You used to find pictures of Roberto Clemente and David Ortiz and even Dioner Navarro taped above Carlos Peña’s locker. A tribute to his heroes, Peña would say. Those guys are gone, replaced by the small prayer card given to mourners at Greg Montalbano’s wake.
You want a hero? Peña offers Monty, his boy from their days at Northeastern University, who taught Peña and everyone else he crossed paths with how to live while cancer staged a 10-year battle with his body.
“He never complained about it ever,” Peña said. “Ever, ever, ever.”
Montalbano passed away on the morning of Aug. 21.
That night, Peña smacked two home runs and drove in the game-winning run with a 10th-inning single. After his first home run, Peña held up a sign that read, “For you Monty.”
That was Peña’s way of paying tribute to his friend.
“In a common language,” Peña said. “Baseball.”
Montalbano, who won a bout with testicular cancer while in college, was drafted by the Boston Red Sox. In 1999 he was the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year after going 9-3 with a 2.96 ERA at Single-A Sarasota.
But the tumors would always come back, and the operations took their toll, and baseball became too much for the kid who dreamed of pitching for his hometown Red Sox.
So, Montalbano went back to school, finished his degree in industrial engineering and went to work as an engineer.
“He taught everyone around him to have a healthy perspective, because he had a beautiful one,” Peña said. “This guy is so happy. He’s always happy, always joking around, incredibly optimistic, making plans like he’s going to live forever.”
They never talked about the cancer, ’Los and Monty. Monty was always interested in Peña’s career. And when Peña’s career was going bad, Peña kept it to himself.
“I never even dared to come up to him and say, ‘I’m having a tough time with baseball,’” Peña said. “I’d say, ‘I got released. Let’s go eat,’ and we talk about good things.”
Wherever they ate, Peña finished with a slice of carrot cake, because Monty’s mom once baked Peña a carrot cake, and now it’s Peña’s favorite dessert.
Peña quoted a line from a Beverly Mitchell song: “Let’s dream like we’re gonna live forever. And live, like we could die tomorrow.”
That’s how Monty lived. That’s how Peña lives.
Peña is one of the most positive people you’ll meet anywhere. Much of that comes from his upbringing. Some comes from hanging around Monty, a guy who was too busy living to let cancer steal his smile.
“He never called me to say, ‘This doctor said this …’ In his mind, it didn’t exist,” Peña said. “I don’t know what went on in his deepest soul, but he never showed remorse or frustration. He acted like he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth all the time.”
You may have noticed that Peña has been white hot since Monty’s death. He’s sure Monty had something to do with his big night against the Texas Rangers on Aug. 21.
“I’ve had multi-home run games and driven in the winning run before,” Peña said. “But to do it that night?”
And if Monty has something to do with the way Peña’s crushing the ball these days, well, Peña is happy for the help.
“I’m just glad that I can use baseball and maybe good performances as a way to hopefully pay him tribute and bring light to the fact that when he was here, in this life, he was an unbelievable individual, and his spirit lives on and on,” Peña said. “I miss him.”