When healthy, Miguel Montero is one of the better-hitting catchers in the National League. Regardless, he is among the more personable. A 27-year-old native of Caracas, Venezuela, Montero was signed by the Diamondbacks in 2001 and climbed steadily through the system before making his big-league debut in 2006. After hitting .294/.355/.478 in 2009, he was limited to 85 games by a knee injury in 2010 and saw his slash line drop to .266/.332/.438. Montero talked about his climb through the ranks, including learning to speak English in Montana, when the D-backs visited Fenway Park this past summer.
David Laurila: The first time we came into contact was when you made note of the fact that I was wearing a West Michigan Whitecaps cap. What do you remember about the Midwest League?
Miguel Montero: I played in the Midwest League in 2004, and it was a fun league, man. It was a fun league to play in and I mostly remember it because we lost in the playoffs to the White Caps. They beat us and then they won the whole thing.
I also remember that the travel was a little bit tough, but it really wasn’t that bad. I would say that the toughest thing about that league was the cold weather early in the year. The temperatures were really tough. Other than that, it was really nice. The weather got warm after that, so I have no complaints about the Midwest League, nor any of the leagues that I’ve played in.
DL: Where did you play prior to West Michigan?
MM: I played two years in Montana, in Missoula. Then I went to South Bend, Indiana, and to Lancaster, California. Then I went to Tennessee, to Knoxville, and then to Triple-A with the Tucson Sidewinders. Then the big leagues.
DL: What was it like to go from Venezuela to pro ball in Montana?
MM: It was a little tough for me, because I didn’t speak English at the time. But I had a great time; I loved it. I had good people there, a host family that I stayed with. They were nice people and I always keep in touch with them. Hopefully I can go back and visit someday, because it was a great town and a great experience.
DL: Did your host family speak Spanish?
MM: No, and I think that helped me to learn English. I had to make my way, you know. It was different living in Montana. It was a different culture, it was… just all around, it was different, especially when you don’t speak the language. But like I said, I got used to it. Wherever I’d go, I’d try to have a good time.
When guys come from Venezuela, not many of them speak English right away. I was only 17, 18 years old and had barely just finished my high school. I mean, they teach you a little bit of English, but it’s just the basic things like, “Hello” and “How are you?” Everything else you have to learn, and here was a perfect time.
DL: When did you first get scouted?
MM: I was 16. Actually, I was 15, and it was the Expos at the time. Then a couple of more teams saw me and I ended up signing with the D-backs.
DL: Did getting scouted have you thinking about life in the United States and the need to speak the language?
MM: I was always interested about learning English. I always was. I always liked language. I mean, I came here with very little English, but I had the motivation to learn it. The big thing for me… actually, English was my first goal when I came to the States. I knew that not everybody makes the big leagues, but I knew that I could learn the language, and I did.
DL: How hard was it to communicate with your pitchers when you first got here?
MM: It was hard, but the good thing about it was that we were all young. For all of us, it was a learning process. The guys… we’d talk, and all that. I’ve always been a talkative guy. I like to talk and I think that’s why guys liked me, and they helped me, too. They always fixed me when I said something wrong, and that was good.
DL: How long did it take for you to feel comfortable in the United States?
MM: Not too long, because I feel comfortable anywhere I go. I make my own life and try to have fun everywhere I go. I got here and had a fun time my first year. I felt comfortable, even though the language was a little hard. You know, I never was embarrassed if I said something wrong, or anything like that. It wasn’t hard for me to establish myself in the United States.
DL: Is acclimating to American culture any different for Venezuelan-born players than it is for Dominican-born players?
MM: I don’t think it’s any different, it’s just how much you want to learn and how much you want to do the right things. Some guys come here just to hang out. I guess they have the talent, but they don’t want to expose it all the way, early on. I don’t know. It’s different cultures, different educations, but I think that education is the most important thing. I don’t think it’s the culture, or anything like that. We’re all young and we all want to experience different things, and if you’ve got your mind right, and you have a good education, and you know what you want, you go for it.
You know what? Especially the guys who drop fast, they think they’ve got everything done, but they actually haven’t done anything yet. Do you know what I mean? They think that they’re already where they want to be. I never was like that. It was never enough for me; I always wanted more. I always want to be better than I am, but a lot of guys aren’t feeling that way. A lot of guys come to big-league camp who have never been in the big leagues, and they get sent down to the minors happy that they got to go to a big-league camp. They get comfortable too easy. They get satisfied.
They also get frustrated after a bad outing, and there are a lot of things that come [into play]. A lot of guys, it’s hard for them because they’re probably the head of their family and they have to support their family. There is a lot of pressure. They have to do the right thing and they can’t sometimes. There is a lot of pressure on them.
DL: At what point did you realize that you good enough to play in the big leagues someday?
MM: I never doubted myself. There were a lot of scouts that didn’t sign me because I was too short and all that kind of stuff. I wasn’t fast enough. But I was like, “Whatever.” I never doubted myself, because I knew that I was good and that I was going to keep working to get even better. I never doubted that I was going to be a big-leaguer.
DL: What was it like playing in Lancaster?
MM: It was a great place to hit, man. It was almost too good. But do you know what, man? It was like… I hit good there, but it’s not like I haven’t hit good anywhere else. And next year I’ll hit good, too.
DL: As a catcher, your primary job is to help your pitchers get outs. What was it like to catch in such an extreme hitting environment?
MM: Yeah, yeah, it’s a tough place to catch, because it’s a good hitting park. There’s no doubt about that. Pitchers get a little frustrated, because it’s a tough place to pitch, man.
Bill Plummer was my manager that year, and I’ll tell you what. He’s a guy who helped me a lot in my minor-league career. He’s a great guy and he was really honest with me. He was straight with me; he would say whatever he needed to say, and I appreciated that.
DL: Do pitchers and catchers think alike?
MM: I think that we think different. A lot of people think that we think alike, but there is a real difference. But that’s a tough question to answer. I can say that we have to be straight with the pitcher, man. We have to be honest with him. We’re catching his stuff, so we know how he is throwing, and I’m not going to lie to my pitcher. Sometimes they get a little sensitive when you’re honest with them, and that’s when you have to be a little tough. And they have to be tough, too. When you have a tough guy on the mound, you see the difference when you’re being honest with him.
DL: Pitchers sometimes fall in love with a pitch. Do catchers ever fall in love with calling a certain pitch?
MM: I don’t think we fall in love, it’s just probably the right pitch to call that day. Or it depends on how the game is going that day. I mean, I caught Miguel Batista and he’d fall in love with that cutter and it was tough to call something else. Pitchers are stubborn.
DL: Are catchers stubborn?
MM: Yeah, we are too. If we weren’t like that, it would be an easy job, right?
DL: Any final thoughts?
MM: I just like to play the game and have fun. On and off the field, I enjoy my life, and my wife, and just have a good time. I come here and play every game like it’s my last day here, man. It might be. You never know.