The salsa band was 45 minutes into their first show at the Lula Lounge on a recent Saturday when Charlie Montoyo showed up at the front door. The music club owner spotted Montoyo and led him and his band to the table closest to the stage, reserved for them.
Montoyo, 56, took off his jacket and waved to the familiar members of the group. Moments later, Montoyo, manager of the Toronto Blue Jays—one of the top teams in Major League Baseball—was there with the group and received the guiro, a staple of Latin music. The smile remained on his face for the next two and a half hours.
“Tonight we are accompanied by our wonderful manager Blue Jays,” Luis Franco, the lead singer of the band of the same name, told the audience in Spanish. He motioned for Montoyo to join him in front of the stage and continued, “This guy is working flawlessly with our team. Applause please.”
Montoyo stepped forward, hugged Franco, smiled and waved to the crowd. But he quickly returned to his usual position: with the band members, among the instruments.
Baseball may be the driving force behind Montoyo’s life, but the main rhythm is the music. His stadium office is littered with bongs, congas, timbales, maracas and records. He plays salsa to relax before games. And sometimes he spends weekends during the season accompanying nightclub bands with a guiro, an instrument that makes sound by rubbing a jagged hollow gourd with a stick.
“Charlie has been jumping off the stage throughout our relationship,” Montoyo’s wife, Sam, said in a recent phone interview. “I remember looking up during our wedding after talking to people and he’s on stage with the band.”
On the field, the Blue Jays are a diverse and vibrant team. After the player returns home, his teammates rush to buy him a blue jacket that displays the names of many of the countries represented on the team, from Canada to the Dominican Republic, from Cuba to South Korea.
Montoyo is their noisy leader, although it took him a long time to achieve this. After 18 very successful years as a junior with the Tampa Bay Rays and four years as a coach at major clubs, he finally got the chance to lead Toronto in 2019.
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Every step of Montoyo’s journey, salsa was the soundtrack.
“He’s phenomenal,” Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said of Montoyo. “His experience has always been attractive to me personally. His experience in the minor leagues, his playing experience, his cultural experience. He was exactly what we hoped for when we hired him, and then some.”
Montoyo, from small town Florida, Puerto Rico, grew up playing salsa and baseball. After four games with the Montreal Expos in 1993 and 1,028 games as a junior, Montoyo retired and began his coaching career.
“I’ve always wanted to be a baseball player,” he said, sitting in his office at Toronto’s Rogers Center. “I never thought that I would become a musician. But little by little I started to play more. And I love salsa. But now, yes, I would love to become a musician.”
Unlike his brothers, Montoyo never took music lessons or joined the school band. Growing up, he learned music organically. During parrandas, a Puerto Rican tradition similar to Christmas carols at night, he helped play the maracas, guiro, or tambourine as they went door to door. At beach get-togethers, he would watch others play their congas and pick them up himself.
Montoyo has a large collection of instruments at his permanent residence in Tucson, Arizona and in his office at the Rogers Center, which is also a shrine in equal measure to Puerto Rico and salsa. His wife surprised him with a painting autographed by his favorite musician Herman Olivera and a new set of congas for the office after being hired by Toronto.
Montoyo said that meeting or getting to know some of his musical heroes such as Roberto Roena, Oscar Hernandez, Eddie Palmieri and Olivera meant more to him than meeting many famous baseball players.
During spring 2019 training, Montoyo hosted an impromptu performance at his office in Dunedin, Florida with singer Marc Anthony, whose entertainment company has a baseball agency representing the Blue Jays first base star. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Anthony sang:Aguanile, ”Classic salsa by Willy Colón and Hector Lavoe and Montoyo played the bongos. They were joined by other members of the Blue Jays coaching staff from Puerto Rico.
(On the night of Montoyo’s recent visit to the Lula Lounge, he sent Anthony a video of his performance. “Wow,” Anthony wrote back.papito. I love it. Made my day. “)
Montoyo often hosts jam sessions. Once he invited several musicians from the club to his office, and they played until 4 in the morning. But Montoyo spends most of his time alone, playing music videos on TV a few hours before the game and playing along.
“We’re a competitive sport and the position he’s in comes with a lot of pressure and attention from the moment he walks into the clubhouse,” said Hector LeBron, 44, a Blue Jays interpreter who played for Montoyo as a coach. Tampa Bay minor league player. “He uses music to relax a bit and think.”
Montoyo first played at Lula Lounge in 2019. During pre-game practice in May, he met some musicians from the club who had heard about his musical abilities from mutual friends. In their conversation, Luis “Luisito” Orbegoso, a well-known local artist, said he could tell Montoyo knew what he was talking about and invited him to the club that evening. Montoyo came and played, and thus began their friendship.
“Whenever he’s in Toronto, he calls me to ask, ‘When are we playing?’ When are we going rude bear‘, said Orbegozo, 51, who was born in Peru and moved to Canada when he was 12. ‘Even in the winter, off-season, he contacts me and sends me videos. We are pure salsa.”
Lula Lounge was among the things Montoyo missed the most in Toronto. 2020 to 2021when Canadian border restrictions due to the pandemic forced the Blue Jays to play most of their home games in Buffalo and their spring training facility in Florida.
“He has a home here,” said José Ortega, co-owner of the Lula Lounge, who began teaching salsa dancing in his Toronto apartment in 2000 and two years later became a full-time restaurant and club he co-owns. José Nieves. “We see him almost like another member of the band.”
In total, Montoyo has played at the Lula Lounge six times, including twice this season after Saturday afternoon home games. He often travels with team officials or coaches and has brought his wife when she visits from Arizona, where she stays during the school year with their youngest son. Montoyo was tired on the day of his last visit – the Blue Jays played in the middle of a stretch of 20 consecutive days – but the club is his salvation.
“If Sam knows it’s Saturday and we’ve lost a tough game and I’m in the apartment alone, she tells me to go there and enjoy,” Montoyo said.
So, after the Blue Jays beat the Houston Astros — the game Montoyo was kicked out of in the fifth inning for challenging Guerrero’s claimed third strike — he was at the Lula Lounge with the Luis Franco Worldwide Salsa band.
“We call it swing,” said Alex Naar, 42, the band’s percussionist, who loaned Montoyo guiro and helped him with the more modern arrangements. “He has an innate aptitude for music. He feels it in his heart. He has a rhythm.”
After the first set, Montoyo took a photo with several fans. As the DJ played salsa and reggaeton classics, Montoyo rushed to the empty stage to play congas along with the song. And when the band came back for the second set, he joined them.
“Baseball is very Caribbean,” said Ortega, who was born in Ecuador and raised in New York. “It’s Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Venezuelans, and all the rhythm, style and panache that Latinos bring to the game. This atmosphere, it kind of fits together. So to me, when Charlie was there, I thought, “Wow, this is a fun, perfect combination of all these things.”
In every aspect of his life, Montoyo tried to represent his island, from the field to the stage.
“It is difficult to reach this level,” he said of his work. “I sincerely never expected to achieve this after so many years. That’s why I have the Puerto Rican flag everywhere on my glove. I’m proud of where I come from and the music.”
Shortly after midnight, with a few songs left in the second set of his recent visit to the Lula Lounge, Montoyo finished. He returned the guiro to Naaru, hugged him and said goodbye. He didn’t want to leave, but the Blue Jays had a 1:00 p.m. game. He grabbed his jacket and left with a team of employees who had come with him. He will return.