The leader in the Cubs’ clubhouse is — and was — Miguel Montero

MESA, Ariz. – It was an innocent, well-meaning question from a reporter, but it had only a passing acquaintance with reality. It was a question Miguel Montero would later call “uncomfortable.’’

Do you see yourself assuming some of that leadership void with David Ross being gone, not only with the pitchers but just in the clubhouse in general – being that veteran leader in here?

Montero will be the Cubs’ leader this season, even if he doesn’t play as much as he would like, just as he was the leader last season with limited playing time. Perhaps he’s the Cubs’ leader exactly because of that: Teammates see a man with reason to be upset about his situation still go out of his way to help anyone who needs it.

The now-retired Ross received a massive amount of fan and media attention for his enthusiasm last season. The Cubs won the World Series, and the 39-year-old catcher was one of the feel-good stories of the ultimate feel-good story. But another catcher, Montero, was the guy teammates sought out with questions or for advice. He was a teacher and mentor to many of the young players.

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

It was Montero who took aside new Cub Aroldis Chapman last season and convinced him to talk again with reporters after a near-disastrous news conference that dealt with the closer’s history of domestic violence.

It was Montero who rightly criticized manager Joe Maddon for overpitching Chapman in the World Series, and it was Montero who took Maddon to task for his diminished playing time in the postseason, when he was limited to 12 at-bats. He said he deserved better communication from his skipper, and he was right again.

“I expected to be treated a little better,’’ Montero said in an ESPN 1000 interview the day of the Cubs’ World Series parade. “I expected to get communication. Just let me know. Put me in the loop. That was the toughest part for me because I never understood what my role was going to be.”

Montero said Wednesday that he had been speaking up for teammates when he talked about the lack of communication.

“That’s what people misunderstand about my comments,’’ he said. “It’s not really about me. It’s about my teammates. I care for them, man, and they know that. That’s the beauty of it. … I care for each individual in this room.’’

Montero and Maddon haven’t met to discuss Montero’s criticisms, and it doesn’t sound like they will.

“I have nothing to clear the air about,’’ Maddon said. “At the end of last season I know that he was not happy with the role that he had had in the playoffs. However, like I’ve said, we had discussed everything prior to that. I’m always open to discussions, but I honestly don’t believe that he’s all that upset about anything either. It’s one of those things that I think gets over-made, overblown. I understand that it reads well.

“… He was so large in our success at the end of last season. Listen, man, we do not win the ring without him.’’

Maddon is at least right about that. In Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, Montero broke up an eighth-inning tie with a pinch-hit grand slam that shook Wrigley Field in ways it hadn’t been shook before. He knocked in what turned out to be the game-winning run in Game 7 of the World Series. He was the catcher on the field when the Cubs started celebrating their first championship in 108 years.

He was in the middle of everything, as a leader should be. Just don’t tell him that.

“I don’t care if I’m the leader or not, man,’’ said Montero, 33. “It’s just who I am. It’s not, ‘I want to be the leader.’ No, leaders don’t want to be leaders. They happen to be the leader. People follow you. People listen to you. I don’t need to be loud. I don’t need to be screaming. That’s a leader? That’s not necessarily being a leader. Do I need to go out and get Anthony Rizzo under my wing, like, ‘Oh, I want to be your leader?’ No. I don’t want to do that. I want to treat everybody exactly the same.

“I was with the Diamondbacks for a long time. They said I was a leader in the clubhouse. I don’t know. That’s what they said, but I don’t care. I want to be accountable to my teammates. Simple as that. They need me, I’m there for them.’’

The easiest thing in the world, maybe the most human thing in the world, would be for Montero to refuse to help 24-year-old Willson Contreras, who took some of his playing time last season and will get most of the starts at catcher this season.

“It’s not in my DNA,’’ Montero said. “It’s not his fault that he’s catching everyday, so why would I take it out on him? It should be my fault that I didn’t perform. That being said, I can’t have anything against him. I can only help him to get better, and he’s going to make me feel pretty good about it when he does good because I was part of his development.’’

Sounds like a leader.