A man for all seasons


Sid Monge tells the story as if it happened yesterday. The memory, like all the highlights of his major league pitching career, are still vivid in his mind. He never tires of retelling them because he holds each one close to his heart. There are tales from the 1979 all-star game and the 1984 World Series; the night in 1982 when a rookie named Tony Gwynn doubled off Monge for his first big league hit. There were the two seasons he spent with the Phillies; the time he fretted over asking Pete Rose for an autograph and, of course, the Coca-Cola can.

“Those memories come at you all the time,” said Monge, who is nearing the end of his first season as the pitching coach for the Potomac Cannons. “Those moments never leave you. They’re so special.”

Special is a word Monge uses a lot, especially when he’s in the mood to reminisce.

That was the case on a scorching August afternoon right in the middle of a Carolina League pennant race when Monge disappeared into the clubhouse and returned to the dugout with a souvenir from his playing days. The item’s so old that it’s lightly coated with dust.

That’s because Monge recently retrieved it from the attic of his house in Boston. The keepsake a framed 8 x 10 color photograph now has a prominent place in his cubby hole office.

While Cannons players stretch in the outfield grass at Pfitzner Stadium in preparation for a night game against the Winston-Salem Warthogs, Monge cradles the picture carefully in both hands and smiles.

“Do you know who this is?” he asks, pointing at the young ballplayer posing for the camera.

It is unmistakably, Isidro Pedroza Monge.

He asks the same question about the man standing next to him wearing a California Angels uniform and then speaks reverently when he explains that it’s Jimmy Reese, a former Yankee who is perhaps best known as being Babe Ruth’s one-time roommate.

“Jimmy used to joke all the time that he wasn’t really Ruth’s roommate,” Monge said. “Babe had a sort of reputation, you know. Jimmy used to say he actually roomed with Babe Ruth’s luggage.”

Typically, on occasions like these, at least a couple of players are around.

Monge isn’t inclined to boast about himself or his 10 seasons in the major leagues, but he often finds experience is the best teacher. Minor leaguers respect where’s he’s been and what he’s accomplished.

They listen with interest because Monge’s words speak a powerful truth. These are the kinds of stories they hope to tell one day as former big leaguers.

“We felt Sid should be placed at this level where he can work with our young guys,” St. Louis Cardinals Director of Player Development Bruce Manno said. “He’s been where they all want to get. With his background, it’s a benefit for us to have him here.”

The Cannons not only benefit from Monge’s instruction but also his knowledge of the game. He is soft-spoken by nature but his advice always has one specific message: It is a privilege to play professional baseball, but with it comes great responsibility.

“It’s real easy for me to instruct because a wise man told me a long time ago to pretend that I’m teaching my own children,” Monge said. “I tell them it takes a lot of hard work and commitment.

“They have to give of themselves and believe if they put in a good day’s work something good will come out of it.”

Monge points to former Cannons closer Matt Duff as an example of what he means.

“He was a guy who kept believing in himself and look where he is,” said Monge, speaking with the enthusiasm of a proud parent as he recounts Duff’s four-month ascension from the Carolina League to the St. Louis Cardinals’ bullpen.

“That reaffirms the teaching process,” Monge said. “It’s so special for me because he was a big-time underdog. Can you imagine how special it is to him?”

Every time a player like Duff succeeds, Monge knows exactly how it feels. In 1975, he experienced the same thing when he reached the big leagues for the first time with the Angels.

“To me, you’ve hit the lottery by being on this side of the field,” said Monge, who finished his career with a 49-40 record, 56 saves and a 3.53 ERA. “I found it difficult to leave because I didn’t want to leave.”

That remains true today, 17 years after his playing days ended with a World Series championship in Detroit.

“In 33 years in the game, only once did I sign a contract for more than one year,” Monge said. “When I went out onto the field it was to let it all hang out. Money was not a factor.”

Money has more sway over the decisions players make today, but Monge holds firm to the same philosophy that enabled him to appear in 435 games with five big league teams.

The advice he gives Cannons’ pitchers is two-fold: Learn to pitch with what they have and be as consistent as possible with it. The rest is, essentially, up to them.

“They’re playing in an organization that’s first rate, that’s in playoff contention at the major league level every year. If that doesn’t motivate you, I don’t know what will,” Monge said.

“Once you get here, this is a big stepping stone. This is a powerful league and if you do well here, it’s a great accomplishment.”

