his choices were forced upon him by the roster cards he was dealt.
“It’s pretty tough when you’ve only got two or three starters available,” he says. “People got hurt. There’s nothing you can do. But we found a way to stay in games.”
As a major-league manager, despite all of those many years of apprenticeship in the minors, he remains a work in progress.
It’s a different gig – and a different gig than being a bench or third-base coach in the majors, both roles that Montoyo filled with Tampa Bay.
You’re no longer an advisor and confidante. You’re the boss, where the buck stops. You have to manage in three directions – up to the front office, down to the players, and outward to the fans via the media, every day, without fail.
“That was the biggest difference,” Montoyo says. “Talking to the press. I have to get used to that.”
Lineup decisions are informed by an enormous amount of data provided by the team’s scouting and analytics wing, to be digested and interpreted. The coaching staff – Montoyo knew only two of them before they were hired – had to be blended into an effective, harmonious working unit. Veteran players needed to be treated with deference and respect, even when they became disenchanted. Young players needed to be eased into the major leagues with a mixture of discipline, teaching and positive reinforcement.
“I use what I called ‘the sandwich’,” he says. “If you start negative with a player, they shut you down. So when I call a player into my office, I start positive, because there’s always something good that they’ve done. Then here comes the negative – I tell you what you’ve done wrong. But by the time you leave my office you feel good about yourself because I finish with the positive, so the ‘sandwich’ around the criticism. I learned that from experience in the minor leagues and I think it worked out pretty good in the big leagues.”
There were times during the season when Montoyo’s frustration in the dugout was hard to miss. But what players, fans and his bosses learned was that his fuse is extraordinarily long. That wasn’t always the case – in the minors, he had some memorable meltdowns. But Montoyo says that dealing with his son Alex’s myriad health issues gave him a different sense of perspective, which he brought to his workplace.
“When you see a manager arguing all the time and tense and stuff, everybody on the team is going to get tense,” he says. “But when you see a manager relaxed and he stays even-keeled, I think that helps the players keep competing. I know that from experience. I used to be a red ass and I remember I had a bad team one year and I was yelling and arguing a lot, and I could tell how they got tense and it got worse.
“I know sometimes you’ve got to go out there and defend your players, which I do, but I also don’t have to get thrown out every time I do that.”
Next year will be different right from the start. Those young players whose arrival mid-season provided a charge of positive energy will be dealing with a different level of expectation, and will need to continue to develop. New arrivals will be integrated, and hard decisions will have to be made on those hanging around the roster’s margins.
Simply holding things together and keeping chins up through another losing campaign won’t be enough. Everyone will be looking for at least a flicker of light signalling the end of the tunnel.
Montoyo’s bosses and the fans base will demand progress, and though he’ll only be entering his second season in the job, it’s not hard to imagine patience wearing thin. His decisions and demeanour will be more closely scrutinized, and criticism will come more quickly. It goes with the territory.
A manager can change, for the better or worse, as the pressure amps up. But Montoyo, the person, who sees the glass half full, always, is going to remain the same.
“I’m very grateful,” he says. “It took me forever to get to this point and now I’ve got the best job in baseball. I really do. This city is beautiful. The people are beautiful. And I’m managing for a whole country it’s the only place in baseball to have something like this. I’m very lucky to have this opportunity.
“Believe me I want nothing but a championship for this city.”