It was after midnight last month when Charlie Montoyo got the word from the Tampa Bay Rays that his standout closer, Kirby Yates, was getting called up to the majors for the first time.
Montoyo could have let Yates know over the phone, but the Durham Bulls manager wanted to deliver the news in person. Montoyo made sure Yates was still awake by dialing his room and pretending he received a noise complaint. Then, at 1 a.m., he came over to tell Yates to pack his bags.
“I’m not going to call this guy,” Montoyo said. “I need to give this guy a hug. He’s been awesome.”
Montoyo tries to vary his delivery each time – a difficult proposition when 12 Bulls have already been called up to the Rays this season.
He told infielder Cole Figueroa in the dugout between innings so that his teammates could celebrate the moment. He put his family on speakerphone in the car so they could all tell reliever C.J. Reifenhauser the news.
Montoyo tries to make it special because players will always remember the time they found out they’d finally made it to the big leagues. After all, Montoyo still remembers his first call-up.
The Puerto Rico native played Triple-A baseball for parts of six seasons in his 10-year career and was promoted to the majors just once, in September 1993. He played in four games with the Montreal Expos and went 2 for 5 with a double and three RBI.
Montoyo’s years of experience at the Triple-A level have helped him relate to his players and are a big reason why he’s been named the manager of the International League team for the 2014 Triple-A All-Star Game.
Montoyo is a two-time IL Manager of the Year who has led Durham to six division titles in his seven seasons at the helm. Last season he led the Bulls to the best record in Triple-A baseball (83-53) and a spot in the Triple-A national championship game, which he previously won in 2009.
Montoyo said he doesn’t take the success for granted – especially considering that Tampa Bay has also made the playoffs four times during that seven-year stretch.
“I know it’s not easy,” Montoyo said. “You have to be lucky. And to have your big league team win while you win in Triple-A, that’s not easy either.”
But Montoyo thinks there’s a correlation between the success of the Bulls and the success of the Rays. Tampa Bay’s top stars during its recent stretch – players like Evan Longoria, David Price, James Shields, Ben Zobrist, and Jeremy Hellickson – have all been a part of playoff runs in Durham.
“That means something,” Montoyo said. “They know how to win. And I think it’s paying off in the Big Leagues. These guys know how to win when they get there.”
Triple-A has been called the hardest level to manage because no one wants to be there – they all want to be one step higher. But Montoyo has found success by knowing how to get the best results from his players.
Montoyo said that one key is using the “sandwich method” – surround the bad news with good news.
“Start with something positive, then negative, then finish with something positive,” Montoyo said. “I think that’s everywhere in life.”
Montoyo also keeps a calm demeanor throughout the season.
“He’s the same individual day in, day out,” pitching coach Neil Allen said. “And that’s hard for a manager because you go through funks, but he’s the same guy every day. He’s not up and down. That’s what makes him unique at this level.”
Montoyo’s minor-league experience gives him first-hand knowledge of how tough the Triple-A season is – each team averages about one scheduled day off each month – and he’s known to make batting practice optional in order to keep players fresh.
“He’s been there,” Allen said. “He’s lived it. He’s grinded it out. He’s got a good feel for what these guys are going through.”
Finally, Montoyo makes sure no hitter goes two days off without playing, so that everyone on the roster feels like they’re part of the team.
Like most of his players, Montoyo’s has been at every minor-league level during his 18-year managerial career, all with the Rays organization.
But after moving quickly through Rookie League, short season, A, Advanced A and Double A, his career seems to have stalled at Triple-A. Still, he said he’s not looking ahead.
“I think people who look past, they forget the job at hand, and I don’t want to be one of those,” said Montoyo, who last month became one of two managers in Bulls history to win 600 games.
Montoyo said he wasn’t aware of the milestone win until he read about it. That fits his unassuming style, but also indicates what he feels is his top priority – player development.
“If you’re going to be in the Minor Leagues, why not win?” Montoyo said. “But I’m always happy to tell somebody that they’re going up to the Big Leagues, even if the team might be weaker. You play this game to go up to the Big Leagues.”