At the front of the room in Citizens Bank Park, John Middleton was already crying, already struggling to finish even the simplest sentence about David Montgomery without catching his breath and choking back tears. At the back of the room, dozens of Phillies employees were lined up and listening, pressing their backs against a wall as if to hold themselves up. The awful news of Wednesday morning – that Montgomery, 72, the Phillies’ chairman, had died of cancer – had been inevitable and still crushing, a tunnel with no light … except the one that Montgomery himself provided.
“Intertwined with the sorrow should be rejoicing,” said Middleton, the Phillies’ principal owner. “This is a man who lived a great life. He is an example to all of us, and we should all be grateful he was in our lives.”
There have been and will be yet stories by the hundreds of Montgomery’s generosity, his citizenship, his loyalty to the baseball franchise he stewarded and loved and to the only city he called home. You don’t need to hear any of those stories to appreciate his influence or, as Middleton referenced, the example he set. You could stand at the corner of 11th and Pattison and glance up at the façade of Citizens Bank Park. Or you could set your car trundling down a dirt path early Wednesday afternoon, not far from the Roxborough neighborhood where Montgomery grew up, to a baseball diamond where he played as a kid, now called David P. Montgomery Field, its green still glistening from an earlier rain. Or, maybe in the truest and clearest measure of his courage, you could have, at any time over the last five years of his life, looked at his face and listened to his voice.
It was all there – the fight he was waging, the disease’s damage. Montgomery’s cancer had attacked his jaw first, in May 2014, and in the aftermath of the surgeries and treatments, his chin was all but gone, as if a ledge had fallen away, and his voice became a never-ending whisper, the words dissolving one into another in a slurry of Ss and soft Cs. It would have been easy for him to stay out of the public eye thereafter, to wallow, to shut himself in his home and wait to die.
Instead, David Montgomery went to work. He sat in on meetings with the Phillies’ baseball and business staff, took notes, asked questions about prospects and strategies and pitching. He accepted awards for the organization’s charity work, delivered speeches to rapt and silent and marveling audiences, asked only that you regard and treat him as you always had, as if he were healthy again. He deflected every How are you, David? with the same genuine, shielding response: I’m fine. Tell me how you’re doing.
He made it to Opening Day last month at Citizens Bank Park, saw the Phillies win, then spent his final weeks in a hospital bed.
“He literally used every last ounce of energy to get here,” said Dave Buck, the Phillies’ executive vice president. “It wasn’t about him at all. He wanted to share everything until the end.
“The last four or five years almost summed him up perfectly. It was very difficult for him. Throughout this whole process, he cared more about all his co-workers in the back than about him. We’d get updates all the time, and we weren’t always sure they were complete updates because he wouldn’t talk about himself.”
It was as honorable and admirable a display of grace and bravery as you could hope to witness. To speak to Montgomery over these past five years, even in passing, was to be aware at all times of his illness and its gravity and the pain that he would not talk about and would never let you see. It was a thing unsaid yet present, there in the moment with you … but not to him. You could see he was different, and he knew that you could see he was different, but no: It was not a thing to him.
“You never would have known he had a health problem from the way he would act,” former Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. “That’s who he was. When I saw he was a fighter, that’s what I really admire about him, how he handled things. He wanted to go on with his life.”
People in sports like to say, You gotta play hurt. People throw that phrase around. No one played hurt like David Montgomery. He put such people to shame.
“The most profound thing is, he understood that, as a human being, he was not going to live forever,” Middleton said in a private moment late Wednesday morning, his voice still a rasp. “He knew he was dying, and he would put himself out there because he cared so much about this organization and, more generally, Philadelphia. He understood the difference between the physical manifestation of himself and the true, eternal – and internal – manifestation of who he was. He was comfortable in his skin, literally, because he knew he wasn’t any different inside.”
The room at Citizens Bank Park was mostly empty now. The employees who had been there, the people who had stood in the back, who were part of the Phillies family and, in turn, part of David Montgomery’s, too, had returned to work. There would be more stories to tell and memories to share, through wet eyes and belly laughs, about a man they were all grateful to have known, about a light that will never, ever go out. Two flowered boxes of tissues rested on the floor by a door. They would be needed. Someone picked them up and carried them out.