Still Going, Even as the Glory Fades

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — He started to believe in a curse. Then he trusted in a different kind of destiny. Baseball has a way of toying with emotions. Ask Mike Montgomery.

People still do. They always will. There are worse things to be known for than saving Game 7 of the World Series, as Montgomery once did for the Cubs. That was long before he found himself in minor league camp with the Mets this spring, after a dizzying season that took him to the baseball hinterlands and made Chicago feel like a dream.

“I remember I got a car from a dealership there, like, ‘Hey, please drive our car,’ and it was like a $100,000 Lexus,” Montgomery said last week over wings at a sports bar here, recalling the afterglow of the 2016 title. “I really felt like I could pretty much run stoplights, not have to follow the rules of the road, and if someone pulled me over and I told them who I was, they wouldn’t care. They’d be like: ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. Whatever you want, Mr. Montgomery!’”

He laughed and shook his head.

“I do miss that,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, you want that. It fizzles out over time, but I think the legacy, as time goes on, will never fizzle out.”

Montgomery has been in Mets camp in each of the last two seasons hoping to make the team as a long man or starter.Credit…Eric Espada/Getty Images

Montgomery pitched in five of the seven World Series games against Cleveland, including the Game 4 loss at Wrigley Field that put the Cubs down, three games to one. During that game, a line drive tore Montgomery’s glove off his hand, which had never happened before. It was unsettling, he thought, a sign that something wasn’t right.

Maybe, Montgomery wondered, the Cubs really were cursed. Despondent that their season had been pushed to the brink, he retreated to his Wrigleyville apartment and played hockey on Xbox for hours. When his hockey team trailed, 3-1, and came back to win, 4-3, Montgomery had an epiphany — the Cubs, he was now certain, would do the same.

Stories like these, and the pitch he threw to clinch the Cubs’ first championship since 1908, will enthrall fans forever. The moment is a touchstone, a cherished highlight for millions that will give Montgomery a small measure of perpetual fame. Like a child star of a beloved television show, his career peaked early in a way few others have experienced.

When Montgomery got that final out, against Cleveland’s Michael Martinez, he became only the eighth player to throw a golden pitch, defined by the Society for American Baseball Research as a pitch that could either win or lose the World Series. It is an exquisitely rare situation, possible only in Game 7, on the road, in the bottom of the ninth inning or later, when the season could end — one way or another — on one swing.

Montgomery got the call in the 10th inning, with two outs, a runner on first, and the Cubs ahead, 8-7. Cleveland was out of bench players, and Manager Joe Maddon guessed correctly that the light-hitting Martinez could not handle Montgomery’s curveball. Sure enough, Martinez tapped weakly to third baseman Kris Bryant, who slipped while fielding the ball but gathered it cleanly. Anthony Rizzo caught Bryant’s throw at first base, Montgomery flipped his glove in the air, and a celebration that long seemed impossible was underway.

Imagine the adrenaline rush from a moment like that. Nothing else can compare.

“You can’t unsee something,” Montgomery said. “You can’t undo what you’ve been through. I can’t sit there and try to throw max speeds in bullpens, because you just can’t get that same intensity of even a regular-season game compared to a World Series.”

At 32, Montgomery is one of the oldest players on the prospect side of the Mets’ complex. He likes seeing the hope in players not yet jaded by the game. Just the other day, he said, a young teammate asked about Game 7, about Jason Heyward’s speech that rallied the Cubs during a rain delay. Montgomery would rather not live in the past, but he’s happy to share, if asked. The old emotions invigorate him.

“I do miss that,” Montgomery said of the attention he received after the World Series. “It doesn’t matter who you are, you want that.”Credit…Elsa/Getty Images

Even with Jacob deGrom sidelined indefinitely and Max Scherzer nursing a sore hamstring, Montgomery is likely headed for Class AAA Syracuse and a spot in the rotation there. He had the same chance last year, but when the Mets cut him from major league camp, he asked for his release and signed with the Yankees, believing they would offer a better opportunity.

The minor league season started late, and morning bullpen sessions in Moosic, Pa., for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders did not stoke Montgomery’s competitiveness. After four starts, he took a deal with the Samsung Lions in Daegu, South Korea, for the prorated $1 million maximum contract.

Looking back, Montgomery knows he should have stayed with the Mets, who wound up using 19 different starting pitchers. And while he enjoyed South Korea with his wife, Stephanie, and their 2-year-old son, Max, the season was disjointed, with a break for the Olympics, a brief coronavirus-related league shutdown — and a suspension that did not exactly endear him to the umpires.

“Put it this way, they weren’t helping me, especially after I threw the rosin bag at the guy,” Montgomery said. “But I didn’t even throw it at him for strikes and balls. I threw it at him because he said I had a delay of game when I clearly didn’t.”

Montgomery spent the 2019 and 2020 seasons with the Kansas City Royals. He struggled there, with a 4.67 E.R.A. in 16 appearances.Credit…Jamie Squire/Getty Images

It was a lost season — across two continents, Montgomery made 15 starts and was 3-7 with a 5.90 earned run average — and a painful lesson in how quickly the game can leave a player behind. The Mets were the only team to offer Montgomery a job this spring.

“It was like it wasn’t even real sometimes, what we were living through in 2016 — like, ‘This is the perfect setup; this isn’t normal,’” Stephanie Montgomery said. “But no matter how much you tell yourself, ‘This is incredible, appreciate every moment,’ when it starts to go in a different direction, it’s still a shock.”

The couple met, indirectly, through a pitcher Montgomery hopes to emulate: Jamie Moyer, the left-hander who had 218 wins after turning 32. Montgomery was a rookie for Seattle in 2015 when Moyer tagged him in a tweet. Stephanie liked Moyer’s post, Montgomery noticed, and the relationship grew from there.

Moyer’s tweet has special resonance for Montgomery now: “left-handers usually mature later!” he wrote, with a hashtag: #nevergiveuponalefty. The Mets have not given up on Montgomery, and he is in no hurry to stop.

Over the winter, Montgomery worked at a new Driveline training center in Phoenix to better understand his pitches. At Syracuse, he should benefit from finally resuming a normal routine as a starter — not a swingman, as he was for the Cubs. He will never be a power pitcher, but maybe he can find the old snap on his curveball, the pitch that brought joy to millions and will follow him for the rest of his life.

“I don’t got to be the best pitcher to ever live,” Montgomery said. “But I’ve been in the best moment that’s arguably ever existed in baseball history, and I’m just going to outlast everybody. That’s the goal. Just stay healthy as long as I can and play until they won’t give me a jersey anymore.”

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