It was 25 seasons ago that the Northern League became the first independent baseball league in America. One of the founding members of that league was the Sioux City Explorers, who had a mixed bag of success in their 13 seasons in the league. They finished first twice during that span but also had four finishes at eighth or below.
In 2005, they joined the St. Paul Saints, Lincoln Saltdogs, and Sioux Falls Canaries in helping to form the American Association. Strategically, this was a good move for the team, as it kept alive several key rivalries that had helped to draw fans to Lewis & Clark Park, but the success on the field was sporadic at best. For the first eight seasons, the Explorers finished above .500 just twice and never reached higher than fourth-place.
Three different managers guided the team during those early years, but none was able to take the Sioux City Explorers and guide them to greater heights. At the end of the of the 2013 season, the team looked within their own league to find their newest manager, taking a chance on a respected but relatively unknown pitching coach from the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks. That man was Steve Montgomery and, since his arrival in Sioux City, the Explorers Manager has helped to turn his team into one of the powerhouses of the American Association.
Establishing His Resume
Steve Montgomery, also known as Mongo, pitched nine seasons in professional baseball. Steve joined the Kansas City Royals organization in 1994 and got off to a good start when he posted a 1-1 record and a 1.50 ERA in 12-games with the Royals’ rookie league team. Inexplicably, he found himself released and in independent ball the next year, pitching with Johnstown of the Frontier League. Mongo made 33-appearances there, where he saved 9-games and did not allow an earned run in 38.2-innings pitched while also striking out 52. A truly remarkable accomplishment.
Those kinds of statistics are going to get a pitcher noticed, and Steve caught the attention of the Baltimore Orioles, who signed Montgomery and assigned him to High-A High Desert in the California League. The right-hander won 5-games and posted a 5.27 ERA in the notoriously hitter-friendly league.
The next season, the Orioles organization moved Steve up the ranks, assigning him to AA-Bowie before he would reach AAA-Rochester. Combined, the right-hander went 10-7 with a 3.52 ERA. Despite the quality year, Steve found himself in a new organization in 1999. He would pitch a year for the Dodgers High-A Vero Beach club, appearing in just nine games before an injury would sideline him. He returned the next season to pitch for the Red Sox rookie league team, but his stay there would be short-lived and Montgomery would be granted his release at the end of the year.
Looking for a fresh start, Steve turned to the Northern League, signing with Fargo-Moorhead in 2001. He would spend three seasons pitching for the RedHawks, posting a combined record of 12-7 during that span with 47-saves. He worked almost exclusively out of the bullpen, with his best season being in 2002, when he saved 19 games and posted a minuscule 1.89 ERA.
Destined to Become a Manager
After nine seasons of playing professional baseball, Steve Montgomery decided that his playing days were over. However, he did not want to be too far away from the game, opting to take the job as the RedHawks pitching coach starting in the 2004 season. It was an ideal situation for Steve, as he found himself able to learn under one of the best managers in the sport, Doug Simunic.
“Being under Doug, he kind of mentored me into the position as pitching coach. I learned a lot about managing from him and what it took to lead a club. You don’t have the kind of success that he has had if you aren’t one of the best, and he really showed me what it took to be a successful manager.”
With Steve leading the pitching staff, Fargo-Moorhead would win three American Association titles during his 10 seasons there, and the RedHawks would make the playoffs nine times in that span. It was not just about overall team success either. During those 10 years, Fargo-Moorhead led the league in ERA five times, proving that he had the skills to lead a staff, as well as the wisdom to be able to get the most out of his pitching corps.
While loving the job he was doing, Montgomery saw a great opportunity open for him in 2013 when the Sioux City Explorers offered him the position as their manager. Steve learned a great deal under Simunic, but now he wanted to take the ideas he had learned and lead his own team.
“I had learned a lot under Doug, but I knew that he wanted to do it for a couple of more years and I just thought that when Sioux City opened up that it would be a good fit for me and my family.”
While appreciative of the mentoring that his former manager had provided him, Steve quickly learned that he had to be his own man. Ideas may have worked well in Fargo-Moorhead, but they weren’t necessarily going to work for him in Sioux City. A lesson he learned the hard way.
“I tried to pattern myself a little bit after Doug and Jeff (Bittiger) up in Fargo. I tried to build my first team very much like they had built there’s with a lot of big power hitters. We got off to a really rough start and, after the rough start, we went more with on-base guys, more speed guys. We wanted guys who provided good starting pitching and that helped to turn the team around.”
In his first season as the Explorers manager, Sioux City posted a 47-53 record. A solid start to his managerial career, but not anywhere near what he envisioned for his team. In 2015, the Explorers Manager put together one of the best teams in American Association history. Sioux City would Wen 75 games that season, setting a league record, and would advance to the championship series before falling to the Laredo Lemurs.
With that kind of success, affiliate clubs are going to be taking a closer look at you, and Montgomery found himself without his top starting pitcher, Patrick Johnson, before the 2016 season began as he joined the Miami Marlins organization. Four other members of his team, including his No. 3 and No. 4 hitters, and two of the most important members of his bullpen would also be signed by Major League organizations.
At the All-Star break, it looked like the Sioux City Explorers were all done, as they were third in the central division. When the club lost closer Connor Overton following the break, most insiders expected this team to pack it in. However, Steve never allowed his team to give up, and the Explorers finished 24-9 over the final 33 games of the season to claim their second Central Division title.
It was an amazing run, which Mongo calls one of his most satisfying seasons ever.
“That was a season where I grew a lot of gray hair, but it was unbelievable how we came back. These guys never quit, and there were a lot of reasons why they could have. We just kind of pieced it together and put together a season you have to be really satisfied with, maybe the most satisfied of any season I have had.”
