“I know there’s a big contingent of people who think it’s fun, (who say) let the players enjoy it,” said the Old School Manager. “But if I’m a pitcher, I don’t want a guy rubbing it in when he hits a home run off me. Fans might like it, I guess, but for me it’s unprofessional.”
Soon after, the great Mike Schmidt weighed in—not on Herrera specifically, but on what he termed, “a faction of players today who say, ‘Damn respect.’“ Schmidt said that bat flippers and pitchers who gesture after strikeouts, “show a lack of respect for your opponent and the history of the game.”
Let’s be clear. Odubel Herrera and his contemporaries did not invent bravado on the base paths. Pete Rose, Schmidt’s old teammate, was known to spark a few fights with his raw emotion and contempt toward opponents. Roberto Clemente, as classy a man ever to wear a uniform, played with a flair that bordered on exhibitionism. Ken Griffey, Jr. was rebuked as disrespectful of the game for, of all things, wearing his cap backwards during batting practice.
I’d argue that one of baseball’s problems today is that it lacks showmen. Where’s the Rickey Henderson swagger? The Ozzie Smith backflip? The Pedro Martinez antics—on and off the pitcher’s mound?
You may be too young to remember Montanez, the Puerto Rican peacock whose career ended in 1982. Not many highlights survive on YouTube. But baseball, at least here in Philadelphia, has never had a gaudier showboat.
“Willie Montanez,” wrote columnist Dick Young, “is such a hot dog that it takes a quart of mustard to cover him.”
Montanez came up as a 22-year-old centerfielder with the Phils late in 1970. He produced 30 homers and 99 RBIs the next season, finishing second in NL Rookie of the Year voting while playing for a team that went 67-95. He could hit, run and field—and, boy, could he entertain.
Willie approached the batter’s box twirling his Louisville Slugger like a baton. He rolled his neck while awaiting each pitch, a gesture local schoolyard kids gleefully incorporated into their own batting stances. He’d do a dance kick after hitting a foul ball. He’d turn routine popups into adventures, flicking his wrist to perform a risky one-handed “snatch catch.”
The highlight came after each of his 139 career home runs. Just as Darryl Dawkins titled his dunks, Willie called his home-run trot, “Montanez’s Revenge.” He slowed to a stutter step approaching each base, and then leaped onto the base with both feet. Thirty feet from home he’d start walking. Then he’d stomp on the middle of the plate, just for punctuation.
“The fans loved it,” recalls Montanez, 69, who’s now back home in Puerto Rico, where he spends days babysitting his grandson. “At least the hometown fans. And teammates never complained about my style.”
Opposing pitchers, however, were not so enamored. Jerry Reuss of the Dodgers often threw inside fastballs that sent Montanez diving to the dirt. And one-time Phils teammate Tom Underwood once planted a fastball in Montanez’s ribs the after he homered the previous at-bat.
“Ahh, I didn’t mind,” he laughs. “That was part of the game then. Maybe people thought I wasn’t respecting baseball. But I played from my heart. I was having fun. I may not have hit too many home runs—but I sure enjoyed each of them.”
Montanez spent 14 years in the Majors, playing for nine teams. He scouted Latin America for the Phils for a few years. Even now, he loves baseball. This year he treated himself to a cable package that allows him to watch every game.
“I love watching (fellow Puerto Rican) Francisco Lindor,” he says, citing the Indians bright young shortstop. “And Mike Trout. Oh, who doesn’t love Mike Trout?”
Trout, the Angels superstar centerfielder from Millville, N.J., is many great things—but flashy is not among them. Doesn’t Montanez feel an affinity toward guys like Jose Bautista and Bryce Harper, two of the sport’s great current bat flippers? Does he have appreciation for the Phils’ colorful Herrera?
“Oh, I love them all,” he says. “They’re bigger and stronger than when I played. They all lift weights and stay in better shape than we did back then. But more colorful? More style than me? No, that I don’t think.”
Nor do I. And the next time someone tells you that players back in the day didn’t play like today’s showoffs, just drop the name Willie Montanez. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.