Despite playing multiple sports every year of my childhood, I never considered myself an athlete. Athletes were the kids who got selected for club teams, who always stood in the center of team photos, the types who loped around the field like exotic animals finally released into their natural habitats. Regardless of the sport, they always had a similar look: long and rangy, clear-eyed and glossy-haired. And skinny.
I have never, in my whole life, ever been skinny, and barring a zombie apocalypse/Mad Max scenario where my access to beer and pizza is limited, I never will be. So I lumbered around and did the best I could and never questioned why I didn’t get selected to play on travel teams. I was just happy to be there, with the other kids, dreaming.
The thing about being big is you are always trying to shrink yourself down into someone else’s definition of what you should look like. You buy jeans at this store because there you’re a size smaller than at the others. You clench your thighs together on the bus so you don’t take up any more of the communal space than necessary. You apologize, constantly, for your physical being. You fold your six-foot-four, two-hundred-thirty pound body into a catcher’s crouch, because catcher is what they want you to play. Everyone wants a big, strong, power-hitting catcher.
In 2006, everyone wanted Jesus Montero. The Yankees got him, because the Yankees get everything, offering him a 1.6 million dollar signing bonus. He was sixteen, and roundly hailed as the best hitter available in the draft. No one talked about his defense very much. What Scranton hitting coach Butch Wynegar did say, in a 2010 New York Times article, was "Monty" was a "beast" and "a monster," adding this caveat:
"he is a big boy, and he is prone to putting some weight on."
Under the watchful eye of the New York media, Montero lit up the minors, and as a late callup in 2011, slashed .328/.406/.996 to end the season. Then he got traded.
There are years that, when they come up in conversation, will electrify your every cell with danger, the digits themselves a code to unlock your personal safe of nightmares. If you’ve never had an annus horribilis, well, your time is coming. I’ve had a couple and will most likely see a few more before I shuffle off this mortal coil. Here’s the thing about life-wrecking years: you only have so many forms of recourse. Your options are basically to drink, smoke, eat, or sleep the pain away. (There are some people who apparently cope with tragedy by running marathons or donating their hair for cancer wigs or becoming expert woodworkers. This article is not about them.)
Jesus Montero had an annus horribilis that began in 2013 and didn’t stop until well into 2014. Having been traded to the Mariners, Montero had a decent enough 2012, hitting .260 over 135 games with 15 home runs. He still wasn’t a very good catcher, but the Mariners—who finished last in the AL that year in runs scored, homeruns hit, and joy offered—were desperate enough for some pop in the lineup that he played mostly at DH.
Then, 2013. Montero started off the year swinging a bat that was so cold scientists applied for research grants to study it and was demoted to AAA in late May, because there is not a lot of room at the inn for a Designated Hitter named Jesus who does not Hit. At Tacoma he continued to underwhelm and by June had a meniscus tear in his knee, some kind of Ghost of Christmas Future that made Jesus stare into an empty grave (headstone inscription: ENOUGH WITH THE SQUATTING ALREADY). Then, in August, Montero was linked to the Biogenesis scandal and he was suspended for fifty games, ending his season.
The trick to having a truly memorable annus horribilis is to screw things up on your own, just enough to get the cosmic snowball rolling, and allow life’s cruel ministrations to take it from there. Let’s take some HGH and see where this night takes us, baby. Montero went home to Venezuela to play winter ball, where his karmic snowball literally rolled him right off the road and into a hand injury sustained in a car crash, and instead of being able to play in his home country against a crop of pitchers he’d probably mash into the stratosphere, once again his body betrayed him.
Because that’s what it’s like, being unhappily fat. Every day you are at war with this meatsack someone strapped you into which has a real hinky clutch and is only partially inclined to your wishes. It’s tough on the best of days to prod this disobedient lump into the gym to try to melt off some of the fat cells it clings to like it’s Rose-and-Jack-ing it with that pizza you ate last night. And when your life sucks? Forget it. So Jesus Montero did what many of us do. He ate and he ate and he ate like he was that freaky fever-dream caterpillar.
You probably know what happened next.
Different terms have been thrown around for Jesus Montero’s 2014. "Self-destructive" pops up a lot. See, when you’re fat, and you’re ashamed of that because you work in an industry that prides health and fitness or maybe you’re just a person who lives in America, you live feeling like a fraud. Like any bit of success you have is ill-gotten or temporary, and at any moment someone can emperor’s-new-clothes you back into what you were: Misshapen. Inelegant. Ordinary.
But you know what doesn’t judge you? Food. It just sits there and lets you eat it and the carbs rush in and light up all the pleasure centers of your brain and finally the only voice you hear is a little one saying that felt good, let’s have some more. The Germans have a word for this, because of course they do: kummerspeck, or "grief bacon."
And then your GM says something to the media like:
"I have zero expectations for Jesus Montero. Any expectations I had are gone."
And it rings true.
And then some asshole who thinks you don’t hustle-enough-grit-rawr embarrasses you at your workplace, in front of your co-workers, in front of your friends, your family, and makes tangible the things you think people have been saying behind your back, makes you the butt of a schoolyard joke in front of all these people, and you lose it. Because it’s like someone took the most terrible thoughts you’ve had in your own head, and externalized them, and used as a vehicle for your public humiliation the very thing that once offered you comfort. Adios, 2014.
But instead of going home and eating his way into oblivion, this time Montero was motivated. His wife Taneth has a degree in Nutrition and Health Science and an oft-updated Instagram account. Pictures show the two spending the offseason with their new baby, Loren, going on family hikes and training at the gym together. As his baby gets bigger, Montero gets smaller, and his smile grows wider. Instead of opting to go home to Venezuela, Montero stayed in Arizona and worked his ass off. Literally. When he showed up at Spring Training in 2015, the phrase "best shape of his life" meant more than just his physical appearance.
How did he get here? What makes a person change their life? On the surface, it's simple:
"Doing my work, being honest, being in love with baseball."
When you are not up to doing the hard work of loving yourself, you also cannot love the things you should love, because those things are a reflection of you. So you love something else instead, something that is a lie, because it’s easier than confronting the truth, much easier than finding the courage to love the things you need to love first and best.
Breaking out of this mindset is hard. Being brutally honest with yourself about times where you’ve fallen short and making a plan for improvement is really hard. (The grief bacon, it is so delicious.) And while it can be done by one’s own hand, it helps to get a leg up. From your partner, your child, your baseball club. So your new GM goes on MLB Network Radio and says this:
"He has really cleaned up his life, cleaned up his body, he looks like he’s in great shape…we’re going to give him an opportunity to win at-bats at first base and DH…we view him as an asset, we do view him as having value to us."
And the message is something we don’t tell each other enough: I value you.
An annus horribilus is a wretched thing to go through and a powerful thing to have gone through. It reminds us that our time is limited, that the world is largely indifferent to our happiness, and that our bodies and the choices we make about them ultimately belong to us. It reminds us to value ourselves and each other.
Montero’s future with the club is unclear. There may be a role for him; there may not be. But it will not be because the Mariners have given up on him, because he never gave up on himself. Husband, father, hard worker: Montero has tried on all these roles lately and found they fit him perfectly. Let's hope the next one is professional baseball player. I will be pulling for him, on behalf of all fat kids with a dream.