Thursday, March 14, 2013

#515 - Willie Montanez

Two action shots in a row has been pretty rare lately. While the two most recent subjects Paul Schaal and Willie Montanez had a few obvious differences – opposite corners of the infield and different leagues – they also have a couple things in common: both played for the Angels; and both have these action shots. This one of Willie is a great one because it goes a long way in describing its subject. Willie was a brash guy with a pretty wide repertoire of bat spins, wrist flicks, holster impersonations, and general commentary. Even here, where he appears to have either fouled one off or just plain missed – my choice given that Chris Speier hasn’t moved from his pre-pitch stance – he is maxing out the drama with what appears to be commentary about his own swing. Willie had another open-mouthed action shot in ’75. In fact, Willie had lots of action shots: six of the twelve cards issued during his career fell into that category. By ’73 his playing style was as hard to define as his antics were colorful: was he a power hitter or a line drive guy; was he a first baseman or a center fielder; was he an entertainer or did all that stuff just cover up some inferiorities? The answers, except for that last one, were both. ’73 was a bit of a temporary nadir for him. After tapping 30 homers as a rookie, and then an NL-leading 39 doubles in ’72, his total bases bottomed out in ’73, his first season with a significant amount of games at first base. But his strikeouts came down too and Willie was fine with not being a power guy. And the fans loved him. He certainly wasn’t morose like the last star guy they had there, Dick Allen. On the day of the Veterans Stadium unveiling he came into the outfield dribbling a basketball to show how springy the turf was. And he was always deemed a bargain since in the deal that brought him to town he was sort of a throw-in to make up for that other guy.

Willie Montanez grew up in Puerto Rico where he was discovered playing that island’s version of Babe Ruth ball and was signed by the Cardinals when he was only 16. After hitting .234 in a very short season of Rookie ball in ’65, he was taken by California in the Rule 5 draft, which meant he had to stay on the Angels roster the whole following season or they could lose him. Willie went to Anaheim, got into a couple mid-April games, and then by the end of the month was returned to the Cards. The rest of the season he hit well in A ball, hitting .281 with eleven homers and 49 RBI’s in about half a season. At that same level in ’67 he hit .269 with 17 triples and twelve stolen bases and 61 RBI’s while playing excellent ball at first. He lost most of the next season to his military commitment in the National Guard, and hit .299 in only 174 A level at bats. In ’69 he was off to a great start in Triple A - .375 with four doubles in 56 at bats – when he broke his ankle and missed the rest of his season. After that year the Phillies finally worked out a deal whereby they got rid of their brooding star Allen: he, Cookie Rojas, and Jerry Johnson went to St. Louis for Byron Browne, Joe Hoerner, Tim McCarver, and Curt Flood. When Flood refused to report to the Phillies, opening up a case that begat free agency, St. Louis offered Willie as compensation.

For the Phillies Montanez picked up where he left off with the Cards – in Triple A. There in ’70 he hit .276 with 16 homers and 80 RBI’s before getting a late season look up top. In ’71 he made the roster out of spring training as the center fielder, a position previously manned by Larry Hisle, who was having a tough time with big league pitching. Willie went on to have his big rookie year and his 30 homers and 99 RBI’s took him to second place behind Earl Williams in ROY voting as he landed a spot in the Topps Rookie outfield. In ’72 the Phillies sort of bottomed out and Willie’s offense came in pretty good except for that doubles total. After his move to first during ’73 he settled into the position nicely and the next year put up a .304 average while continuing to drop his K totals and adding 33 doubles and 79 RBI’s. In ’75 Willie was off to another good start, hitting .286 with eight doubles and 16 RBI’s in his first 21 games, when the Phillies decided on a big personnel shift. They were having some problems replacing his successor in center Del Unser, who’d gone to NY in the off season. They also had a hankering to return Dick Allen to first and he was available cheap. So they picked up Allen from Atlanta and sent Willie to San Francisco for Garry Maddox, who was off to a slow start on the left coast.

’75 was the year when Montanez, relatively settled in Philly for four-plus years, became truly itinerant. The rest of the year he hit very well, raising his Giant average to .305 and adding 24 doubles and 85 RBI’s to bring his season totals to 34 and 101, respectively. Ironically, the speedster also led the NL in double plays into which he hit. In ’76 he kept the average cranking, hitting .309 in his first 60 games, when another mid-season trade had him on the road again. This time he went to Atlanta with Craig Robinson for Darrell Evans and Marty Perez. With the Braves he hit .321 the rest of the way and finished the season at .317 with 206 hits and 84 RBI’s. He stayed with Atlanta for the ’77 season, his only All-Star one, and hit .287 with 20 homers and 68 RBI’s. After that year Willie was part of a huge four-way trade in which he ended up with the Mets and the Braves got pitchers Tommy Boggs and Adrian Devine from Texas (Pittsburgh was the other team involved in the trade). Poor Willie was yet again on a crappy team but he made the most of it, using a mid-season surge to get him 17 homers and 96 RBI’s. But that magic didn’t extend into ’79 and when two-thirds of the way into the season he only had five homers and 47 RBI’s, along with a .234 average, Willie went to Texas for Ed Lynch and Mike Jorgensen. For the Rangers he finished big with a .319 average, eight homers, and 24 RBI’s in 38 games. Prior to the ’80 season Willie went to San Diego for Gaylord Perry and Tucker Ashford where for the Padres he hit about his lifetime mark: .274 with 63 RBI’s until a late-season deal to Montreal for its stretch run (the Expos gave up Tony Phillips). Willie hit .211 that September in mostly a pinch-hitting role. He played that part again in ’81 for Montreal and Pittsburgh and in ’82 for the Pirates and the Phillies, a season he also put in some time in Triple A. That was Willie’s last year and he finished with a .275 average, 279 doubles, 139 homers, and 802 RBI’s. He got shut out of any post-season work.

I am not terribly clear on what Montanez did immediately after baseball. He had moved to Caguas PR while he was playing and played winter ball for its team which he did for a good deal of his career. He settled there full time after playing and since ’92 has been a scout for the Phillies on his home island.

Willie’s star bullets are pretty good but you think Topps could have come up with a better cartoon about a colorful guy. It looks like he barely squeezed his signature in that spot. He used to tell Mike Schmidt that he got pneumonia from all the cold air currents Schmidt produced when he struck out.

The Angel connection doesn’t really work here but this does:

1. Montanez and Andy Hassler ’79 Mets;
2. Hassler and Paul Schaal ’74 Angels.eHHeHYeHJh

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