Segment of Blue Jays clubhouse felt need for new voice in dugout: ‘it was time’

Charlie Montoyo is a baseball lifer. He was a minor-leaguer who got his cup of coffee in the majors with the Montreal Expos. He later paid his dues for years managing in the minors with the Tampa Bay Rays before finally catching his big break as manager of the Blue Jays.

Montoyo, 56, was hired before the 2019 season partly because of his player development experience. His even-keeled demeanor steadied the team during two seasons of upheaval, in 2020 and 2021, when the club played home games in three different ballparks and had to move twice in-season. He led his team from 95 losses in 2019 to 91 wins last year. At one time, his optimism and positivity were the needed tone for a young team. But now, amidst underachievement on the field, it seems as though the club needed a firmer touch.

And that, according to sources, didn’t come as naturally to Montoyo, who was fired as manager of the Blue Jays on Wednesday with a record of 236-236 over three-and-half seasons.

“When you’re 1-9, you’re looking for someone to come in and either kick you in the ass or pump you up, just something, some guidance,” one player told The Athletic, making reference to the Jays’ recent skid. “And you could have it as players, for sure, and we did, but you really do need it coming from the top and that just wasn’t happening.”

Through more than half a season, the Blue Jays feel like they’re not where they should be. They entered the season with high expectations — World Series expectations — and so far, they haven’t met them. Before the firing on Wednesday morning, the Blue Jays were 46-42, four games above .500. But this season brought bigger stakes and heightened scrutiny. Gone are the rebuilding days, when developing in the major leagues was acceptable. The club decided a new voice — a stronger voice — was needed after a recent 2-9 skid that was the low point of an uneven season.

Montoyo, who declined comment when reached by phone, remained well-regarded by his players. Speaking after the game Wednesday, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who was close to Montoyo, said through team translator Hector Lebron that learning of his firing was a surprise and that it was “very, very emotional for me.”

But according to sources, there was a belief within some corners of the clubhouse that the firing was necessary because of a lack of leadership from the former manager. Regarding the dismissal, one player conceded that it “maybe felt like it was time.”

The season hasn’t been a wash by any means. The Blue Jays are in a playoff spot, but just barely. There are players underperforming their track records. There are flaws in the way the roster has been constructed. The blame for the club’s underwhelming performance has to be shouldered by the front office, the coaches and team staff, and the players themselves.

Often in these scenarios, it’s the manager who takes the brunt of the blame, and while he is by no means entirely responsible, when you’re at the helm of a roster as talented as the Blue Jays is, if it underperforms, the questions will come. Some of those questions, it seems, came from within.

“​​You have to look at yourself as players, too,” said the player, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about the situation. “If we were playing better, this wouldn’t have been as much of an issue, but we weren’t, so you’re looking for leadership and a lot of us felt like it wasn’t really there.”

After the Blue Jays fired Montoyo, John Schneider moved from his role as bench coach to interim manager, while Casey Candaele will leave his post as the Triple-A manager in Buffalo and join the Blue Jays as the interim bench coach.

Montoyo is well liked, not just in Toronto but across the baseball community. Speaking to the media, George Springer said when he learned of the firing, his thoughts first went to thinking of Montoyo, not just as his former manager, but of the father and husband he is.

“I don’t think any of us would have any bad thing to ever say about Charlie, ever,” starter Ross Stripling said on Wednesday. “I don’t think anyone would ever think that he doesn’t want us to have success individually or as a team, the whole Blue Jays organization. He had our backs all the time and wanted us to win baseball games. And it’s a shame — he’s been here since 2019, when this kind of young core got going — that he’s not going to be there to see a lot of their success and where they go and where we go as a team. But I think everyone would say thank you to him and the effort that he gave us for the years that he did and that we love him and wish him well.”

Before the game, general manager Ross Atkins spoke about the “painstaking consideration” that went into making this “very, very difficult decision,” while also owning his part in the team’s disappointing performance as the main architect of this roster. While ultimately, Montoyo is one who lost his job, he wasn’t the one who constructed a bullpen without enough swing and miss nor was he the reason why the team began a season with a glaring lack of starting pitching depth. Atkins called this move “a collective setback.”

