Kansas City Royals

Mike Montgomery is going where the Cubs couldn't take him in Kansas City

Mike Montgomery is going where the Cubs couldn't take him in Kansas City

Tonight, former Cubs pitcher Mike Montgomery makes his debut with his new team, the Kansas City Royals. The Royals are 24.5 games out of first place, even after they won seven out of their last 10. The Cubs are riding a nice stretch in the second half and expect nothing short of a division title and a championship.

So, why would Montgomery want to leave Chicago and go to a team that is going nowhere?

Because he believes his career can go somewhere the Cubs weren’t taking him.

After throwing the golden pitch that clinched the World Series for the Cubs in 2016, he has filled many roles for the team. He starts, he relieves, he closes, he sets up, he is situational, he waits, he pitches hurt, he does what the team needs to be done to help. And for two years, he appeared in 44 and 38 games respectively, with 14 and 19 starts in those years. 

For his entire minor league career, he was a starter and when he broke in, he also started for a while in Seattle. Then in 2016, he went to the pen. But he never lost the confidence that he could be a consistent starter in a major league rotation. 

Montgomery just turned 30 years old, a new father, and there is nothing like age and family to provide clarity about how short and temporary a career can be, especially for a pitcher. 

He got hurt this year, and probably wondered if being endlessly available contributed to his health issues. It takes a toll to always be ready, especially as you get older. Predictability can be comforting, helpful at times to gaining a rhythm, and a way to take care of your body knowing you have some recovery time built in. 

At 30, the window starts to close slowly but inevitably. His time to establish himself as a starter is yesterday and because he has struggled in a utility role in 2019, he is going the wrong way for his career. He is now getting a label as a lefty that can’t get lefties out, but is not a starter either. The pigeonholing has begun.

He has to fight it, quickly and he can with this bold move. Asking out.

Not from the Cubs, but from how the Cubs are using him in 2019. He has decided that he can’t afford to sit back for the glory of oneness and hope they will take care of him on the other side. By this time in his career, he knows how expendable players are in the grand scheme. That the phone will not ring one day, you will become a memory, and even being a great memory can’t stop you from being inevitably sent home.

He knows that it is not a fair exchange to sacrifice health, opportunity and long-term security to be an insurance policy that may never get claimed. Being in that role is casting a shadow over getting handed the ball every fifth day with a chance to eat up innings and waltz into longer term security for his career and his family. It starts to not add up, especially when you already have a ring in your trophy case.

In 2003, I was traded to the Cubs from the Texas Rangers on July 30th. After recovering from an injury, I hit .389 with a .528 slugging, and a .925 OPS in July. I was on absolute fire. At 32 years old, the turnaround was happening, my one-year free agent contract was about to grow into something more if I got my 200+ at bats in the second half. 

While I was rolling along, the Rangers were 44-63 on July 30th, going nowhere, but I was going somewhere up. So I thought. 

The phone rang and the general manager of the Rangers, John Hart called to let me know he had traded me to the Cubs. Poof. Just like that. By the time I got to the locker room to get my stuff and say good bye to my Rangers’ teammates, my boxes were packed, my jerseys were gone. Poof.

Sure, the Cubs were in the race, but they were around .500 when I arrived. They had signed a bunch of veteran players whose starting days were behind them. In my case, Kenny Lofton was the guy in centerfield, which turned me into a bench player from an everyday centerfielder instantly. Not because I wasn’t doing the job in Texas, but because the Cubs needed me to do a lesser job. Lofton played almost every day and in the second half of that season, after the trade, I got 51 at bats. In 28 games. 

Not a great way to find another job after the season. But I had bought in, Dusty Baker communicated well to me and since I had never been in the playoffs, I kept my mouth shut and followed. 

We would go all the way to Game 7 to the NLCS and despite the ending, it was an exhilarating experience. Once in a lifetime. Truly special, but along the ride, no one could guarantee me any of that. Just as easily, the Cubs could have collapsed and I would have been on the bench for a team on the road to rebuilding. And they wouldn’t do it with a 33-year-old veteran centerfielder with a bad hamstring.

I did get my magic hit in the NLCS after sitting on the bench for weeks and when the season ended, Dusty Baker called me personally to express that he wanted me back. I was hoping the silver lining was that some free agent team would see that I could be a clutch performer when it counted. I was happy to get his call, but when all was said and done, he did not have the power to grant me that wish. The phone never rang from Chicago again and I ended up making the Phillies squad in 2004, barely hanging on to my career. 

At 33, I was now a caddy to Marlon Byrd and other young outfielders for the entire season. 162 at bats in 87 games. My career was dead in the water, my coaching career seemed to be growing in front of my eyes, against my will.

