The salsa band was 45 minutes into their first set at Lula Lounge on a recent Saturday when Charlie Montoyo showed up at the front door. An owner of the music club spotted Montoyo and led him and his group to a table reserved for them closest to the stage.
Montoyo, 56, took off his jacket and waved to the band members he knew. Moments later, Montoyo, the manager of the Toronto Blue Jays — one of the top teams in Major League Baseball — was up there with the band and was handed a güiro, a staple of Latin American music. A smile remained on his face for the next two and a half hours.
“Tonight, we’re accompanied by our great manager of the Blue Jays,” Luis Franco, the lead singer of his self-titled band, told the audience in Spanglish. He signaled for Montoyo to join him at the front of the stage and continued, “This guy is doing an impeccable job with our team. A round of applause, please.”
Montoyo stepped forward, embraced Franco, smiled and waved to the crowd. But he quickly returned to his preferred position: with the band members, among the instruments.
Baseball may be the driving force of Montoyo’s life, but music has been the underlying beat. His stadium office is cluttered with bongos, congas, timbales, maracas and records. He plays salsa music to relax before games. And sometimes, he spends weekends during the season accompanying bands in night clubs with a güiro, an instrument which produces sound by rubbing a stick against a notched hollow gourd.
“Charlie jumping onstage has been a thing our whole 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 onstage with the band.”
On the field, the Blue Jays are a diverse and vibrant bunch. After a player homers, his teammates rush to get him a blue jacket, which features the names of the many countries represented on the team, from Canada to the Dominican Republic to Cuba to South Korea.
Montoyo is their boisterous leader, though it took him a long time to reach this point. After 18 highly successful years of managing in the minors for the Tampa Bay Rays and four years of coaching in the majors, he finally got his chance to manage Toronto in 2019.
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Every step of the way for Montoyo, the soundtrack has been salsa.
“He’s been phenomenal,” Blue Jays General Manager Ross Atkins said of Montoyo. “His experiences have always been attractive to me, personally. His minor league experiences, his playing experiences, his cultural experiences. He’s been exactly what we had hoped for in hiring him and then some.”
From the small town of Florida, Puerto Rico, Montoyo was raised around salsa and baseball. After a four-game call-up with the Montreal Expos in 1993 and 1,028 games in the minors, Montoyo retired and began his coaching career.
“I always wanted to be a baseball player,” he said sitting in his office at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. “I never thought I’d be a musician. But little by little, I played more. And I love salsa. But now, yes, I’d love to be a musician.”
Unlike his brothers, Montoyo never took music classes or joined the school band. Growing up, he learned music organically. At parrandas, a Puerto Rican tradition that is like Christmas caroling at night, he helped play the maracas, güiro or tambourine as they went door to door. At gatherings on the beach, he watched others play the congas and picked it up himself.
Montoyo has a large collection of instruments at his permanent residence in Tucson, Ariz., and at his office at the Rogers Centre, which is also a shrine in equal parts to Puerto Rico and salsa. His wife surprised him with an autographed painting of his favorite musician, Herman Olivera, and a new set of congas for the office after he was hired by Toronto.
Montoyo said meeting or getting to know some of his musical heroes — such as Roberto Roena, Oscar Hernández, Eddie Palmieri and Olivera — has meant more to him than meeting many famous baseball players.
During spring training in 2019, Montoyo hosted an impromptu performance in his office in Dunedin, Fla., with the singer Marc Anthony, whose entertainment company has a baseball agency that represents the Blue Jays star first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Anthony sang “Aguanile,” the salsa classic by Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe, while Montoyo handled the bongos. Other members of the Blue Jays coaching staff from Puerto Rico joined in.
(The night of Montoyo’s recent visit to Lula Lounge, he texted Anthony a video of his performance. “Wow,” Anthony wrote back. “What swing, papito. I love it. Made my day.”)
Montoyo holds jam sessions often. He once invited a few musicians from the club to his office, and they played until 4 a.m. But most of the time, Montoyo is by himself, cuing up music videos on the TV hours before a game and playing along.
“We’re in a competitive sport, and the position he’s in comes with a lot of pressure and attention from the moment he walks in the clubhouse,” said Hector Lebron, 44, an interpreter for the Blue Jays who played for Montoyo as a Tampa Bay minor leaguer. “He uses the music to relax a little bit and to think.”
Montoyo first played at Lula Lounge in 2019. During pregame batting practice in May, he met some of the musicians from the club who had heard about his musical ability through 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 night. Montoyo came and played, and that started their friendship.
“Whenever he’s in Toronto, he calls me to ask, ‘When are we going to play? When are we going to rumbear?’” said Orbegoso, 51, who was born in Peru and moved to Canada when he was 12. “Including in the winter, the off-season, he contacts me and sends me videos. We’re pure salsa.”
Lula Lounge was among the things Montoyo missed most about Toronto from 2020 to 2021, when Canada’s pandemic border restrictions forced the Blue Jays to play a majority of their home games in Buffalo and their spring-training facility in Florida.
“He’s got a home here,” said Jose Ortega, a co-owner of Lula Lounge who began hosting salsa dance lessons at his apartment in Toronto in 2000 before that grew after two years into the permanent restaurant and club that he co-owns with Jose Nieves. “We see him as almost another band member.”
Montoyo has played at Lula Lounge six times in all, including twice this season after Saturday afternoon home games. He often goes with team officials or coaches and has brought his wife when she was visiting from Arizona, where she stays during the school year with their youngest son. Montoyo was tired the day of his most recent visit — the Blue Jays were in the middle of a stretch of 20 straight days of games — but the club is his escape.
“If Sam knows it’s Saturday and we lost a tough game and I’m at the apartment alone, she tells me to go there and enjoy,” Montoyo said.
So after the Blue Jays beat the Houston Astros — a game from which Montoyo was ejected in the fifth inning for arguing a called third strike to Guerrero — he was at Lula Lounge with the Luis Franco Worldwide Salsa band.
“We call it swing,” said Alex Naar, 42, a percussionist for the band who lent Montoyo a güiro and guided him through the more modern arrangements. “He has a natural swing for the music. He feels it in his heart. He has the rhythm.”
After the first set, Montoyo posed for photos with a few fans. As a D.J. played salsa and reggaeton classics, Montoyo darted up to the empty stage to play congas along with the song. And when the band returned for their second set, he rejoined them.
“Baseball is very Caribbean,” said Ortega, who was born in Ecuador and raised in New York. “It’s Puerto Rican, it’s Dominican, Venezuelan, and the whole rhythm and style and panache that Latinos bring to the game. That vibe, it kind of goes together. So to me, when Charlie was there, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a funny, perfect marriage of all of those things.’”
In all aspects of his life, Montoyo has tried to represent his island, from the field to the stage.
“It’s hard to reach this level,” he said of his job. “I sincerely never expected to reach it after so many years. That’s why I have the Puerto Rican flag on my glove, everywhere. I’m proud of where I’m from and the music.”
Not long after midnight, with a few songs left in the second set of his recent visit to Lula Lounge, Montoyo was done. He handed the güiro back to Naar, gave him a hug and said his goodbyes. He didn’t want to leave but the Blue Jays had a 1 p.m. game. He grabbed his jacket and left with the team employees who had come along. He will be back.