I had lunch with David Montgomery in spring training this year only because I was sitting alone in the media lunch room and the president of the 2008 World Series champion Phillies asked if he could sit with me.
You don’t say no to such a request.
By then, it was clear that he was in the final stages of his five-year battle with cancer and that this was going to be his last trip to spring training in Clearwater, a place he loved almost as much as his native Philadelphia. Montgomery’s battle ended Wednesday morning when he died at the age of 72.
At one point during our lunch, the subject of Scott Rolen arose and it became a sort of mea culpa moment for Montgomery. It was clear that he regretted allowing Rolen’s allegiance to the Phillies to drift so much that it led to the team’s dealing the All-Star third baseman to the St. Louis Cardinals.
I got the feeling that he may have spent some sleepless nights thinking about a lineup with Rolen, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell, and Jim Thome or Ryan Howard. Maybe the Phillies would not have had to wait until 2008 for their second World Series victory. Maybe they would have won more than one title.
If that was David Montgomery’s greatest regret, he should rest easy. What he did as a man far outweighed any baseball decision he ever made.
You could hear that sentiment over and over again as some of the more high-profile people in the organization spoke about Montgomery late Wednesday morning during a news conference at Citizens Bank Park. Larry Bowa, Charlie Manuel, and Mickey Morandini all marveled at Montgomery’s desire to know the name of every person in the organization. Not just the All-Star first baseman and the future Hall of Fame third baseman.
Montgomery did not only want to know the security guard, the clubhouse manager, or the media relations director, he also wanted to know about their families. He wanted to make sure everything was always all right. He wanted to help in any way he could.
If you worked for the Phillies, you were part of his family, and that was just as true when he was low man in the ticket office in the early 1970s as it was during his days as the team president.
The employees have stories to tell and they tearfully told them during over the phone Wednesday morning.
“The first time I ever met him was 20 years ago,” said Greg Casterioto, the Phillies’ director of communications. “I was an intern in public relations and I had to go make a copy. The copy machine sat between our office and David’s office and when I walked into the room I saw David there and I said, ‘Sorry, Mr. Montgomery, I’ll come back.’ ”
Montgomery’s response: “First of all, it’s David, not Mr. Montgomery. Second, you know how to work this better than I do, so why don’t you go first.”
It was the start of not just a working relationship but a beautiful friendship. Casterioto could not attend the Phillies’ World Series ring ceremony in 2009 because his father had a brain tumor and the family was spending as many waking hours as possible at Magee Rehab Center.
“I couldn’t be at the ring ceremony and David knew that,” Casterioto said. “I got a call into his private box a few hours before the ring ceremony and David privately presented me with my ring. After that, he would always ask about my father. He knew my parents’ names, my kids’ names. Who does that?”
Phil Sheridan, the Phillies’ clubhouse manager, has similar stories. One of his favorites is about an organizational gathering in the posh Le Parker Meridien hotel ahead of the 2009 World Series against the New York Yankees.
“He walked in with his wife, Lyn, and asked me if I’d mind if they sat with me and my girlfriend [Jenn],” Sheridan said. “I had to be the lowest guy on the totem pole there. I ordered a drink – it was something on the rocks – and he ordered a Bud bottle. He was the most important and most down-to-earth person in the room.”
Sheridan had already been a member of the David Montgomery fan club because of what the team president did for him during spring training in 2006. Sheridan was going through a divorce and suffering some severe separation anxiety from his kids. He thought about not going to spring training but reconsidered.
Montgomery was there for him.
“He told me, ‘You have spent so many years of your life working hard for our organization and now it is our time to take care of you,’ " Sheridan said. "He said, ‘If you need money, we’ll cut you a check. If you need legal help, use our lawyers. Whenever you want to go home from Clearwater to see your kids, we will get you a flight.’ After that, he always checked up on me and my family.”
That is a man who wanted to know a lot more than his employees’ names.
He continued to care even as his battle with jaw-bone cancer neared its end. In fact, he had a message for visitors’ clubhouse manager Kevin Steinhour during one of his last visits to spring training.
“He saw that Kevin had a [tobacco] dip in,” Sheridan said. “He looked at him and said, ‘If you’re my friend, please stop doing that. Look what happened to me. I’m not yelling at you. I just don’t want you and your family to go through this.’ ”
Frank Coppenbarger, the Phillies’ recently retired clubhouse manager and traveling secretary, tells a great story about spring training 2007. After longtime coach John Vukovich died from brain cancer, Montgomery called Coppenbarger up to his spring-training office.
The team president wanted input from Coppenbarger about how the Phillies should handle things. Coppenbarger, one of Vukovich’s closest friends, suggested that the Phillies charter a plane back to Philadelphia not only for the members of the organization but also for friends of Vuke’s in Clearwater and from other teams around baseball.
Montgomery gave the immediate go-ahead and the church in Voorhees, N.J., overflowed with Vukovich’s family and friends.
“First he asked me if I could handle it emotionally because he knew how close I was to Vuke,” Coppenbarger said. “Susan Ingersoll and I double-teamed the arrangements. David never asked how much it was going to cost.”
When former Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. was asked what he’d miss most about Montgomery, he started to cry.
“Just how genuine he was,” Amaro said. “How much he cared about everybody -- the plumber, the maintenance guy, the people who worked in the dining room. He made you think about how you went about your daily life and how you treated people.”
Making people think about how they treat other people should be and will be David Montgomery’s lasting legacy even if he did have a difficult time with letting Scott Rolen get away.