Minor League Manager Of The Year
Durham's Charlie Montoyo has proven he can persevere
DURHAM, N.C.—Durham manager Charlie Montoyo had the credentials to win the Minor League Manager of the Year award before guiding the Bulls to the 2009 Governors Cup and Triple-A Championship titles.
But the honor was sealed for the third-year Durham Bulls manager the moment Rashad Eldridge scored on an 11th-inning wild pitch against Memphis, giving one of minor league baseball's most historic franchises its first reign as the undisputed king of Triple-A baseball.
"You have to be lucky to win championships," said Montoyo, known as one of the most affable guys in the game. "That's the way we won the whole year—close games and good pitching."
It's another accomplishment for the Bulls, who have been a gold standard for minor league baseball since the movie "Bull Durham" was released in 1988. Things got bigger 10 seasons later as the Bulls—the Rays' new affiliate in the International League—became fixtures in the Governors' Cup Playoffs.
Durham entered 2009 already having enjoyed a great run of postseason appearances, as the parent club filled the team with proven six-year free agents before producing a passel of prospects. In the previous 11 years, Durham had nine winning seasons, eight playoff berths, seven South Division titles, six appearances in the Governors' Cup Finals, back-to-back Governors' Cup titles in 2002 and '03 and had never finished below second in the division.
However, the Bulls had been foiled in the finals in 2007 and '08. Montoyo finally led the team across the threshold, and his achievement did not go unnoticed. He is also this year's recipient of the Coolbaugh Award, which Minor League Baseball presents annually to an individual who has shown an outstanding baseball work ethic, knowledge of the game and skill in mentoring young players on the field.
"Charlie has been a hard working, loyal staff member for the Rays since 1996," Rays farm director Mitch Lukevics said. "He's a dedicated teacher of our game with a passion to help players both on and off the field."
Father, Son and Baseball
Montoyo hasn't been so fortunate off the field. He has managed to keep the club—which has housed such future Rays stars as Evan Longoria, David Price and Fernando Perez during his tenure—together through great personal struggles.
Always on his mind is his son Alex, born Oct. 17, 2007, on Charlie's 43rd birthday. Charlie and his wife Samantha, who he met in 1999 when he managed the Charleston RiverDogs—she was promotions manager for the team—have a healthy older son, Tyson, who just turned seven.
But Alex's life has been tough. Born with a condition known as Ebstein's anomaly, a malformation of the heart with a poor long-term prognosis, he has been through numerous surgeries and procedures, and doesn't yet swallow food because his throat was sore for so long from having a breathing tube for five months. When he was born, doctors said Alex's first birthday would be a major milestone. That happened. And in July, Alex underwent a procedure known as a glenn, in which a blood vessel from his neck was used to redirect blood flow.
"Alex is doing well," Montoyo said. "He's going through therapy and everything right now to get him to walk and to eat (orally)."
Alex's struggles have given Montoyo a higher profile in the Durham community, as well as in Montgomery, Ala., where he managed the Double-A Biscuits for three seasons and won the Southern League title in 2006 before his promotion.
"I think obviously with the situation Charlie has been in with his family has really brought him closer not just to us in the front office but to all Durham Bulls fans," Durham general manager Mike Birling said. "It's such a tough story."
Part Of Bulls Lore
Montoyo has been able to build on Durham's winning tradition Bill Evers built during his eight seasons as manager before an ugly 2006 season under John Tamargo, one marked by Delmon Young's bat-toss at an umpire and subsequent suspension.
"When you had a guy like Bill Evers who was such a part of the community, when he leaves you want someone who can come in and keep that going," Birling added, "making sure that what the Bulls and the Tampa Bay Rays believe in gets across to the players and the fans."
Montoyo, a Puerto Rico native who spoke no English when he matriculated at San Jose's De Anza JC before finishing his college career at Louisiana Tech, became the consummate 4-A shortstop during his five-plus years as a Triple-A player. Spending time in the Brewers, Expos and Phillies organizations, his only big league playing experience was a 27-day stint with Montreal in 1993.
"Charlie knows how it is to work your way up and be in the minor leagues for a long time," said pitching coach Xavier Hernandez, who has been on Montoyo's staff for five seasons. "He gives these kids freedom to play. He's definitely not overbearing, and lets the chips fall where they may."
Durham won the 2009 championships after a run of late-season transactions like the franchise had never seen. Between Sept. 1 and their playoff opener with red-hot Louisville on Sept. 9, the Bulls had Perez, Wade Davis, Reid Brignac, Chris Richard, Shawn Riggans, Jeff Bennett, Andy Sonnanstine, and Dale Thayer recalled to Tampa Bay, while Jon Weber and Jason Childers went to help Team USA win the World Cup.
The Bulls beat Louisville in five games, then swept defending champion Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in three to earn the trip to Oklahoma City for the Triple-A National Championship.
"We got to beat the Yankees after they took it to us last year," said second baseman Elliot Johnson, who has played for Montoyo since 2005. "We were fortunate to get (playoff ace Jeremy) Hellickson and (Southern League player of the year Desmond) Jennings and Eldridge. That's a testament to how deep our farm system is because we went ahead and recharged."
Mike Potter is a freelance writer based in Durham.