To Not Fade Away

I last met Miguel Montero on April 29, 2017, when he was with the Chicago Cubs and I was with The Athletic. That was 12,348 days after Montero was born in Caracas, Venezuela, and 341 days before he’d take three plate appearances for the Washington Nationals on April 5, 2018, and thereafter leave the game, apparently for good. Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic reported recently that Montero is “pretty much” retired these days, and in this world of oh so very much uncertainty, “pretty much” is good enough for me. Eight months and a few days after he last took the field for a major league team, and forty years before he can reasonably expect his time to end, Miguel Montero the player is about to pass out of our present and into our memories, while Miguel Montero the man lives on.

It seems like a good time to remember the man.

When I last met Miguel Montero, he was in the process of being passed by. Kyle Schwarber had returned from a knee injury that had taken him away from all but the beginning and brilliant ending of the Cubs’ 2016 campaign; Willson Contreras was about to embark upon a sophomore season that seemed to confirm the highest aspirations of his debut. Montero, then 33 and already trailed by the whispers of self-interest which would crescendo into a shout and chase him out of the Chicago clubhouse two months later, was standing in the visitor’s clubhouse in Fenway Park, not all that far from the door, rocking from side to side on heels that weren’t yet ready to play the backup role assigned to them.

At the time, I had the impression of a man torn between what he knew he was and what he wanted to be. Miguel Montero wanted to be a leader, and for a time there in Chicago, he was. The Cubs wouldn’t have won the World Series in 2016 without his brittle, prideful energy — they wouldn’t have beaten the Dodgers 8-4 in Game 1 of the NLCS, they wouldn’t even have gotten to the NLCS that without Montero hard on their asses, chasing them on. The Cubs were led by their catchers in 2016, and Montero and David Ross were the catchers they had. Montero wasn’t the leader of his dreams in 2016, but he was a leader nonetheless, and by early 2017 in Boston he could feel the moment that had placed him there moving on.

For most of us, our daily acts of self-creation are private — contained in the moments in which we choose this, not that, to love this person, not that one, and to do this thing, and not the other. For major league baseball players, that is not so. They are created once the way all people are created, then again in private, over and over, just themselves and the people they love, and then a third time — this is the time that is different — in thousands of moments in the lives of other people. In our lives. Baseball players become the signifiers of other childhoods, and of childhood’s end; they become totems to mark the passage of time, to mark the bounds between one part of life and another that comes after it, and the men behind the totems become incidental to their meaning to us. That is what Miguel Montero became to me. That is what other Monteros have become to others.

I grew up a Cubs fan, but I’m not sure I am one anymore. The team has changed, of course, but far more consequentially to me, so have I. In the spring of 2015, I wrote my first word for Baseball Prospectus, in part about Miguel Montero. That fall, I sat in the press box at Wrigley Field covering the Cubs in the postseason. The next October, I watched them win the World Series. Miguel Montero was one of the last generation of Cubs who I could, ever-so-briefly, worship as larger than life. He was among the last who I first imagined into being when I could not reasonably imagine later standing before him in a cramped Boston clubhouse, watching the man and not the idea of him come to grips with a time passing him by. He was among the last who I did not expect to see swearing at his misfortune, standing awkwardly in his in-betweenness, checking his phone for the latest from his children, smiling and laughing in that ribald childish way of men in the company of men. He was among the last who was not fully real to me.

And now he is not real to any of us, in the way that most of the baseball players of our times are not real. Now he is Miguel Montero, C, 2006-2018. Now he is fixed in our memories as a point of light, whether for his five good seasons and three bad ones with the Diamondbacks, his two years and three months with the Cubs, or those last gasps of relevance with the Blue Jays and Nationals. Most ballplayers pass out of our consciousness this way. They can’t all be Chipper Jones or Mariano Rivera. They can’t all say farewell, and be enlarged permanently in their absence. Most of them are there with us, filling our summers and lengthening our falls, until one day we look up and find them gone. They remain then linked in our memories as signs of that time in our lives, even as the men whose human forms those signs took on continue to age and change before a diminished crowd of spectators. Miguel Montero will likely live many more years. He could become a grandfather, the patriarch of a strong and growing family. He will, apparently, be an agent to as many players as he can get his hands on. He might even pick up a mask and glove one of these days and catch a ball or two in his backyard. He will tell stories of his days in our memories. But he will not be real to most of us, anymore. He will remain fixed in time, as we last knew him. He will not fade away.

Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.

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3 years ago

Miguel Montero was a good player, but his attitude probably worked better in some situations than others. When the Cubs cut him after he ran his mouth off about Arrieta and the stolen bases, I kept thinking back to The Big Lebowski:

Am I wrong?
You’re not wrong.
Am I wrong?
You’re not wrong, Miguel, you’re just an asshole!
All right then.

You don’t have to keep everything in house, but this sure seemed like a situation for it. It’s really unfortunate that this will probably be the last memory most of us have of him.

3 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Yes, that’s unfortunate. For a period of 3-4 years, he was one of the better all round catchers in the league.

3 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

If a retired baseball player brings to mind a classic scene from “The Big Lebowski,” then they should look back with pride.

Obviously, though, Miguel is not a golfer.