Rookie catcher Jesus Montero has become one of my favorite baseball players. A month into another Mariners season fraught with symptoms of spring fever – hitters sniffling and wheezing, relievers coughing up leads, the manager and his coaching staff aching – the ex-Yankees prospect is confronting the pressure of delivering on great expectations and running with it.
“Running” is one way to describe Montero’s earnest ambition to generate movement from Point A to Point C, while seemingly visiting the oasis at Point B for free coffee and a 45-minute snooze.
Montero runs like a deer, albeit a deer paralyzed in the headlights. How slow is Jesus Montero? Let’s put it this way: When he opened an account with Sprint, he got hooked up with Saunter.
It has been said that Negro Leagues legend “Cool Papa” Bell was so fast that when he entered his bedroom and flicked off the light switch, he already was under the bedsheets before the room got dark.
Montero, on the other hand, doesn’t need to use the bedroom light. If he goes to bed at 8 p.m., the sun is rising before he makes it across the room.
When Montero blasted a pitch to deep left-center Friday at Safeco Field, I thought to myself: Between that graceful swing and ungainly gait, I could watch this guy all night. And then, as Montero pulled into second base some time later, I realized I had been watching him all night.
The Friday blast off Twins starter Carl Pavano gave Montero three doubles in 24 games, a stat that doesn’t do his power potential justice. He crushed a ball off the fence the other day in Tampa Bay, only to be held to a single. Montero, it should be noted, didn’t pause at the plate to admire the depth of his work, in the inimitable style of Reggie Jackson.
Montero saw the ball, and hit the ball, and when the ball he saw hit the wall, there he was, barely safe on first. He appeared to haul ice.
Behind the plate, it’s pretty obvious the kid doesn’t have a Gold Glove-caliber arm. And yet he’s proving himself to be, well, a throwback, latest in a tradition of such slow-footed catchers as Smoky Burgess, Gus Triandos, Russ Nixon, Johnny Estrada, the Molina Brothers and Chris Snyder.
There is slow, to be sure, and then there is the case of the late – emphasis on the late – catcher Ernie Lombardi, posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986. Although he was listed 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds (similar to Montero, who is 6-3, 235), Lombardi’s weight toward the end of his career, during the mid-1940s, was closer to that of a nose tackle in today’s NFL.
A sportswriter once described Lombardi running as if he were carrying a piano – along with the man who was tuning it. That somebody so ill-equipped to motor down the line grounded into 261 double plays is not surprising. What’s surprising is that the piano-carrying man won a pair of National League batting titles, hitting as high as .342 for the 1938 Reds.
“As he got older,” wrote baseball historian Bill James, “he acquired a huge belly, which he lugged around with a huge effort.
“His knees were too low to the ground, and his center of gravity was four feet behind him, so that he was never endowed by nature with adequate speed. As he got older he slowed down, becoming surely the slowest player ever to play major league baseball well.”
Because he’s had fewer than 160 at-bats in the bigs, it’s too early to posit the conclusion that Montero plays major league baseball well. Still, what a start: Through the second game of the Mariners’ second homestand, Montero was second on the team in RBI (13) and co-leader, with Michael Saunders and Kyle Seager, in home runs (four). And he was hitting .289, challenging Ichiro Suzuki (.303) and Seager (.297) for the team lead.
If Montero were blessed with Ichiro’s speed, he’d be a threat to hit .350. Then again, if Montero were blessed Ichiro’s speed, the 22-year old Venezuelan wouldn’t loom as the most entertaining Mariners rookie since Chris Snelling was a can’t-miss prospect with two healthy knees.
The charm Montero brings to home plate is that he wasn’t born to run beyond it.
Still, some perspective is in order. Montero is slow only in the context of his peers, the best baseball players on the planet. Remove Montero from the diamond and put him in a match race against a department-store Santa, he’d finish among the top two, easily.
Montero is even faster than some athletes, such as those muscle men who compete in Strongman contests. I suspect he could outrun a guy pushing a freight car, or at least stay close.
What Montero needs is a nickname celebrating his unique tendency to travel at the speed of an airport-terminal re-ticketing line during a blizzard. Unfortunately, the Mariners, consistent with a trend throughout baseball, don’t do nicknames like they used to.
A clubhouse that once contained the likes of “The Big Unit,” “Papi,” and “Bone” is down to a single descriptive nickname: “King Felix.”
I’ve already seen occasional references to Montero as “Monty.” What a waste. We’re talking about a baseball player who runs as if he’s climbing a downward escalator, and the only moniker that’s pinned on him is a casual shortening of his last name?
Jesus Montero should be known as “The Tortoise” or “The Snail.” Or “Leadfoot.” Or “Rain Delay.” Or “Gridlock.”
I’m thinking. I’ll give Monty this much: whenever he hits a ball high off the outfield wall and makes his day-trip trek toward first base, there’s lots of time to firstname.lastname@example.org