Three decades ago, Monge’s stepping stone to stardom was also Class A ball. Back in an era when pitching or hitting coaches didn’t exist at the minor league level, the Mexican-born left-hander tossed a nine-inning no-hitter for the Quad City Angels.

“Those things don’t happen very often,” said Monge, who threw five shutouts for the Midwest League champions that summer, including the historic performance against Cedar Rapids on May 4, 1971.

“Thirty one years later, nobody else has pitched a no-hitter [for Quad City]. That’s how special they are.”

Monge never threw a no-hitter in the big leagues, but he was named to the American League All-Star team with the Cleveland Indians in 1979 and was part of Detroit’s World Series championship team in 1984.

“The Cleveland year was very special to me because I got to pitch.” Monge said. “I had an opportunity to open some eyes.”

The 100 games he wore a Tigers’ uniform also had an influence on Monge, especially now that he’s a coach.

“In Detroit it was a true ‘we’ situation,” Monge said. “Even in September when we were so far ahead, [manager] Sparky [Anderson] made sure we played hard and with intensity.”

Monge pitched 35 innings for the Tigers in his final season, but his best year was in 1979, when he won 12 games for the Indians, was chosen to his only all-star game and was immortalized on a collector’s series Coca-Cola can.

“I still have a couple of those cans,” Monge said. “I like to collect that kind of memorabilia. I have one at home in Tucson and a couple in the attic in Boston.”

Somewhere among his collectibles, Monge probably has a few cherished items from his two seasons with the Phillies. In 1982, the year he was traded from the Indians for outfielder Bake McBride, Monge wound up going 7-1.

“I’d just gotten traded and I wondered what can I do here?” Monge said. “Every one of those guys was an all-star. They had a championship caliber team.”

Monge was an all-star, too. But that season he felt more like a 10-year-old kid meeting his childhood idols for the first time.

Steve Carlton. Mike Schmidt. Pete Rose.

“I was embarrassed to ask Pete Rose for an autograph, but he was very gracious,” Monge recalled. “He signed a ball for me and signed a bat.”

Monge appreciated the gesture and is reminded of it every time he signs an autograph.

A fan favorite no matter where he pitched, Monge still receives requests. He is especially popular in Detroit where he typically spends three hours signing autographs at card conventions.

“I thought they would have forgotten about me by now,” Monge said. “But I always sign for three straight hours.”

True to his personable nature, Monge always makes it a point to say hello to fans and sign autographs. He developed a huge following, especially in Baltimore where a group of fans formed the Sid Monge Fan Club.

It remains active today.

“That’s an honor. They’re kind of like a family,” Monge said. “They get a hold of me every year and we get together.”

This summer, the fan club gathered for a Cannons game at Pfitzner Stadium with fans coming from as far away as Oklahoma, New York and Atlanta.

“We didn’t stop talking until three in the morning,” Monge said.

Even that doesn’t seem like enough time to stroll very far down memory lane. Whether he has three hours or thirty minutes, Monge usually makes time to talk about at least one player: Tony Gwynn.

He was a teammate with the player he refers to as a “true ambassador of the game” for two years in San Diego and was a special guest at Gwynn’s farewell dinner. But it’s what happened on July 19, 1982 that will always be the common link between the two all-stars.

That’s the night that Gywnn, making his major league debut, doubled against Monge for his first big league hit.

“We don’t talk about that much, but Gwynn wrote in his autobiography that his first hit didn’t come off just any left-hander. He said Sid Monge was a pretty good lefty. That was a great honor.

“I reciprocate by telling people I got him on the way to the Hall of Fame.”

Monge willingly made another pitch on Sept. 12, 1976 that went down in baseball history. That one was a fastball to Minnie Minoso, who made a one-game “comeback” with the White Sox and singled at age 53 to become the oldest player to get a hit in the major leagues.

“I remember that at-bat better than he does probably because it was significant to me,” Monge said. “He was a gentleman trying to prove he still had the fire to compete. It was a show really.

“I kept throwing him fastballs and he kept fouling them off,” Monge recalled. “He got a 62-hopper through the left side.”

Monge can relate to the significance of that night. He’s 51 now, married and has three children. He’s also still in love with baseball.

And he still enjoys talking about it.

“I’d like to see more guys play the game the way Pete Rose did,” Monge said. “You can’t take the passion out of the game.

“I’ve faced players like Billy Williams, Hank Aaron, Harmon Killebrew, Gene Tenace, Tony Gwynn, George Brett. Sometimes they get you and sometimes you get them, but there’s always a mutual respect and that’s what matters to you.”

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