Samantha Montoyo waited for just the right opportunity to scold her husband and it came on Thursday evening as the family was on the couch, watching a marathon of playoff baseball games.
When shots of the dugouts flashed across the screen, Samantha would point out that this manager wasn’t wearing his mask correctly or that player wasn’t wearing a mask at all.
Then, she told her husband, Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo, something that she wanted to yell through the TV all season whenever cameras caught him fidgeting with his face wear: “‘I swear to God, if you touch that mask one more time,’” Samantha recalled, laughing.
One day after the Blue Jays were eliminated from the MLB post-season by the Tampa Bay Rays, the Montoyo clan was reunited at their home in Tucson, Ariz. Montoyo arrived on Thursday, 92 days after leaving home to be with the Blue Jays for their summer camp in Toronto.
In lieu of a grand welcoming, the family, including sons Tyson, 17, and Alex, 12, opted for a low-key evening, with pork chops on the plate and baseball on the television.
As with most baseball families — along with the rest of the world — life during a global pandemic was tough for the Montoyos. Samantha and the boys have been in lockdown at home, ordering groceries, takeout and pretty much everything else. They’ve been operating with extreme precaution due to the health concerns of Alex, who was born with Ebstein’s anomaly, a congenital heart defect. The Grade 7 student has only left the house twice since March 13 — once to get a haircut, and again to visit the dentist.
“I’ve done this before,” says Samantha. “Not in a pandemic. But I’ve done this before. So, as much as I love my husband and he loves me and my kids, it sucked. But this was very much like, ‘OK everybody, we’re going to suck this up and this is how it’s going to be.’
“Unfortunately, this is not the first time we’ve done this where we’ve gone 90 or more days without seeing [Montoyo].”
Montoyo was managing in the minor-leagues when Alex was born and due to the infant’s condition, he wasn’t allowed to fly until the age of three. That meant he and his brother were separated at times from Montoyo, who was then guiding the Rays’ triple-A affiliate Durham Bulls.
That experience, in a sense, offered Samantha and her husband perspective that still resonates today. While the pandemic ripped the rug out from beneath many people and offered a harsh glimpse at the fragility of life, the Montoyos had already seen the rug ripped out before.
“I watched my kid almost die,” says Samantha. “So Charlie and I have been leaning on each other for years. A pandemic, or anything baseball-related, isn’t going to make that worse.”
The couple, who have been married for 19 years, FaceTimed twice a day while Montoyo was away — before he left his hotel to head to the ballpark and when he returned after games. The two comforted each other during those conversations.
For Montoyo, the season was filled with stressors, right from the beginning of MLB’s resumption. The Blue Jays’ home city was in question until the last possible minute, which ultimately resulted in the manager and players having to live out of hotels for the entire campaign. There was the obvious, looming stress of COVID-19 and, on the field, Blue Jays players were at times sloppy, committing mental errors on the basepaths and with their gloves. As well, Montoyo’s decisions throughout the season were often criticized.
At the same time, though, there were positives. The second-year skipper followed a 95-loss campaign by guiding the club to its first playoff berth since 2016. It now seems likely that Montoyo will receive votes for the Manager of the Year award.
“He’s the perfect person at the perfect time for that organization because of what he does with younger players,” says Mike Birling, vice president of baseball operations for the Durham Bulls, Montoyo’s former club. “Look at the atmosphere that [Montoyo] created. Look at the fun that they were having. I think we get so caught up in the X’s and O’s of the game of baseball, but the teams that end up producing the most are the ones that believe in each other and rally around each other.
“Charlie did a great job with all the different things that they faced,” Birling adds. “You easily could have had a situation where the team splintered in different directions and I think he did a good job of keeping everybody on track and building for the future.”
Birling and Montoyo first met in 2007 and have maintained a strong friendship since, texting frequently during the baseball season and catching up with the occasional phone call when the opportunity arises. Birling says that Montoyo would be the first to admit that in his early days as a minor-league bench boss, outside criticism and the day-to-day grind of baseball bothered him.
“But then, when everything happened with his son, I think he just realized that, ‘Hey, if somebody wants to criticize me, they can criticize me. But I know I’m good at my job.’”
Samantha agrees and praises the level of focus Montoyo employed while navigating the obstacles of 2020.
“He’s very focused on [the current] game,” she says. “He’s not focused on seven games from now. He’s very focused on that game.”
So focused, in fact, that Montoyo occasionally forgot he wasn’t supposed to fiddle with his mask.