By: Sam Stephenson
Charlie Montoyo became a near legend as manager of the Durham Bulls from 2007 to 2014, winning at a historic level while remaining deeply popular on a personal level among the players, staff, and fans. When he received a promotion in 2015 to coach third base for the Bulls’ parent team in the Major Leagues, the Tampa Bay Rays, everyone was happy for him. But he was missed. The Bulls brought him back to honor his jersey in 2016.
From 2011 to 2013 I directed a documentary art project based on the goings on at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, on field and off. I often say that the biggest rewards for my line of work are the people you meet. Montoyo is a prime example.
But I hadn’t seen him in nearly five years until last week when I flew down to visit him for the last home weekend of the regular season when the Rays hosted the Toronto Blue Jays.
By now Montoyo had been promoted again, this time to be Rays manager Kevin Cash’s bench coach, his right hand man. In a season in which many expected the Rays to lose 100 games, especially after a disastrous start, they instead won ninety, the most of any team in Major League Baseball outside of the playoffs. They did it by employing an innovative tactic perhaps never seen in MLB history until the Rays did it on May 19; they used an “opener” to start the game on the mound with a goal of pitching to only a few batters, in other words a bookend to a closer. The Rays had one of the best records in baseball after they began employing this tactic.
Fans across the country were pointing at the Rays as the exemplar of on-field baseball innovation. By the time I arrived last week, Montoyo was rumored by many sources to be a candidate for a number of big league managing jobs open this offseason (as of this writing he’s been confirmed to have an interview with the Cincinnati Reds this week).
So it was a good time for me to check in with him.
Once I arrived in the clubhouse I was told that Charlie was out for his daily run. So I waited around. He walked in wearing sweaty running gear and ear buds. As he did on Durham’s Tobacco Trail for years, he still runs five miles everyday (at age 52 he remains in mint physical condition) while listening to salsa music from his native Puerto Rico. At home he has his own set of congas and timbales that he plays often. He and I originally connected on mutual loves for music so we immediately reconnected on that subject:
“There’s this incredible Latin music store in the Bronx that I learned about from visiting Yankee Stadium with the Rays,” Charlie told me. “I’ve bought probably four hundred CD’s in that store. It’s called Casa Amadeo. A man named Mike Amadeo has had the store for decades and he’s also from Puerto Rico. It’s incredible. Sometimes I’ll go on one of my runs from Yankee Stadium and I’ll run to the store on Prospect Avenue, buy some new CD’s, and run back to the stadium carrying the CD’s.”
He compares notes on new music with old friends such as former big leaguers, pitcher Juan Nieves and infielder Jose Oquendo, both from Puerto Rico, and both now having big league coaching jobs (Nieves was pitching coach for the Marlins this season, Oquendo third base coach for the Cardinals).
I asked Charlie how his family in Puerto Rico had done in last year’s tragic hurricane. He told me, “They are fine. Everybody is fine. It wasn’t easy, though. My parents had to come stay with us for a while.”
Charlie still talks on the phone everyday with his mother, Nydia, often stopping at the mid-point of his five-mile runs and calling her, having a chat, and then running back to the stadium.
I asked Charlie about all the rumors of vacant major league managing jobs with his name attached as a candidate. He responded:
“After everything that’s happened with my son Alex, being a big league manager isn’t the thing I think about the most in my life. It’s not my dream to be a big league manager. If it happens, and if it’s right for me and my family, then okay. But it’s not my dream.”
Longtime Bulls fans will remember that Alex, who turns eleven next week, was born with only one heart ventricle (instead of two), and he underwent several open-heart surgeries to save his life while his father was manager of the Bulls. Everything seems okay now and Alex has grown into a rabid baseball fan. He talks with his father on the phone or Facetime after every game when they aren’t in the same town (the family including Montoyo’s wife Samantha and older son Tyson splits time between Tucson, Arizona and Florida depending on the school year and baseball season).
While in the Rays clubhouse I had time to chat with former Durham Bulls radio broadcaster, Neil Solondz, who also had a promotion within the organization when he moved from Durham to Florida and into the Rays radio booth in 2012. He’s seen Charlie Montoyo’s growth from a minor league manager into mentioned candidate for major league managing jobs from a unique angle as broadcaster in both places.
“What Charlie has in his heart and soul,” Solondz told me, “was evident in Durham and it is evident here, and that is, he’s not doing this work for his own satisfaction or gain.”
That sounds like a simple statement from Solondz. But it’s profound to me, in part because after the years of my exposure to Montoyo it rings unusually true. And after two decades of writing and documentary work, and more than five hundred oral history interviews around the country and world, I know that you don’t often meet people that aren’t driven by self or gain, especially not at this level of any profession or craft. It’s almost like Montoyo is more pure artist than anything else. He’s going to do what he does no matter where he is.
Solondz continued: “Charlie loves baseball and he loves teaching baseball and he’s also very loyal to the Rays organization and they are loyal to him. He’s been with the Rays for twenty-two years now.” (Montoyo’s first job with the Rays was in 1997 as manager of their Single-A team in Princeton, West Virginia.)
I witnessed an example of Montoyo’s love for teaching before the game. Several infielders were taking ground balls, which is a routine in baseball on every level. But these were “live ground balls,” (Montoyo’s term), not balls tossed in the air and hit by the same person. For the Rays, it takes two people to deliver ground balls to the infielder, one to toss balls and another to swing the bat. “It makes a huge difference to practice with live ground balls rather than fungoes hit by one guy. This is a live batted ball,” Montoyo told me. It struck me that this is the difference between the first ball entered by tennis players into a practice rally and the second ball that comes back to the player who started the rally. There’s different energy in it.
I asked Montoyo about the emphasis on statistics in developing strategy at the major league level. When he managed the Durham Bulls he was known to rarely pay attention to statistics (in part because the roster and lineups are determined by the parent team). He perfected techniques of human relations. I asked him if the switch to statistics-based decisions was difficult. “No, not really,” he responded. “You still have to manage human beings and give them what they need, and I understand that very well because of my playing experiences and managing in the minor leagues. Also, I enjoy working with Kevin. He values my opinion. We’re constantly going back and forth. I’ve got a good job.”
Before I left, I learned another difference between Charlie’s life now and when he was in Durham: He’s got a bigger house. “I now have my own man cave where I can play my congas and timbales without having to be outside in the garage.”
Sam Stephenson is a writer and documentarian that authored Bull City Summer: A Season at the Ballpark in 2014. He first wrote about Charlie Montoyo for The Paris Review. His latest book is Gene Smith’s Sink waspublished in paperback in 2018 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.