While bench player Tommy La Stella made headlines for all the wrong reasons this week after refusing to report to the minors, the two-time All-Star catcher on the Cubs roster quietly has taken a much different approach to losing his own job.
And it might even make a difference in the long run for this team and its October goals.
“He’s been awesome,” manager Joe Maddon said of veteran Miguel Montero, who doesn’t like losing his regular playing time to rookie Willson Contreras any more than La Stella liked what was certain to be brief demotion to accommodate a roster crunch.
It’s the second year in a row a rookie catcher has taken playing time from Montero – who across four seasons before his trade from the Diamondbacks to the Cubs before last season caught more games than anyone in the league.
Instead of bitching, moaning or pressing, Montero has been one of the bigger influences on Contreras’ rapid improvement behind the plate that his pitchers have raved about the last two turns through the rotation.
“I said it a long time ago to a general manager that we had in Arizona back in 2008,” Montero said. “I wanted to catch every day at that time, and I felt like I was ready. And I told him, `But if I don’t, I promise you I’m not going to be a cancer on the team.’
“That’s my thing,” he said. “I’m not going to be a cancer on this team. Do I want to play? Yes. Do I feel like I can still play? Of course, I do. Right now, I’m not playing, so what can I do? Just be the best teammate I can be. Try to help the team some way or another.”
Part of that has been to adjust his pregame routine to keep himself better prepared for the new part-time role. And a big part of it has been taking Contreras under his wing, working with him on the nuances of calling big-league games with the veteran pitchers on the staff – much like he did with Kyle Schwarber a year ago.
“He’s given a lot of himself to a lot of our young players, not just the catchers,” Maddon said. “He does a lot of stuff behind the scenes that he does in his own way that nobody really notices. I’ve heard about it. I’m aware of it.
“Right now he’s been fabulous because he knows Willson’s got to play. We’ve had conversations about that. He’s been a very good mentor to him.”
Contreras has made an immediate impact with his bat and his arm since his June 17 debut, and with outfielder Jorge Soler back from the disabled list Contreras is expected to get as much as 60 percent of the playing time behind the plate down the stretch.
By next season, that could be closer to 80 percent for the catcher that Maddon already considers a Gold Glove candidate. Montero will be in the final year of his contract in 2017.
“I’ve got this young guy coming up that I think has got really good potential. Why not help him be the best that he can be?” Montero said. “I’m not going to help him because he took my job? No, that’s not his fault. If it’s somebody’s fault, it’s got to be my fault because I didn’t perform the way I should have.
“And he came up and stepped up, and he’s doing a great job for us.”
This is the big picture Montero stays focused on.
“There’s something bigger than just playing time,” he said. “We’re looking for the biggest thing here, to win the World Series. I’m not playing right now. But you know what? I might be the MVP of the World Series.”
Montero smiles when he says that. But don’t laugh. Playoff heroes have come from stranger places.
“I don’t discount that,” Maddon said. “His time’s going to come back again. He’s going to b e very valuable to us before this whole thing is over.”