August 20, 2012 | by Sam Stephenson
I arrived at the spring-training complex of the Tampa Bay Rays in Port Charlotte, Florida, around ten A.M. It would be a typical mid-nineties March day under a relentless sun. I was looking for Charlie Montoyo, the forty-six-year-old manager of the Rays’ top minor-league affiliate, the AAA Durham Bulls.
Outfielder Jeff Salazar pointed me toward the “half-field,” a regulation infield with no outfield on the outskirts of the sprawling complex. A chain-link fence separated the infield dirt from a swamp. There, I found Jamie Nelson, catching coordinator for the Rays organization, tossing pitches to Venezuelan catcher José Lobatón, who was crouched in full gear. He caught the balls, exploded out of his position behind home plate—helmet and face mask falling off each time—and threw darts to second base, where Montoyo straddled the bag and gloved the throws, then tossed the balls underhand into a rolling cart.
The three men executed this drill for fifteen minutes, saying nothing. I considered returning to the car for more sunscreen. Then I thought about “deep languor,” a term Richard Ford once used to describe the pleasant monotony of baseball and its routines. He borrowed the term, almost certainly, from a speech by Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, who used those two words in regard to the tears, shed from his heart and soul, that mark the dusty street. Languor’s Latin origins imply a dreaminess or relief through weariness or muted suffering. It’s a word that fits the origins of Southern blues or Appalachian string music, and it fits baseball, too, a sport of failure. Championship teams still lose 40 percent of their games. Hitters that succeed only 30 percent of the time make the Hall of Fame. It’s a sport in which the most successful players wear looks of rote boredom. They exercise a loose, clear-headed ambivalence necessary to perform their reactive, elegant split-second craft at the highest levels.
In Little League in his native Puerto Rico in the seventies, Jose Carlos “Charlie” Montoyo wasn’t allowed to pitch because he threw too hard. As an infielder, he made his way through the ranks of American professional baseball and played six years in AAA ball, the highest level under the major leagues. In September 1993 he spent twenty-seven days in the majors, on the roster of the Montreal Expos. In only five at-bats, he had two hits and three runs batted in, but he never got another chance, due to changes in the Expos front office before the following spring; Montoyo got lost in the uncertain shuffle that defines AAA baseball, a level of sport more enigmatic than any other in America, with young strivers coming up from AA and disgruntled veterans coming down from the big leagues, mixing on a 25-man team where winning is less important than individual training. At the end of the 1996 season, Montoyo retired from the minor leagues and the next year, at age thirty-one, took a job managing the Single A Princeton (W.V.) Rays. He’s been managing ever since, working his way up through the Rays’ organization.
“Psychologically, baseball at the AAA level can kill you,” Montoyo told me in July in Durham. “When they say making it to the big leagues is about right place right time, it’s so true it’s not even funny. Just when you think you’re out, you’re in—you get traded, a random guy gets hurt in the big leagues, and suddenly you’re called up, after waiting for two years behind somebody on your former team. Then, just when you think you’re in, you’re out—somebody else gets called up and you are sent down. You get mad, you start wondering, Why me? You start following other players in the box scores, and you focus on things that you should forget about, things you can’t control, and your performance bottoms out. I’ve seen it a thousand times. When you get to a certain level of talent, the difference is not talent but whether you focus things you can control. My job is to keep players focused on today’s preparation and today’s routine, not what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow.”
In five years in Durham, Montoyo has won five consecutive division titles, plus the AAA National Championship. A year before he joined the Bulls he won another title managing the Rays’ AA team, the Montgomery Biscuits. He maintains a near legend in Durham for not following statistics or standings, in part because he has little choice: his roster is determined by the parent organization and winning at the minor league level is not their priority. By necessity, Montoyo’s style bears no resemblance to Moneyball, in which personnel decisions are made through innovative analysis of statistics. Montoyo manages human beings, not numbers, and evidence indicates he’s a master of it.
