By: Brian Frank
Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo sat in the home dugout at Sahlen Field prior to the Blue Jays final game in Buffalo and reminisced about some of his many memories tied to the Queen City.
“You know, I hit my first home run in Triple-A here,” he said. “It was against Rick Reed. It was in April and it was cold and rainy.”
Montoyo, an infielder for the Denver Zephyrs, hit a solo home run off Reed during a chilly, wet April game in 1991. However, the game was suspended after Denver hit in the second inning due to inclement weather.
By the time the Zephyrs returned to Buffalo to complete the game in August, Montoyo was hitting .321 and had hit nine more home runs – but the first one he hit in Buffalo in April didn’t technically count until the game was completed in August.
“The game got suspended and I had to wait until August when we came back here for the home run to count,” Montoyo chuckled. “But I remember that like it was yesterday.”
Montoyo with the Blue Jays at Sahlen Field. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles
The Zephyrs went on to play many more memorable games against the Herd that season – including when the two teams met in 1991 in the best-of-five American Association Championship Series.
“That’s when they were talking about making Buffalo a big-league city,” Montoyo said. “You used to get 20,000 people here. This place used to be packed every game.”
“It was a great series,” he remembered. “We lost the first two here and then we go to Denver…”
After taking the first two games at home behind the masterful pitching of Reed and Steve Fireovid, the Bisons needed only one more win in Denver to close out the series and win their first league championship since 1961. However, Denver won Game 3 by a score of 8-3 to extend the series.
In Game 4, Montoyo ended up being a centerpiece in one of the biggest – and one of the most controversial – plays of the Bisons modern era. The Zephyrs dominated most of the game. Not only did they enter the ninth inning with a 9-0 lead, but starting pitcher Greg Mathews had no-hitter heading into the game’s final frame. A fifth and deciding game seemed inevitable.
But the Bisons staged a rally for the ages in the ninth – breaking up the no-hitter, knocking Mathews from the game, and sending 12 men to the plate.
“Your lineup was really good so the game was not over,” Montoyo said. “And we were in Denver, so you know – the ball flew – and you guys just kept coming back”
Greg Edge batted with two outs, the bases loaded, and Denver leading 9-5. He grounded to shortstop Pat Listach, whose throw to first appeared to beat the speedy Edge, but he was called safe. Joe Redfield scored on the play to cut Denver’s lead to 9-6. That brought Greg Tubbs to the plate, with the bases still loaded and Edge at first base representing the game's tying run.
“Here we go – Tubbs who always hit the ball good – with the bases loaded – and he hit a double down the line,” Montoyo said as he mimicked Tubbs’ swing.
Tubbs lined the ball into the left-field corner. Mickey Brantley fielded the ball and threw to Montoyo who fired a perfect relay to catcher Joe Kmak as Edge raced home to try to tie the game.
“I was actually playing third and that relay - the shortstop was supposed to get to it – but for some reason he took his time and so I said well ‘I want it,’ because if you guys tie the game you probably win the whole thing,” Montoyo remembered. “And so I just made a good throw home and the catcher did a nice job of blocking the plate and the rest is history.”
Home plate umpire Scott Potter called Edge out on a close play. Bisons manager Terry Collins and numerous Buffalo players streamed onto the field to argue the call as Denver players celebrated.
Pete Weber's classic call of the final at-bat of Game 4. Courtesy of Pete Weber.
“I stay in touch with Mike (President of Rich Baseball Operations Mike Buczkowski) and we always talk about that play,” Montoyo said smiling. “I thought he was out and you guys thought he was safe. I’m always going to remember that play.”
Denver won easily the next day 12-3 to take the series and win the American Association Championship.
“What a great series,” Montoyo said. “And all the good players who were on those two teams.”
Montoyo also managed many games at Sahlen Field prior to the Blue Jays coming to Buffalo – as manager of the Durham Bulls from 2007 to 2014. During Montoyo’s time leading the Bulls, they were an International League powerhouse, winning the International League's South Division seven times in eight seasons and capturing the Governors’ Cup twice. The Bulls were 39-25 against the Bisons with Montoyo at the helm.
After the Blue Jays announced they’d be playing their 2020 home schedule in Buffalo due to the U.S.-Canadian border being closed because of the pandemic, Buczkowski reminded Montoyo of his past success at the stadium now known as Sahlen Field. “Mike said, ‘You’re going to do great here with the big-league team because you always did well here as a player and as a manager’ – and he was right,” Montoyo recalled.
Montoyo watches batting practice in downtown Buffalo. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles
The last two seasons here with the Blue Jays have only made Montoyo’s bond with the city even deeper. “People have no idea that there’s a big Puerto Rican community here,” Montoyo, a native a Puerto Rico, said. He noted he makes a point of eating at the Niagara Café, a Puerto Rican restaurant on Niagara Street, “every time I come here.”
The Blue Jays went 17-9 at Sahlen Field in 2020, good for a .654 winning percentage, the best of any team in Major League Baseball that season. They also clinched a playoff berth in Buffalo when they beat the New York Yankees 4-1 on September 24. “We’re never going to forget that this was the place where we clinched the playoffs last year,” Montoyo beamed. Toronto went 12-11 at Sahlen Field in 2021 to finish their time here with a 29-20 overall record (.592).
Montoyo was also grateful for the support of the Buffalo fans while the Blue Jays were here. Despite only being able to sell single game tickets, with no season tickets and socially distanced seating pods for many of the early games, the Blue Jays still averaged 7,733 fans per game at Sahlen Field – which is more than Tampa Bay, Oakland, and Miami have averaged this season. “The crowds have been great and the support has been great,” Montoyo said. “Buffalo has been great to us.”
As he sat looking out at the field reflecting on a lifetime of memories, Montoyo smiled and added: “Buffalo has been good to me.”