After two tumultuous seasons that featured two suspensions, an altercation with a scout and weight issues, Jesus Montero has reshaped his body and re-found his passion for the game of baseball.
PEORIA, Ariz. — The piece of paper caused his hands to shake just a little as he shuffled it in his hands. It wasn’t heavy, but the weight of the words he’d written on it and their meaning were enough to burden any person.
Yet they were important. They were his. And they needed to be said. They made his voice — always relatively soft-spoken for such a big man — tremble with nerves and emotion.
Mariners first baseman/designated hitter Jesus Montero wanted to make sure he had apologized for every mistake and thanked every person that had stood by or helped transform him into a better player and person.
“I have some notes so I don’t forget anything,” he said.
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This was to be his first appearance with the media in months. Questions — about his ugly confrontation with then-team scout Butch Baccala in the stands at Class A game in Boise in August, his subsequent suspension, his reshaped body and attitude and his future in the organization — were certain to be asked.
So in preparation, he decided to write down those notes without any prompting from the Mariners or their media-relations staff. The careful penmanship on the paper showed this wasn’t a quick and hasty project.
“I’m glad that I’m here right now saying this to you guys,” he said.
Upon first glance, the change in Montero’s body is startling. From a distance, he’s unrecognizable to the player Mariners fans have known. A year ago at this time, he reported to spring training at 275 pounds. He moved liked he felt — slow, heavy and uncomfortable. The Mariners were incensed, and Montero was embarrassed.
But now he’s 230 pounds — a weight that he hasn’t been since 2011 when he was with the New York Yankees. His teammates were stunned when they first saw him.
“People are like, ‘Whoa, who are you?’ ” he said. “It’s been funny for me and them, too.’”
But what put Montero in this position wasn’t anything to laugh about.
Already drawing the ire of management for showing up out of shape to spring training, Montero had a mildly productive 2014 season with Class AAA Tacoma, hitting .286 with 16 homers and 74 RBI with the Rainiers in 97 games. But an oblique strain had put him on the disabled list late in the season with a rehab stint with Class A Everett.
On Aug. 28 in Boise, Montero’s season came to an end. Baccala, who was serving as the Mariners’ national cross-checker, reportedly was yelling at Montero (who was coaching first base in the game) from the seats behind home plate in between innings. And as a joke, he had an ice cream sandwich sent to Montero in the dugout.
The issues and criticism about his weight boiled over for the usually quiet Montero. He charged into the stands and confronted Baccala. The two had to be separated. Montero was suspended for the final month of the season, and Baccala’s contract wasn’t renewed.
Montero pointed to the spot on the piece of paper where he had written about that night.
“I want to apologize to all the people in Boise,” he said. “That was a mistake what I did. That was a bad thought that I had in my mind at that moment. That wasn’t me. I’m not that person. I want to apologize to all the fans and everybody that was there that watched me do all that. I’m sorry for all that. “
But he wasn’t finished.
“I’m sorry to Butch Baccala,” he said. “It was a misunderstanding between me and him. I don’t have anything against him. I don’t have anything against anybody. It was something that got out of control. It happens. But I want to say sorry to him. My thinking was wrong.”
After his suspension was over, the Mariners sent Montero to Peoria to get his mind right. Even with a Major League Baseball suspension at the end of 2013 season for being linked to the Biogenesis performance-enhancing drugs scandal and the weight issues in 2014, the Mariners were giving him another chance. This third strike didn’t mean he was out.
A few days after the Mariners’ season ended Oct. 5, James Clifford, the team’s major-league performance specialist, flew to Peoria to meet with Montero and develop a plan for the offseason. Montero would be staying in Arizona instead of going home to his native Venezuela.
Clifford, a former standout linebacker for the University of Washington, was tasked with working with Montero to reshape his body and revamp his mind-set.
“Coming in, what I knew of him, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen in the first couple of weeks,” Clifford said.
But Montero had run out of his excuses. His career was beginning to fade away.
“It was at a point where I had help myself to be better and to represent this organization as a good player,” Montero said. “I turned the page. I turned everything over to the Mariners. I came here to do whatever they wanted me to do, and that’s what I did. I put all my love, all my sweat, every second, every minute, every hour, I spent time here, just getting better.”
Montero put in his time a the Mariners’ facility, working with Clifford and minor-league performance specialists Rob Fumagali and Will Lindholm.
“He came in every day this offseason,” Clifford said. “When I say every day, he came in Christmas Day, New Year’s Day.”
And each day, he followed the complex plan with myriad workouts designed not only for weight loss but building strength, balance, flexibility and re-finding the athlete inside of Montero. They weren’t leisurely workouts, but short, high-intensity drills.
“He would just go,” Clifford said. “Burpees, mountain climbers, sled pushes, whatever. He was all in.”
The transformation wasn’t immediate.
“At the beginning, especially that first month, there were days when I thought he might say, ‘Hey, I’ve had a enough,’ for that day,” Clifford said. “And as he’s laying on the ground and looking up he’d ask, ‘Do you have more? Just tell me.’ ”
If there were more, Montero would do it because Clifford told him to.
“He was there with me every single day,” Montero said. “He hit me ground balls every single day. He was helping me with mental stuff — motivation, positive things. Anything you can imagine, he helped me with.”
Montero helped himself with a simple approach toward the process: “doing my work, being honest, being in love with baseball.”
Clifford could see Montero’s passion in his profession growing. Baseball was becoming a cherished privilege.
“He likes to give credit to a lot of people, but I tell you what, he deserves that,” Clifford said. “I’m proud of him. This is my 23rd year in organization and doing this 16 or 17 years throughout it, he dedicated himself this offseason as much as I’ve ever seen anybody. It’s been rewarding for me just to watch this guy do this.”
But the reward for Montero is yet to come. That reminder is there permanently on the inside of his wrist on his left arm where a cursive tattoo of the name “Loren” is marked in black. It’s the name of his 10-month old daughter and the inspiration for his rebirth.
“My daughter was the most impact in my life,” Montero said. “I wanted her to look at me like an example, not like a quitter or something bad. I wanted something good for her, and that’s what I was thinking the whole time. I want to give her something good, too, when she grows up.”
Montero looks up for a moment and at the pictures of Mariners players framed along the walls in the room.
“When she grows up, I want her to recognize me like that,” he said pointing to the photos of players past. “I want to be like those guys.”
There’s no guarantee that this offseason of change will make Montero into one of those guys. But he’s taken a huge first step.
“It’s way better to be feeling like this,” he said pausing, “like I am right now.”