Of course, I thought about how I could have played better, I could have made a different decision in free agency and stayed in Philly or signed with Tampa. Those were options, but I bet on myself to go to Texas and regain starter status and after I came back from injury, I did just that. But my age was creeping up and the Rangers had little incentive to keep an aging singles hitter on a team that was fighting for last place. 

Two years after that trade, the phone stopped ringing and by the time it did ring after the Yankees released me, I had taken it off of the hook anyway. I saw the game passing me by. I wanted to start a family. It still stung to see a couple of players get rewarded with multi-year deals who I later learned were in the Mitchell Report for being associated with PEDs, one of which I helped get back to health while I was in Texas. 

So it is a tough question to ask yourself. Would you take the slim chance of winning a World Series as a bench player knowing your career may be shortened 2-3 years? Or would you seek an opportunity to keep playing every day or frequently with a chance to extend your career and have more time to find a way to be on a contender later? 

We only get one career, one shot at it. The greater glory matters, the ring is king and I will always long for the ring I never obtained. But I also learned about what can happen after you are that hired gun, or after you stay silent and accept the role the team thinks is best for them when it starts to run counter to what you believe you can do. It can sound selfish, true, but a player watches how other players are treated, not just how they are personally treated. I played with Ryan Howard when he first came up with the Phillies and years later, covering him with ESPN, he came over and said “Now, I know how you felt in 2004 at the end of your career.” Long memories.

Once a season ends where you were marginalized (even when it is because you played poorly), your career may not recover. So with the Cubs trading Montgomery, they were looking out for him in a way, something they did not have to do, and it is a funny game, he could be back one day.

Only time will tell, but as Montgomery expressed. “It’s bittersweet.” 

Bitter because he wanted to stay and have it all. Be on a contender and be a starter. That was no longer an option. 

Sweet because it was a great chapter in his career, he won, and now he can focus on being the pitcher he believes he can be, not what a team needs him to be. 

In baseball, there is nothing like proving someone wrong …

Or proving yourself right.

AL Central pecking order becoming clearer as White Sox push winning streak to five


AL Central pecking order becoming clearer as White Sox push winning streak to five

Exciting. Fun. Watchable.

Words of praise thrown around during the first five games of this homestand were rarely applicable during the first two seasons of the South Side rebuilding project. But the White Sox haven’t lost since returning from a three-game sweep at the hands of the Minnesota Twins, delivering the same fate to the Kansas City Royals before taking the first two of a four-game weekend set against the Cleveland Indians.

It’s a rather apt illustration of where the AL Central is at the moment, the Twins towering above the competition this season while the White Sox look to be in a better spot than the other three teams. They pulled even with the Indians, at 28-29, thanks to Friday night’s 6-1 victory. In the first two games of this series, the White Sox have outscored the Indians by a combined 16-5 margin, and while the Indians booted and threw the ball all over Guaranteed Rate Field on Friday, the White Sox took advantage against Trevor Bauer.

That’s two straight wins against Carlos Carrasco and Bauer, two of the Indians’ supposedly elite starting pitchers.

Regardless of whether or not you think this streak is a harbinger of October baseball coming to the South Side — and it’s certainly far too early for that — what can’t be argued is that these are the kinds of accomplishments the White Sox didn’t have in 2017 and 2018, when they lost a combined 195 games. Bright spots on this team have shone a promising spotlight on the future, and they might be rewarded in the present, with multiple guys playing at All-Star levels.

The Indians looked as if they had one more run in them, perhaps. Even with a less than inspiring lineup when the season began, they had the best rotation in the game and two MVP candidates in the lineup in Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. While Carlos Santana has been fine, Ramirez has not. Lindor hit Dylan Covey’s third pitch out of the park Friday night, but the limitations of an offense with few other dependable hitters were on display. Cleveland couldn’t scratch across another run the rest of the night.

And so with the Indians caught, the White Sox have done what some had hoped but fewer had expected: They’ve established themselves as the No. 2 team in this division. What that’s worth, though, is potentially inconsequential.

Tim Anderson might not have been drawing up playoff scenarios in his head — or reliving just how badly the Twins beat up on the White Sox just a weekend ago in Minneapolis — but he outlined the White Sox true desire before Friday’s game.

Does second place mean anything?

“No, man. We want to be in first place and we want to keep working and keep getting better,” Anderson said. “We're going to stay hungry.”

Anderson was likely just providing another example of pro athletes’ “if you’re not first, you’re last” mentality, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s true that second place in the AL Central might not mean much when it comes to the postseason. The New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox figure to keep battling it out in the AL East, and the Oakland Athletics have made their annual out-of-nowhere surge into contention.

True, the White Sox are not at all far from the second wild-card spot in the American League. But it’s also May 31.

This isn’t to rain on the ongoing parade on the South Side, however. The White Sox are winning right now, and that’s more than could be said during the vast majority of the last two seasons. The rebuild was always going to yield something positive at some point. This winning streak might not foreshadow the White Sox reaching baseball’s mountaintop by the end of this season, but it’s a positive sign made up of a bunch of other positive signs that spell good things for seasons to come.