“Ultimately that starts with me. I’m the one that needs to be most accountable for that,” the GM said.

“Pointing to the rotation and the bullpen, how I feel about that is good teams win, it’s not necessarily good pitching and good bullpens. Look at the history of the game, good teams win championships,” Atkins said. “The person to look to is me. I’m the one that needs to be accountable. And we will continue to work hard in every area of our team to improve.”

Asked if he believed Montoyo had lost the clubhouse, Atkins said, “no.”

“I believe in him still as a baseball leader,” Atkins said of Montoyo. “But felt this change was necessary.”

When he was hired, Montoyo signed a three-year deal with an option for 2022, which the Blue Jays picked up. He was given a one-year extension before this season, signalling confidence he could lead this club in its contention years. That confidence clearly changed in recent weeks.

The timing around the dismissal looks awkward, if not a bit cold, from the outside because only 11 days ago, the team was struck by tragedy when first base coach Mark Budzinski’s teenage daughter was killed in a boating accident. When the news reached the club, Montoyo stayed by Budzinski’s side, leaving behind his in-game duties to be with his friend in a show of compassion that spoke to his character.

On Monday, a contingent from the team, including Montoyo, were in Glen Allen, Va. to attend Julia Budzinski’s funeral. Atkins said the decision to fire Montoyo was finalized over the last 24 hours, after a gutsy 4-3 win over the Philadelphia Phillies, but weeks of consideration went into it. When asked about the timing, Atkins said “out of respect for Charlie, once you made the decision, regardless of circumstance, that’s the best thing for the individual and the team.”

Now, the team will look to Schneider to turn the club’s momentum upward. Handing the reins to the 42-year-old, who has been with the organization for more than 20 years, first as a farm-hand catcher and then as a coach and manager through the minor leagues, was a natural transition for the team, Atkins said.

“There’s a lot of history with the organization,” the GM said. “Not only has he been ingrained into our player development system with well-established relationships with our players and staff. He’s also been integral into pregame preparation, in-game decision making and communication, postgame decision making and communication. So it’s a natural step for us.”

Through Schneider’s time in the minor leagues, he managed a large group of this team’s core, including Guerrero, Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Danny Jansen and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. He has an easy rapport with players. He’s high energy. He likes to have fun and keep players comfortable and loose.

“I think knowing them and what makes them tick is something that I’m lucky enough to have. And I think going forward, I’ve talked to these guys a little bit today, just briefly individually, it’s going to be no different than what they’re used to,” Schneider said.

One challenge for Schneider in the new role will be navigating the fine line of being the guy players want to come and talk to, while also holding them accountable as their manager. It’s also not easy wearing the interim tag and taking over a struggling club in the midst of an underwhelming season after the dismissal of your predecessor. Schneider called the moment he learned of his promotion while driving to lunch with his family “bittersweet,” though acknowledged it’s also a dream come true for him to be at the helm of a big-league team.

“Not in this exact way because of the amount of respect I have for Charlie, but this is what I hope to do, this is kind of the end goal for me as a baseball coach when I stopped playing,” Schneider said.

Schneider began his managerial career with an 8-2 win over the Phillies, the club’s second straight win. Next up is the lowly Kansas City Royals, who will be missing 10 players due to their vaccination status. It’s a ripe time for the club to go on a roll.

And, they’ll need to if this season is going to get back on track. The Blue Jays have not been as successful on the field as they’ve wanted to be this year. Montoyo is the first fall guy of a season on the brink of going sideways. It’ll now fall on who is left to right the ship.

“It’s professional sports, environment matters, the level of energy and positivity, all of that matters, execution matters, deployment matters. It’s not one thing,” Atkins said. “And that all comes back to me. And ultimately, I’m the most accountable for that not going well. As we proceed, we’ll look to continue to improve upon that and I will continue to look inward and how I can improve upon that. But ultimately, I felt this decision will help us take a step in that direction.”

(Photo of Charlie Montoyo: Julio Aguilar / Getty Images)

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