Monday, Jun 09 2014 07:27 PM

The Roadrunner Connection: A Father's Day story

On this Father's Day week I am going to write about a father that I never had the pleasure of meeting; but I have been blessed to experience the results of his efforts as a father over the years and share a wonderful story on the five-year memorial of his passing.

Fred Montoya passed away in 2009 from a heart attack. Like most of the time when such a thing happens, nobody saw it coming and Fred was taken far too young. He was a father to a pair of great kids, Jonny and Sara, and husband to one of my favorite baseball moms of all-time, Leeza.

It was through Jonny that I got to know the Montoya family. Jonny was a pitcher with CSUB, and he had just finished his freshman year when his father passed. He played through the pain for the next few years, but with a smile like Jonny's, it was hard to tell when he was hurting; baseball and life were too important for him to let it slow him down. Leeza never missed a home start of her son's either, doing the cheering for two parents now.

Jonny graduated in 2013 following five years with the program, including a red shirt season following Tommy John surgery (Ulnar Collateral Ligament reconstruction). The extra year also allowed him the chance to win his 20th game as a Roadrunner, making him the first player to do so in a CSUB uniform.

But it wasn't that game that was so special. Nearly five years to the day of his father's passing, Jonny is now playing professional baseball in Austria. Yes, you read that right, Austria -- like Schwarzenegger and schnitzel, not the more baseball-developed Australia, as in crocodiles and kangaroos.

He's a pitcher/outfielder for the Kufstein Vikings in Austria's Baseball Bundesliga. While Jonny's the first to admit this isn't the MLB, the competition is still pretty tough, the teammates seem to be great people and you can't beat the scenery. If you put a baseball field in heaven, it would look like some of these diamonds with their picturesque mountain backdrops and pine trees as far as the eye can see.

Unlike college baseball, Jonny must pull double duty. BBL rules allow just a few "import" players per team and they must play in the field in the first game of the doubleheader since only Austrians are allowed to pitch in the first contest. Then in the second game the overseas guys like Montoya can take the hill.

On June 1, Jonny realized it was the day before the five-year anniversary of his father's passing. He spent the morning looking at a memorial website his family had created. He admitted he got emotional, but when his teammates arrived to give him a lift to the ballpark, he threw on his imitation Ray Ban sunglasses to cover the tears and bloodshot and headed out. He went 2-for-3 as the starting center fielder in the first game but got into a rundown on the bases, rolled his ankle pretty badly and left the game early, knowing he was scheduled to pitch the next game.

The swelling was bad, the ankle didn't look right, but Jonny said with a week off between games for the import players, he would risk it and throw. He normally jogs out to center, touches the wall and looks skyward before each start in tribute to his father. He couldn't do that this time. Nor could he throw from his normal wind up or pitch with his trademark-high leg kick reminiscent of Juan Marischal or Dontrelle Willis. That day he threw from the stretch exclusively. For his team, for Dad.

Fred started Jonny in baseball and before every game and every practice he told his son three things: play hard, have fun and learn something. Jonny says he can't remember a time he was able to shut the car door without hearing that. Fred even got really involved in scorekeeping and had hundreds of his son's games logged in scorebooks when he went away to college; I'm sure he'd get a kick out of scoring seven-inning Austrian baseball games while his son plays two positions.

Speaking of which, the second game was magical for Jonny Montoya, despite throwing from the stretch with what doctors would later diagnose as a ruptured ligament in his ankle, Jonny won the game throwing a complete-game shutout 6-0, striking out 11 and allowing just five hits. Jonny says he knew from the first inning on, despite the pain and limitations that it was going to be a special day. He was right. He thanked his catcher/manager after the game for what he described as "the most-fun game he's thrown since 2011." All these years later, he's still listening to dad's advice.

Although Jonny is now playing pro baseball thousands of miles away in Austria and his father is gone from this world, Jonny claims he feels his presence on a regular basis. It could be a song on the radio that takes him back, a smile on the baseball field or even the name "Fred" etched on a bench in an Austrian restaurant. He says dad is now his Guardian Angel.

Happy Father's Day.

COREY COSTELLOE, a Tehachapi High graduate, is Director of New Media and Broadcasting for California State University, Bakersfield.

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