As for the rest of 2019, there are nine games left against these Indians, 10 left against the Royals and 14 still to play against the Detroit Tigers. The White Sox can rack up a lot of wins against those teams, not to mention their still-to-come series with the Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners, who they’ll see a combined 10 times before the season’s end. There are scattered National League opponents of various quality remaining, as well.

The White Sox, unsurprisingly, are not concerned with playoff projections or which teams remain on the schedule. They’ve got a good thing going on this homestand, and they’d like to keep it rolling for as long as possible.

“The guys are playing with some energy,” manager Rick Renteria said after Friday’s win. “I think they are having fun, they are focused. Clubs when they start to get on a little bit of a roll, they are enjoying their time, they know what they are doing. They are going with the moment and hopefully this will be a moment that lasts a long time.”

Long-lasting success is the ultimate goal of this rebuild, of course, and getting to the top of the game first requires getting to the top of the division. The Twins hold a 10.5-game lead as the calendar turns to June, meaning the White Sox might have to settle for only getting to second place in 2019. But that’s a lot better than where they were last year.

The rebuild progresses.

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Tim Anderson doesn't think he got hit on purpose this time, but his personal rivalry lives: 'I don’t like the Royals'

Tim Anderson doesn't think he got hit on purpose this time, but his personal rivalry lives: 'I don’t like the Royals'

By the end of the evening, it seemed nobody who was actually involved in the play thought Glenn Sparkman hit Tim Anderson on purpose.

But Anderson’s opinion on the Royals doesn’t really fluctuate much anymore.

“From my end, I don’t like the Royals. I don’t like them,” Anderson said after the White Sox completed a sweep of their division rivals Wednesday night. “It’s going to be a forever beef for me. But we are going to try to whoop them every time we play them.

“Just period, man. I don’t like them.”

That’s the eye-catcher from Anderson’s comments, which were otherwise mostly understanding about the 1-0 changeup that left Sparkman’s hand in the bottom of the second inning and nearly hit Anderson in the head, clipping the bill of his batting helmet and earning Sparkman an immediate ejection.

It didn’t look like the kind of pitch a pitcher throws in retaliation. But the context was too much not to notice.

It was Anderson’s first plate appearance since the April 13 brouhaha in which Brad Keller responded to an Anderson bat flip by plunking the shortstop. That cleared the benches, and during the to-be-expected chirping, Anderson used a racially charged word that earned him an ejection and a suspension.

That wasn’t even the first incident between Anderson and the Royals, who got mad at the White Sox shortstop during the 2018 season, too. Throw in the fact that in the top half of the second inning Wednesday night, Reynaldo Lopez lost control of a 95 mph fastball that went smoking toward the face of Royals third baseman Hunter Dozier.

It all seemed to make for a dramatic scene in which Anderson was once again the subject of the Royals’ ire. The umpiring crew knew the history, and that’s why home-plate umpire Mark Carlson tossed Sparkman right away, so the umpire told a pool reporter after the game. But Anderson and manager Rick Renteria both said after the game they didn’t think Sparkman was trying to hit Anderson on purpose.

“I knew it was an accident. I saw it on his face. He was looking scared,” Anderson said. “It was a changeup that got away from him. It was just a tough moment for me, but I was able to control myself and stay in the game.”

“The poor guy,” Renteria said. “Personally, I don't think the kid was throwing at him. The changeup got away from him is what I believe. Maybe they were on high alert, I don't know. I certainly do not believe he was trying to hit Tim.”

But that doesn’t mean that Anderson didn’t savor the sweetness of his game-winning double in the eighth inning.

Anderson didn’t get to bat against the Royals in the first two games of this series, limited to one pinch-running appearance while nursing a wrist injury. But he was back in the lineup Wednesday, only for his first plate appearance against this team to end the same way as his previous one did: with a hit by pitch. This time, he actually made it to first base, but the bigger moment came in the eighth, when after White Sox pitching blew a 7-1 lead, Anderson broke a 7-all tie by doubling down the left-field line.

“I was able to get the hit to win the game,” Anderson said. “It was payback. It felt good, man.

“You see me at second? Yeah, that got me going. It got the guys going. It was a huge hit and a huge moment.”

Neither the White Sox nor the Royals have had much to get excited about during the two seasons Anderson has been beefing with the Kansas City baseball club. The two teams combined for more than 200 losses in 2018. While the White Sox are in the midst of a much better season now, they’re still under .500 at 26-29. The Royals are way below .500, at 18-37 after Wednesday’s loss.

But this has added some fuel to this division rivalry. Anderson might not like the Royals, but he’s amped every time he sees them.

“That gets me going. I’m excited to play them,” Anderson said. “I want to whoop them every time we play them.”

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