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Blue Jays manager Montoyo passing every early test

TORONTO – Hire enough people and eventually it becomes pretty easy to discern when a reference is simply spouting platitudes about a job candidate, and when that person truly has conviction in what they’re saying. As the Toronto Blue Jays made phone call after phone call in backgrounding Charlie Montoyo – general manager Ross Atkins alone estimated he made “upwards of 10” calls – they quickly concluded that the raves they kept hearing about the 53-year-old were genuine. A good baseball man. A quality leader. A man of high character.

One player Atkins spoke to said he had confidence in Montoyo’s guidance because he’s a good husband to wife Samantha and a good father to Tyson, 15, and Alex, 11 (a rabid baseball fan who has undergone multiple heart surgeries after being born with only one functioning ventricle).

That was a conversation that stuck out, as did those with Tampa Bay Rays general manager Erik Neander and manager Kevin Cash, who outlined how much he leaned on Montoyo in decision-making over the course of the season. It all jived with what Atkins had gleaned over the years in casual conversations with others at the minor-league parks the native of Florida, Puerto Rico coached and managed in for nearly two decades, before reaching the majors on Cash’s staff.

By the time Montoyo arrived in Toronto for an interview last week, Atkins said he felt like he already knew him. “When we sat down and spent a day and a half together, we do have a lot in common having our careers in the minor-leagues or focused on the minor-leagues. A very, very comfortable interaction,” Atkins said. “But nothing is more powerful than what we had learned about him previously.”

It was powerful enough for Atkins to essentially tie his fate as general manager to how effectively Montoyo deploys the talent he’s provided.

“You have no idea how thankful I am for this opportunity,” Montoyo said moments after putting on his No. 25 Blue Jays jersey for the first time. “I’m going to do my best, guys, to make you proud.”

WHAT TO EXPECT

In the days since the announcement of Montoyo’s hiring last week, others have started calling around asking questions about the man tabbed to replace John Gibbons. Blue Jays centre-fielder Kevin Pillar is one of them.

“Been able to talk to a couple people I know that had played for him and the word they use to describe him is ‘winner,’” Pillar said via text message. “They also say he cares deeply about his players. Definitely nervous considering Gibby is the only manager I’ve ever played for, but excited for change.”

Change may be an understatement.

As the Blue Jays accelerate down the rebuild track they started on last season, they will be transformed not only from a roster perspective, but also from an operational one. Everything will be different, from the way spring training is run to the man at the helm.

Collectively, it’s the most significant shift for the franchise since the 2012-13 off-season when the Blue Jays made the blockbuster deal with the Miami Marlins that landed Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, and Gibbons took over from John Farrell.

What can players expect in their new manager?

“Somebody who communicates a lot – I think that’s one of my strengths,” said Montoyo.

“Respect – I respect the players because I know it’s not an easy game to play, so whatever I do as a manager, I think as a player, how would I feel if someone is talking to me? That’s my main thing, the respect I have for the players. I know they are human beings, they have lives, they have families. The other one is when it comes to me being the manager … I don’t have all the answers. I’m looking for useful information and it can come from different places, from coaches, from the front office. And the player is always going to know where he stands, that’s also big, the honesty.”

A sixth-round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers in 1987 who appeared in four big-league games with the Montreal Expos in 1993 – his only touch of the majors as a player – Montoyo cited Felipe Alou, Tony Muser and Tom Gamboa as three managers to have influenced him through their communication, honesty and positivity.

“I said if I ever manage, I’m going to be like these guys,” he said.

As for what he thinks of the roster he has in place, Montoyo said he hadn’t yet taken a deep dive into his players because he wanted everything to be official first. He said from across the diamond, the Blue Jays reminded him of the Rays with their youth and he rejected the notion his new team is in for a year or two of pain before things turn.

“Part of managing is adjusting to what you have,” said Montoyo, who plans to start phoning his new players Tuesday. “I’m going to adjust to what we’ve got and we’re going to play to win.”

PLAYING STYLE

So, aside from playing to win, how exactly are the Blue Jays going to play? Are they about to go all new-school like the Rays, with relievers starting games, different shifts for different counts and a total data-revolution in the dugout?

“I’m a blend of old school and analytics,” said Montoyo. “I think using both makes you a better manager, but I wouldn’t say I’m one way or the other. Wherever I can find useful information, that’s where I’m going to go.”

Here’s one interpretation: Montoyo is open-minded to trying things driven by evidential data, which is probably the approach you want as the game evolves rapidly. The Rays’ decision to employ the opener was based on their roster circumstances – they lost a handful of starters to injury, didn’t have a better alternative so they got creative and tried to deploy the arms they had in the most effective fashion.

The Blue Jays aren’t necessarily planning to do the same thing.

“Just because I came from Tampa Bay doesn’t mean we’re going to do everything they did over there,” said Montoyo. “We’re a different team and we’re going to adjust to what we have. When you guys talk about openers and all that stuff, it doesn’t mean that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to get everybody together and talk about [it] and go from there.”

Everybody includes an-in-the-works coaching staff that Montoyo has been thinking so much about that he hasn’t “been able to sleep.” Given his experience, the Blue Jays have more flexibility in that regard, since he won’t need to be surrounded by stable hands to help him run a ballgame.

Pitching coach Pete Walker and third base coach Luis Rivera, a fellow Puerto Rican, are thought to be the likeliest coaches to be retained, although it sure sounds like everything is up in the air when it comes to giving a young roster the appropriate resources.

“I’m looking forward to that,” Montoyo said of working with young players. “Everything I’ve done in my life is teaching and developing younger players to get better. It’s going to be awesome. And that’s why finding the right coaching staff is going to be very important for me.”

KEEP IN MIND

Introductory sports news conferences are merely snapshots, a carefully orchestrated glimpse into a person and the circumstances around his arrival to a club. Typically, they go well. Occasionally, they don’t. Either way they are rarely, if ever, a leading indicator of how things are going to work out.

Montoyo showed well in his first day. He’s engaging and seems to have John Gibbons’ people skills, a quick wit and a comfort in who he is, which goes a long way in the role. He beamed about being named manager the day after one of his countrymen, Alex Cora, managed the Boston Red Sox to a World Series title. “There’s a lot of happiness in Puerto Rico now,” he said, “and I’m proud of that.”

Quite obviously, he’s a terrific baseball man. Now, his challenge is in becoming a terrific manager, too.

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