In 2010 and 2011 the Durham Bulls were led by two players, Dan Johnson and Russ Canzler, who enjoyed career years and were selected MVPs of the International League. Neither player has a natural position in the field, better-than-average speed or throwing arms. But they excelled in the team environment created by Montoyo, who promises that no position player will ever go more than two games without starting. “He’s by far the best manager I’ve ever played for,” said Canzler at the end of the 2011 season. “He knows how tough it is at this level.”
“He does an outstanding job keeping guys fresh,” said Johnson, “especially during the heat of the summer. Minor league players get worn out all the time by overbearing managers. Charlie doesn’t do that. But at the same time he sets a great example of working hard and wanting to succeed. Guys see him out here running, lifting weights, throwing batting practice every day.”
During one batting practice session in Durham in July, in ninety-eight-degree heat, I counted 178 pitches thrown by Montoyo in a routine daily session. (For those at home, try throwing a shoe across the room at half your capacity 178 times in fifteen minutes and see how you feel the next day.) When I told him his pitch count, he chuckled and said, “Maybe I should ice my arm.”
For six weeks in Port Charlotte, Montoyo awoke each morning at five o’clock, ran five miles and lifted weights before the players arrived. In Durham he is known for long runs on the American Tobacco Trail, a converted railroad corridor. On his iPod he cranks Puerto Rican salsa, classic groups such as Hector Lavoe, El Gran Combo, La Fania All-Stars, and La Sonora Poncena. Salsa is often characterized as “spicy” or “hot,” with brash trumpet and brass sections, but its rhythmic bed is syncopated and hypnotic, sometimes hallucinogenic, indicating its roots in ritual music.
Montoyo keeps a large collection of congas, bongos, and various other salsa percussion instruments in the home he shares with his wife, Samantha, and their two young sons, Tyson and Alex. He listens to the music in his earphones while playing the instruments in the garage. Without hearing the full ensemble – the brass and vocals on the front line, says Samantha, the neighbors can’t comprehend the rhythms coming from Charlie’s hands.
* * *
On April 4 there was a season-opening luncheon gala in the upscale American Tobacco complex across the street from the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Seventy-five years ago, Blind Boy Fuller, Reverend Gary Davis, Peg Leg Sam, and other Piedmont blues musicians would have been playing for tips during shift changes outside of this football field–size brick warehouse. On this day there were suited executives from across the burgeoning Raleigh-Durham–Chapel Hill “Triangle” region celebrating the opening of a new season inside the plush restored warehouse.
The Bulls won five of seven at home to start the season. They seemed headed for another winning season, if not a sixth straight title. The next day, though, the team left for what veteran major and minor league infielder Will Rhymes later called “the worst road trip in my career as a professional baseball player.” The Bulls played fourteen games in fourteen days in Gwinnett, Georgia; Charlotte, North Carolina; Pawtucket, Rhode Island; and Norfolk, Virginia. They went 1-13. Back in Durham they lost three straight, 1-16 after the 5-2 start. The Bulls were 6-18 overall and in a deep hole. They’ve battled back to a near .500 record (59-67 as of August 16), but they are ten games behind in the division and eight games behind in the wild-card race. Montoyo’s string of titles and playoff appearances is over.
“This is the toughest season I’ve experienced at this level, but I feel good knowing that I can endure it,” says Montoyo. “I’ve known nothing but success. I’d never experienced anything like this on the field, so I didn’t know for sure if I could handle it. Now I know I can. The statistics will tell you that we are last in the league in pitching and we have trouble scoring runs. In baseball, success and failure is contagious. If you put yourself in a hole, individually or as a team, it’s difficult to battle out of it. If you are hitting .200 in July, you can get hot for two weeks and you are still hitting only .225. It feels impossible. Then you go 0 for 4 and you are right back in your slump. But the players here are playing hard and that’s all I ask. If they work hard, prepare everyday, and stay positive, that’s all you can do.”
Sam Stephenson is Lehman-Brady Joint Visiting Professor in Documentary Studies and American Studies at Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill. He is currently at work on a biography of W. Eugene Smith for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.