Note: April 10, 2023 will mark the 50th anniversary of the first game at Royals/Kauffman Stadium. Each week, I will look at one memorable moment in stadium history, with the top moment revealed on April 10, 2023. Missed an entry? You can find past ones here.
I’ve written this before, but the Royals have seldom had that stereotypical closer–you know, the big guy with the 100-mph fastball and crazy facial hair who looks like he might stomp your face in just for looking at him. There is a definite separation on the Royals’ list of all-time saves leaders, with the top four guys more than 100 saves ahead of the guy in fifth place. And of those four, one guy threw underhanded and wrote poetry (Dan Quisenberry), one guy was listed at 5’10” (Greg Holland), and one guy (Joakim Soria) depended on a low-90s fastball and a big looping curveball and shied away from the “Mexicutioner” nickname (for perfectly valid reasons, mind you, but that is the perfect nickname for the kind of closer I’m talking about here).
And then there’s the one who topped them all–Jeff Montgomery, who used a starting pitcher’s mix of four pitches and smarts to rack up 304 saves in his career, all of them with the Royals.
Montgomery was acquired from the Reds in a steal of a trade after the 1987 season, as the Royals gave up Van Snider, who played in 19 major-league games. Montgomery wasn’t brought in to be a closer, but he was so effective he eventually worked his way into it. He probably could have reached the 300 mark much faster if the Royals had just appreciated what they had. Instead, for whatever reason, they had him sharing the role in 1989, then made the ill-fated Mark Davis signing ahead of the 1990 season. But Davis was a bust, and Montgomery just kept piling up the saves, collecting 39 in 1992, then tying Quisenberry’s team record with 45 and leading the league (Holland has since broken that mark–twice, in fact). The 1994 strike limited him to 27 that season, but he bounced back to pick up 31 more in 1995 and 24 more in 1996, including one on July 20th that gave him the franchise record as he passed Quisenberry with 239.
But the last half of 1996, most of 1997, and the first part of 1998 were plagued by injuries and ineffectiveness. It wasn’t until the last half of the 1998 season that Montgomery again enjoyed a truly effective stretch. He ended that season with 292 career saves, and 300, which only nine other pitchers had reached at the time, seemed like a forgone conclusion.
It was not. Montgomery was often ineffective in the early part of the season, and the Royals’ inconsistent offense and shaky pitching meant many games were blowouts one way or the other. It became apparent that Montgomery was not in the team’s plans for 2000, and his struggles made it unlikely he would pitch beyond 1999 anyway. To make matters worse, he missed a month with a hip injury.
But at last, Montgomery got save number 299, on August 19 in New York. That was actually his second save in two days, much like old times. He did not get a save opportunity again until August 24 against Baltimore. Entering the game with the Royals ahead, 3-2, gave up a single, got an out, gave up another single, got the second out, and was one pitch away from the save when pinch-hitter Derrick May lofted a fly ball into shallow center. It fell in, the tying run scored, and ultimately, Albert Belle hit the game-winning home run in the 11th inning.
Montgomery was summoned to the mound the next night, with the Royals ahead 8-6. Brad Rigby actually started the inning but allowed a solo home run to Mike Figga. Tim Byrdak entered and got two outs. Number 300 was all set up for Montgomery, who needed to get just one out for the save. But Mike Bordick singled. So did B.J. Surhoff. Now Belle was striding to the plate and the game was in serious jeopardy. But Montgomery worked inside on Belle, and got a ground ball to shortstop Rey Sanchez, whose throw to first was just in time.
The crowd of 12,033, some of whom had booed when Montgomery entered the game, gave him a standing ovation as he raised his glove as a salute. Happily, a group of Montgomery’s friends had purchased the third-base dugout suite for this particular game months earlier, obviously not knowing this would be the special night. Even better, his father Tom had come from Ohio for the game
After the game, manager Tony Muser acknowledged the grind of getting to the mark.
“It’s been tough to get it, I know it’s been tough on him, and I know it’s been tough on the club,” Muser said. “But he got it, he earned it, he deserved it, and I’m happy for him.”
Meanwhile, Montgomery openly pondered his future.
“I won’t decide today or tomorrow,” he said. “If I had to make the decision today, this would probably be my last season.”
And it turned out to be. Montgomery retired with 304 saves, which is still good for 28th on the all-time list, and is still one of only 31 players ever to reach 300. It may be a while before anyone else joins the club; the nearest active player to that level is Mark Melancon, who is 37 and only has 260 saves. Montgomery may not have been the prototypical closer, but he turned out to be one of the best in baseball history.