The Steve Montgomery Way
If you met Steve Montgomery in person, you would find him to be a very personable character. He is quite a charismatic guy, and really helps to put others at ease. However, when the cap comes on and he steps outside that locker room area, an entirely different persona takes over the fourth-year manager. He has the same death stare that Oakland A’s fans became accustomed to when Dave Stewart pitched for the team, and the focus on the game is enough that you would think he was that night’s starting pitcher.
“There’s a switch, and I think my players understand that. I said that from day one when I tell them that in the clubhouse setting that I think it’s great that there’s practical jokes. I like to keep things light, but when the lights turn on – its business.”
The change in attitude is not just about getting his players to focus on that night’s game. The ultimate objective of Montgomery is to see each and every one of his players signed to an affiliate club, and he wants them to understand that each time they take the field it’s an opportunity to showcase their talents, especially in certain ballparks within the American Association.
“With the way this game has evolved, especially in this league, you have to be at your best every night. No. 1, here we are in a $65 million stadium (CHS Field in St. Paul), No. 2 you have a Major League quality broadcast that’s going out. So that means they need to consider who’s watching from home – a Major League scout, a scout who needs someone in AA. That doesn’t mean that they have to come out to the ball field all the time. They can watch it on TV now. So, you can’t write things off, you have to play hard all the time because you don’t know who is watching.”
While Steve is quite an intense manager, he had to learn early on that there is such a thing as being too intense. This led him to make an adjustment in his first year on the job.
“I think I was a really uptight guy in 2014, but over the course of the season I think I loosened up, had fun with the guys, and everything like that. In the 2015 season, it was kind of easy because I had loosened up.”
Loosening up also meant relying on those he hired to his coaching staff to do their job. Mongo understands that he hired the right people, and it didn’t take long for him to have the utmost trust in their judgment.
“You have to let your coaches coach, that was the hardest thing for me. It’s finding coaches that I was going to trust. I was fortunate enough that Bobby (Post) came on board from day one and I always thought it would be hard because I have been the pitching coach and trying to transition I thought would be difficult, but I’ve trusted him since day one. When we brought Matt Passerelle in for the 2015 season, I just handed the hitting to him. Now, I just kind of sit back and tell them what I like and don’t like and I let them make the adjustments.”
Building His Team
Being a manager in the American Association is one of the most demanding jobs you will find in professional sports. Most managers within the league not only have to lead their team on the field, but also have to put together the one that takes the field each night. This means long hours scouring the Internet and printouts looking to find available players when an injury occurs or a player is underperforming, tracking releases, and ensuring that you have the best 23 men available on your roster. That’s enough to cause most men to get a bleeding ulcer, but Steve is absolutely loving it.
“I love building the team just as much as I love being in the dugout each day. I like all aspects of this job. You’re building your roster, the day-to-day grind of it, it’s 100 games in 110 days. It’s a lot of work inside those 110 days, but it’s something I really enjoy.”
Building that team creates a special kind of challenge in Sioux City. Many ballparks are built with dimensions and air currents circulating in such a way that it is easy to tell which kind of players make a perfect fit for that team. Steve does not have that luxury, requiring him to build a sort of all-purpose kind of team, while also making sure that each of the team’s players our the right fit for his locker room.
“I do a lot of homework on the background of a player. Making sure that he is not going to be a problem off the field. I want baseball players but I also want quality in character. Once we do that we look for balance in our lineup, with left and right-handed hitters. In my ballpark, the wind doesn’t blow in a certain direction all the time. One day it’s in, one day it’s out, one day it’s right, one day it’s left. So, I want balance. I want it to be a little harder at the end of games for people to match up against us.”
The truth is that it may not be as difficult for a manager to find a talented player as it is to find one who has the right kind of character to fit the organization. Because we live in an age where everything a player does is magnified on social media and in the news, it is imperative that a manager, even in the American Association, chooses young man who personify good character and judgment. Steve understands that his players are not going to agree on everything, but his expectation is that they do all that they can to get along with one another.
“When your clubhouse is not going good and two guys are at each other, I’ll pull them in and tell them ‘Let’s be men about this now. What’s the problem?’ One guy says this, the other guy says another thing. Realistically you look at it and you ask, ‘Is this worth it? Is this really a problem?’ We had two guys who had a problem in 2015, so we just put them in the same room and said hash it out. Three days into it I called them into the office and asked them what was going on and they told me they’d worked it out.
“Are you going to get along with all your teammates? No, of course not; you’re not going to see eye to eye on everything, but at the end of the day, if you’re playing for the name on the front of the shirt and not for the name on the back and you’re all pulling the same end of the rope then it’s all going to work out.”
Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due
In his fourth season as the manager of the Sioux City Explorers, Steve Montgomery is already putting together some rather impressive credentials. The Explorers are 193-134 and, in 2015, Steve was named the American Association’s Manager of the Year after the team set the record for wins in a season. However, the Explorers Manager is not believing that he earned that award. Instead, he’s happy to pass the praise onto his wife, Tana.
“I said it back in 2015 that my wife was really Manager of the Year. I was the one who received the award, but she was really the one who was Manager of the Year. She’s working a full-time job, she’s taking care of two children full-time who are very active in sports, travel ball, and everything our kids do, and she’s doing that for four or five months by herself. Amazing!”
This season, the Sioux City Explorers are 17-10 and in second place in the Central, Division, one game behind Lincoln. If the pattern holds, it would not be surprising to see Steve Montgomery lead his team to an unprecedented third straight division title, giving the Explorers the opportunity to win their first American Association title. It also will very likely mean that Tana Montgomery will be watching the couple’s children by herself for a couple of extra weeks. No one worries that she would mind that one bit.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA