It was understood when Charlie Montoyo joined the Blue Jays in 2018 that he’d been hired to be fired.
Aside from having worked for the figure-it-out-on-the-fly Tampa Bay Rays for a long time, he didn’t have any pedigree. But he was cheap, available and willing to follow orders, which distinguished him for Toronto’s purposes.
At the time, the Jays were mediocre and planning to get worse. They’d just semi-fired John Gibbons, who had become a beloved figure in his second stint with the club.
Montoyo wasn’t there to turn anything around. He was there to act as a human shield.
Amid the bongos, the sweet family backstory and his guileless charm, the hope was that Montoyo was someone you couldn’t be mean to. Neither the media nor the players.
Credit to the team’s executives for understanding what they’re not good at – speaking English to other humans. Even when it didn’t have much logic to it, Montoyo never talked to people as though they were stupid. That was a major improvement.
The Jays’ teams under Montoyo stayed chipper. Even when it got dark, Montoyo had a wonderful ‘Ain’t it a great day to play baseball?’ way about him.
Montoyo was there to take the hits and spin on-field incompetence into a weird sort of heroism. Occasionally, he was there to express a relatable level of frustration. He did both things with panache.
Obviously, a lot of fans hated him for it. As they had with Gibbons (and Farrell, and Gaston, and on and on until the beginning of time), some people thought they could do Montoyo’s job better than he could.
They couldn’t. There is more to managing a baseball team than knowing when to switch the pitcher. You’re not reading off a spreadsheet. You’re corralling a stable of thoroughbreds. If you could do it, you would, but you don’t because you can’t.
Montoyo was hired to absorb punishment, deflect praise and say ‘yes’ to whatever he was told. He performed this duty ably for 3 1/2 years. Considering what he put up with for a lot of it, he gave incredible value for money.
But in the end, he was there to perform one function: emergency release valve. When the Jays had got where they hoped and it wasn’t going as they’d planned, they could always press the big red button marked ‘Fire Charlie.’ That would let off some pressure.
On Wednesday, they did that.
Per the usual, there was a lot of fanfare on the way in and one dreary sentence on the way out. Four years ago, Montoyo was an unrecognized baseball savant, somewhere between Casey Stengel and Bill James. On Wednesday: “The Toronto Blue Jays have today relieved manager Charlie Montoyo of his duties as manager.”
They couldn’t even say something nice about how much he meant to them. To do so would be contrary to Montoyo’s baseball purpose. Now that he’s going, all of this – the Jays’ midseason slump, the long-term questions about pitching, the sudden, relative mediocrity of several of their young stars – is Montoyo’s fault.
He turned Bo Bichette and Teoscar Hernandez into pumpkins. He signed Yusei Kikuchi and injured Hyun-jin Ryu. He turned 2022 Jose Berrios into 2020 Jose Berrios and slept in the day they were interviewing relievers. Montoyo is to blame for all of the Jays’ flaws.
“This is a collective setback and ultimately that starts with me,” general manager Ross Atkins said at a news conference after the announcement. “I’m the one that needs to be the most accountable.”
And yet you still have a job. What are we to make of that?
What we’re left with is the impression that Montoyo was doing something worse than failing. That he had in some mysterious, never-to-be-spoken-of way poisoned the well. The truth of it isn’t important. It’s just meant to be understood that way. A “collective” failure occurred, but only one guy got torched.
Depressingly, this sort of nonsense often works. Considering how they’ve looked over the last while (9-17 since mid-June), the real miracle would be if they managed to get worse.
The players get a shot across the bow (not that they care). Management gets to say they did something. Some fans get their wish. Other fans get a change. Everybody gets 24 hours of catharsis.
And then what?
Now there is no cover for the people on top.
Bench coach John Schneider will act as interim manager. Schneider is a Blue Jays lifer who’s gone from minor-league journeyman to, temporarily, the top job. A good guy, but not much use right now as a human shield.
For the first time since they took over, the Blue Jays’ brain trust – president Mark Shapiro and Atkins – are exposed.
They were smart about Gibbons. They kept him just long enough so that it wouldn’t look mercenary when they got rid of him. And he was never their guy. What happened on his watch wasn’t their problem.
Montoyo was their guy. Now that he’s gone, Shapiro and Atkins don’t have a guy. They’re the guys.
Best-case scenario for them – the Jays return to their mean, which is good enough to make the playoffs. They don’t have to win there, but they have to qualify. Then the Jays either reward Schneider by making him the new human shield or they hire someone with more pull (meaning someone less likely to tug a forelock).
But for the first time, the worst-case scenario is in play – the Jays don’t get any better and they miss the playoffs. Schneider is shuffled back down the bench and the Jays have to hire a name brand to get the fans back on side. And then that guy can’t get it done, or does it his own way, or people get restive, after which we start talking about a failure to lead.
This is the thing about solving the problem you have right now. It creates the possibility of a much bigger problem a little ways down the road.