It’s a short porch, the left-field fence at the Cibola High School baseball field.
On March 21, Josh Montoya, a junior outfielder for the Cougars, launched a fly ball down the left-field line early in a game against West Mesa. The ball was was headed largely north, but bending precariously to the west.
“It was kind of curving foul,” Montoya said. “I was jogging down the line and looking at it. I was like, this has to go fair. I need it to go fair.”
At the time he made that swing, it had barely been a couple of hours since Josh was given the news that his father, Tim Montoya, had died at University of New Mexico Hospital.
Tim, 48, died of pancreatic cancer.
And though the news was not unexpected since his father was in Stage 4, that didn’t lessen the shock for Josh who knew his father was gravely ill.
About an hour before first pitch that day, Josh Montoya called his mom.
“I was kind of feeling that there was something wrong,” he said. “She was struggling to tell me, to get the words out of her mouth. I started to cry. But I was very, very angry. I don’t know why, but I was very mad.”
His father was his most passionate supporter, Josh said, a man who always made time to watch him play.
But Tim Montoya had only been healthy enough to watch his son during Cibola’s preseason scrimmage. He was underdoing chemotherapy; the tumor, Josh said, was shrinking.
But when his dad developed an infection, it eventually became necessary to halt the chemo as Tim was admitted to the hospital, which is where he spent the last week and a half of his life, his son said.
“We were at the hospital the day before,” Josh Montoya said. “He had been breathing very slow. We had a feeling (his death) would be sometime that week.”
Josh had missed Cibola’s first couple of games that week at the metro tournament, but returned to school on that Thursday.
As shattered as he was after learning of his father’s passing, Josh made the decision, with the encouragement of his family, coach and teammates, to play baseball that afternoon.
“It was emotional for everyone to see the strength and courage he (had),” said Montoya’s close friend on the team, Ryan Martinez. “I think he just gave his emotions, his strength, for his dad.”
Josh Montoya knew there was no other choice that day.
“I was so angry. And I wanted to do something good. It was just all right here,” Montoya said, touching his chest, “all in my heart.”
His father, who worked multiple jobs, including one at Sandia National Laboratories, was his best friend. They loved to fish, and they lived to talk and watch March Madness. He once coached Josh in basketball and still played often himself. His father loved to make jokes, his son said with a smile.
“I still can’t believe that he’s not here with me,” Josh Montoya said. “I’m so used to him walking in at 3 a.m. and flicking on my light and looking at me, and I’d look at him.”
You don’t, Josh said, really appreciate the time you have with your parents until they’re gone.
“He was the main centerpiece of our family,” Josh said. “He would cook, he would clean, he did everything for us. He was just a very good guy. It bothers me so much not to see him in the house.”
But, a resilient Josh added, he knew that his decision to play that day was one his father would have heartily endorsed.
“So I played,” he said. “It was a different feeling, like I had some purpose to play for. I knew he would be watching over me, and I never felt that in my entire life.”
Cibola coach Ray Gonzales agreed.
“I told him to channel all that anger, all that pain, all that hurt, and play for your dad,” Gonzales said. “We gave him all the love that we could give.”
Josh singled during a big first inning for Cibola.
He came up again in the bottom of the second. He hit a fly ball that was obviously going to clear the fence. But on which side of the pole?
It was fair.
Of course it was fair.
“I was jogging around second, and I was like, oh wow, he’s with me here,” Josh Montoya said. “I know it. I was emotional. I wanted to cry, but I was gonna be strong for him. I got to home (plate), and I was very excited and pumped up that that happened. It was a very good moment. I’ll never let that go.”
About 15 miles away, his father’s body was being wheeled out of his room at that exact moment, according to Josh. How did he know? Because his brother had phoned their grandfather as soon as Josh hit the home run — which he had every intention of hitting.
“I wanted to hit a home run for him,” Josh said.
How would his father have reacted?
“He would have been screaming. He never saw me hit a home run in high school.”
Tim Montoya was buried last week. Josh has chosen to dedicate the rest of his Cibola career to his father.
Someone retrieved that home run ball from March 21 and gave it to Montoya. It’s a memento he’ll keep with him always, a tribute both to that surreal and horrible day, and to his best friend.
“He’s resting now,” Josh said quietly. “He’s not suffering anymore.”