John McGrath: Montero gets back on feet after stumbles

Staff WriterApril 4, 2014 

Jesus Montero’s star-crossed world was denied a happy moment Thursday night. He was supposed to be introduced at Cheney Stadium as the Tacoma Rainiers’ cleanup hitter, and fans would have clapped their hands because that’s how baseball fans act on opening night.

Montero didn’t hear the sound of applause. The drizzle that prevented batting practice also postponed the game, putting off the beginning of Montero’s redemption season until Friday night.

Between the bat that disappeared, the catching experiment that went awry, the torn meniscus in his left knee that required surgery and, let’s see, what else — oh, yeah, the 50-game suspension for his involvement with the Biogenesis scandal — last year was a tank-car derailment for the erstwhile New York Yankees prospect once touted as a future star.

Lackluster performance, bad luck and poor judgment: Could a career fall any deeper into the dumper? Sure. In February, Montero showed up for spring training 40 pounds heavier than the weight the Mariners had targeted for him.

“After winter ball,” admitted the offseason resident of Guacara, Venezuela, “all I did was eat.”

As we are all taught at a young age: Honesty is the best policy, except, like, when it isn’t.

“We are disappointed in how he came in here physically,” Jack Zduriencik said with a public frankness rare for the Seattle Mariners’ general manager, who, like any GM, emphasizes the virtues of his players while minimizing their flaws.

“I have zero expectations for Jesus Montero,” Zduriencik continued. “Any expectations I had are gone.”

Despite infuriating his boss, Montero not only survived spring camp with the Mariners organization, but he’s holding down a job as first baseman/designated hitter for their top farm team. Though the conversion from catcher to corner infielder was initiated in Tacoma last season, the position switch gives Montero the look of a man eager to turn the page.

Behind the plate — home plate, I mean — Montero was revealed as neither the most nimble of athletes nor the quickest of learners. First base is not as demanding a position as catcher — no position is as demanding as catcher — but there will be growing pains.

Like everything else about baseball, scooping balls out of the dirt, while keeping a foot on the bag, is more challenging than it looks.

“It looks easy, but playing first base is hard,” Montero said Thursday. “I see the game a lot different now than when I was a catcher. I’ve got the game in front of me now.

“You’ve got to pay attention to the runners, the outs — it’s unbelievable. But every day I’m getting comfortable. Every day I’m learning from the coaches.”

If Montero has been listening to new Rainiers manager Roy Howell, he’ll devote a particular concentration to footwork.

“You’ve got to be able to dance, that’s the bottom line,” Howell said. “You’ve got to be able to dance and use your feet.”

Montero didn’t enroll in a dance class during the spring — the Mariners were preferring he consult Jenny Craig before Arthur Murray — but Howell returned from Arizona with positive reports.

“Jesus worked hard in spring training,” Howell said. “We’ve had our conversations and talked about it. He’ll be out there every day getting extra work.”

Because Montero’s fall from grace was so steep and swift, it’s easy to forget he’s only 24, with plenty of time to achieve his prime. Furthermore, he didn’t sulk after the embarrassing scolding he got from Zduriencik, whose agenda was understandable: He arranged the high-stakes trade with the Yankees that brought Montero and reliever Hector Noesi to Seattle for All-Star starting pitcher Michael Pineda in 2012.

By failing to watch his weight, Montero shirked responsibilities common for any professional athlete. Zduriencik probably was close to a boiling point with Montero, anyway, and watching him waddle into the clubhouse at spring training pushed it.

But life goes on, and baseball players have committed worse sins than a failure to refrain from a second helping.

“I know I was overweight,” Montero said. “That’s why I’ve got to keep working hard here in Triple A. I want to make the big-league team believe in me again.”

It’ll take more than one at-bat, or one game, for Montero to restore the Mariners’ faith in him. It might take an entire season.

But his mind seems to be in the right place, and the commitment to learn how to play a new position couldn’t have come at a better time.

The game is in front of him now.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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