Miguel Montero was 17. Every major-league club but one already had rejected him. He was ready to quit baseball, finish high school and go study mechanical engineering in college.
The Arizona Diamondbacks were his last hope.
Junior Noboa, the team’s vice president of Latin operations, had flown to Venezuela to oversee the tryout, flown from his native Dominican Republic. Noboa’s plane was late. About 25 players were waiting. He didn’t have time to look at them long.
Montero, a catcher, started off throwing to each base. Noboa, impressed, ordered the kid to join the first group of hitters. Montero took seven or eight swings. Noboa, impressed again, needed to see no more.
He liked Montero’s ability, noted that the kid had a smooth swing with power, picked up immediately that he was a leader.
“I’m going to sign this guy,” Noboa said.
It didn’t happen that instant. The field, located next to President Hugo Chavez’s office in Caracas, had to be cleared for security reasons. Noboa, Montero and Montero’s father Angel retreated to Noboa’s hotel. Then they began negotiating, if you want to call it that.
Noboa offered Montero $10,000. Montero would tell him later that he would have signed for $3,000. But Angel Montero, the owner of a small eating establishment, told Noboa, “We were expecting a little bit more.”
“I about kicked him,” Montero recalls, laughing. “ I said, ‘Shut up. Give me the contract. Give me the plane ticket and I’ll go.’”
Noboa increased the offer to $13,000. The Monteros said yes.
The date was April 23, 2001. Montero no longer needed to worry about becoming a mechanical engineer. He had just become a professional catcher.
He was too small, too slow, not much of a prospect at the start. His development into an All-Star required hard work, sheer dedication and boundless energy — and, as Montero will be the first to tell you, good baseball men who helped him along the way.
Montero, now 28, will earn $5.9 million this season, which continues this weekend when the Diamondbacks visit the Mets (Saturday, MLB on Fox, 4:10 p.m. ET). His next contract — a free-agent contract unless the Diamondbacks sign him to an extension first — will be worth much, much more.
Not bad for a kid who signed for $13,000, a kid who recalls leaving home with $15 in his pocket to play in the Dominican summer league shortly after turning professional.
As Montero recalls, he hit something like .220 in the Dominican. When Noboa called him at the end of the season, he feared he would be released.
Nope, he was just getting started.
“He had a very low average, but he played good defense, he always was hustling, he was a leader,” Noboa says.
“With those kinds of kids, I’m not scared to send them to the states even if they don’t hit well. His swing was there. I knew it was only time, that he would be fine when he got to professional ball.”
Montero began his U.S. career with the Diamondbacks’ Rookie League club in Missoula, Mont. The D-backs had a prospect named Phil Avlas ahead of him. Avlas spent one season at Missoula. Montero had to return for a second.
In 2004, at age 20, he advanced to the D-Backs’ full-season, Low A club in South Bend, Ind., and caught 100 games for the first time. The following year, he went to High A Lancaster, where a former major league catcher, Bill Plummer, would be his manager.
“To be honest, he was the difference for me in my career,” Montero says.
Plummer managed Montero both at Lancaster and Double A Tennessee in ’04-’05, teaching him the importance of managing a pitching staff, of becoming a catcher.
“A lot of Latin guys felt, ‘He’s all over me. He doesn’t like me.’ They were really sensitive about it,” Montero recalls.
“I never felt that way. I was like, ‘You know what? He’s all over me because he wants me to get better. That’s it.’ I always took it that way. I never took it personal. And he was all over me, every day, every night.”
Plummer, now the Diamondbacks’ minor-league catching coordinator, has only positive memories of Montero. The way he hit. How quickly he learned English. His enthusiasm in learning to become a better catcher.
That first year at Lancaster, Plummer told Montero something that he didn’t often tell young players.
You’re going to play in the big leagues.
“I just thought he was going to make it,” Plummer says. “He showed really good leadership. He had a lot of energy. He was very vocal. It’s hard to find kids like that anymore.”
Montero made a quick prophet of Plummer, joining the Diamondbacks on Sept. 6, 2006.
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, the D-backs’ former scouting director, raves about Montero’s makeup, his intelligence, his effervescent personality.
Padres GM Josh Byrnes, the D-Backs’ former GM, recalls Montero’s professionalism during his two seasons as a backup, saying he is “on the short list of my all-time favorites.”
Some players forget their roots after reaching stardom. Montero seems forever mindful that 29 teams rejected him, that his career had such a humble start.
Consider what he says about learning English:
“This was my thought when I first came to the United States: ‘There are so many things you want to get done.’
“Obviously, you want to play in the big leagues. Not everybody can play in the leagues. But what I can do is take advantage of this opportunity. How? Learn the language. Be a good teammate. Be a good organization player. So if you get released, you might get a job as a scout or as a coach."
If you get released. That was Montero’s mindset.
Now, consider this story he tells about his quest to reacquaint with one of his boyhood heroes, his Venezuelan countryman, Omar Vizquel:
“I was like, 11 years old. My uncle took me to the company where he worked. Omar Vizquel was like, the face of the company — Omar and Andres Galarraga. I got to take a picture with him. I always carried my picture when I signed as a professional, when I came here to the States. I wanted to see him, get it signed.
“In spring training ’06, the day we played against the Giants, I had my picture with me. But I got sent down that day, so I couldn’t see him. That September, I got called up to the big leagues, and got to go to San Francisco. And I had my picture with me.
“I told him in batting practice, asked him to sign it. When he saw the picture, he wanted a copy. He said, ‘It’s unbelievable. I took a picture with you when you were, like, 10. Now we’re playing against each other in the big leagues.’
“He signed it for me. He was a great guy. I went to a lot of baseball clinics he gave in Venezuela.”
Now kids look up to Montero the same way, and the people who are around him most — his teammates, coaches and manager — respect him and enjoy him immensely.
“You tired today? I haven’t heard you at all,” manager Kirk Gibson joked to Montero before a recent game.
“Same energy,” Montero replied, grinning broadly.
Glenn Sherlock, the Diamondbacks’ longtime bullpen and catching coach, recalls two examples from 2008 that help define Montero.
Back then, Montero still was a backup, but he often caught the accomplished and occasionally prickly Randy Johnson. Montero wasn’t afraid to speak his mind to Johnson, Sherlock says. And Johnson respected him for it.
In late May of that season, Montero was paired with Dan Haren after Chris Snyder had caught the right-hander’s first 10 starts. Montero announced at the pitcher-catcher meeting, “Dan, I watched your last two starts on video.” The message, Sherlock says, was clear: Montero was prepared. And Montero cared.
No longer was Montero a hitter first, though he is still quite a hitter, one who produced a career-high 18 homers and 86 RBI last season. No, he now excels in every aspect of the game, and the value of his next contract only increased after Yadier Molina’s five-year, $75 million extension with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Not bad for a kid who signed for $13,000, a kid who only the Diamondbacks wanted.
“It’s funny, huh?” Montero says. “Funny how life goes.”