On Tuesday night, Miguel Montero was a Chicago Cub. By Wednesday afternoon, he was not. The culprit wasn’t his arm, which couldn’t stop any of the seven stolen base attempts the Washington Nationals tried against him. It was his mouth, which committed the cardinal baseball sin of describing what happened in a frank and honest manner.
This isn’t to defend Montero, who finished an evening’s work Tuesday as a major factor in the Cubs’ loss to the Nationals, then proceeded to grab a backhoe and load piles of dirt on Jake Arrieta, the pitcher whose slow delivery triggered Washington’s game of ring around the bases. A day earlier, Montero had arrived to find his locker in the visitors’ clubhouse at Nationals Park — one of the four larger stalls reserved for veterans — and exulted in his good fortune.
“I finally got the big locker!” he exclaimed. “It only took 12 years.”
Then Tuesday night, he stood in front of that same locker, opened his mouth, and made sure clubhouse attendants had to clean it out the next day.
“It really sucked because the stolen bases go to me, and when you really look at it, the pitcher doesn’t give me any time,” Montero said, with very little prompting. “So, it’s like, ‘Yeah, okay, Miggy can’t throw nobody out.’ But my pitcher doesn’t hold anybody on.”
Arrieta’s take, a day later: “There’s a lot of honesty there. I didn’t do him any favors.”
And yet, when “SportsCenter” played Montero’s comments deep into the night, and Twitter spread them around, Theo Epstein, the Cubs president of baseball operations, got on the phone to both General Manager Jed Hoyer and Manager Joe Maddon. The conclusion, considering all the factors: Montero could no longer be part of the team.
“We felt like the things that he said were sort of against what we’re trying to accomplish right now,” Hoyer said.
So Wednesday, he was designated for assignment. His days in Chicago are over.
(And if you care where he could end up, maybe look in the other dugout? Washington General Manager Mike Rizzo was the scouting director in Arizona when the Diamondbacks signed Montero as a Venezuelan teenager. More important: Montero’s on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 112 plate appearances: .805. The OPS for Jose Lobaton, backup catcher for the Nats, in 77 plate appearances: .448, second-worst in all of baseball for anyone with at least 70 plate appearances. But that’s beside the point right now.)
The point is this: Baseball is governed by, and almost obsessed with, a clubhouse hierarchy and protocol that prevent backup subordinates from being critical of . . . well, anything or anybody. Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs’ all-star first baseman, went on ESPN 1000 radio in Chicago on Wednesday morning and called out Montero for calling out Arrieta: “When you start pointing fingers, that just labels you as a selfish player,” Rizzo said, pointing his finger directly at Montero.
This entire affair seemed salacious from a few angles — from Montero’s, and later from Rizzo’s — because we got what we get so infrequently in those moments when half-dressed athletes stand in front of their lockers facing a bank of cameras and tape recorders: honesty. It is something that is delivered with high risk and, as Montero now knows, great ramifications. Montero had a job before he made those comments. He didn’t have a job after them.
“We wouldn’t have made this decision were it not for those comments,” Hoyer said Wednesday.
Now, the Cubs also wouldn’t have made this decision if Montero could throw anyone — anyone — out. Even before Tuesday, 24 men had tried to steal against a battery that included Montero behind the plate. Twenty-three had succeeded. Willson Contreras, the Cubs young starting catcher, who happens to catch the same staff as Montero did — but also is the personal catcher for Jon Lester, who has a mental block against throwing to first base to keep runners close – throws out more than a third of would-be base stealers.
But the words, they stung. Now, there’s not a small bit of irony here, too. Reporters, in baseball, become familiar faces and personalities simply because players and the media interact just about every day. Players can grow comfortable turning to reporters with a gripe or two, the understanding that the information will be disseminated, but they won’t have to answer for it. Such transactions happen across the majors, in 30 clubhouses. The inevitable game of, “Who said that?” follows.
There was no guessing with Montero, whose face and name were on the quotes. And he’s the one who’s out.
Arrieta said Wednesday that, had Montero remained a Cub, the club would have moved past it. But Maddon was blunt in his assessment that those words – stated honestly, accurately, but publicly — would have had a negative effect on the clubhouse had they not been aggressively addressed.
“There’s too many young guys,” Maddon said. “Too many young guys that are impressionable. It’s not like a group of veterans that could separate and dissect it properly to the point where they could walk with what’s necessary and drop off what’s not.”
What was no longer necessary to the Cubs was Montero. They can now try to trade him to another team — though he’s making $14 million this year, and unloading that contract could be difficult. If they can’t work out a deal, he’ll be free to sign elsewhere, and the Cubs would be responsible for the money.
This wasn’t about Montero’s thoughts, which are accurate. It wasn’t even about expressing them. “I’m all for freedom of speech,” Maddon said. It was about the forum he chose.
“People have opinions, and if guys have opinions and are colorful, and as a result they’re better interviews, that’s fine,” Hoyer said. “But you can do that and also have your teammates’ backs and handle your business internally. If he felt that way about Jake, I think he should’ve owned it with you guys last night, and he should’ve talked to Jake offline.
“That’s not anything new or interesting. That’s since the beginning of organized team sports. And I think that’s how it should have been handled.”
This is a challenge for the Cubs, who went through the 2016 season facing nothing of the sort. After their 78th game this season, Wednesday’s 8-4 loss to the Nationals, they are at .500, trailing in the National League Central. After 78 games a year ago, they were 24 games above .500, leading the division by 11 games.
Then, they were praised for a winning, together culture. Now?
“This one incident, I don’t think, is indicative of a bad culture,” Hoyer said. “But yeah, there’s no doubt: When you’re winning, you’re having fun. When you’re having fun, people have a skip in their step when they come to the ballpark every day. This season has been a slog for us.”
The slog included a difficulty holding runners on. It included a seven-steal night in a lousy loss to the Nats. It now includes lessons about how honesty is infrequently baseball’s best policy.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.