The Hit Man

The Ace bandage cuts across Paul Molitor's torso like a regal sash, pressing an ice pack the size of his head against his left shoulder. More than two hours after the Minnesota Twins have beaten the Boston Red Sox in a preseason game at Fort Myers, Florida, Molitor is the only player left in the home team's locker room. Clad in nothing but the bandage and a towel, the Twins' designated hitter and occasional first baseman is standing in front of his locker stall, criticizing his performance. "All spring I haven't been a good hitter with two strikes on me," he says, unwrapping the ice. "I've got to stop panicking when I'm behind in the count."

Molitor doesn't mention that the man he faced that afternoon was Pedro Martinez, acquired by the Sox during the off-season after winning the Cy Young Award as the National League's best pitcher. He doesn't mention

that on the two occasions he struck out he was trying to protect a base runner who was sprinting for second on the play. And he doesn't mention that every time he reaches out for a pitch on the outside corner, the torn cartilage in his shoulder jolts him full of pain.

To say Molitor plays with pain almost comically understates his determination. For nearly all of his 41 years on Earth, his body and willpower have endured a tempestuous marriage. At the age of 8 he fell out of a tree and broke his right arm in three places; years later X-rays would reveal that the bone had become stronger around the breaks. Despite a severe bout of mononucleosis and broken fingers on three separate occasions, he was named an all-state athlete in two sports during his four years at Cretin High School in St. Paul; the last five teams he played for there (in baseball, basketball, and soccer) were state champions.

He was relatively injury-free during three years as a hometown star at the University of Minnesota, but the abuse began anew after that. A broken jaw didn't prevent him from becoming the Midwest League's Most Valuable Player during his only season in the minors. And his first 13 years in the majors resulted in a dozen trips to the disabled list for injuries that included pulled rib-cage muscles, torn ankle ligaments, ligament and muscle damage to his right elbow, strained hamstrings, torn cartilage in his right shoulder, a fractured knuckle, and a broken thumb. Through 20 years in the big leagues, playing with three different teams, he has missed more than 500 games--more than three full seasons--owing to injury. He has also amassed more than 3,000 hits, a feat accomplished by only 20 other ballplayers in major-league history, and one that makes him a sure bet for baseball's highest honor, induction into the Hall of Fame.

It has been a heroic journey for a native son who has chosen to spend the past two seasons playing in his own backyard. Yet although he is universally respected by those who know him and have watched him play, Paul Molitor is the most unheralded superstar in town. This relative lack of acclaim is due to the fact that Molitor made his mark playing away from home, for clubs in Milwaukee and Toronto, and to apathy and resentment over the plight of the Twins, perennial losers who are being held for ransom by a billionaire banker threatening to sell them to North Carolina investors if taxpayers don't ante up hundreds of millions of dollars for a new stadium. But it is also due to the machinelike consistency of Molitor's on-field excellence, and to his stoic self-effacement. Molitor doesn't exude the contagious amiability of ex-Twin Kirby Puckett or the Timberwolves' Kevin Garnett, or the boisterous eccentricity of Vikings defensive lineman John Randle. And after a stellar campaign in 1996, when he rapped out 225 hits and knocked in 113 runs, a drop in productivity last year makes it easy to suspect that Molitor is finally past his prime.

Perhaps he is. But what too many sports fans don't realize is that, even by Molitor's incredible standards, his 1997 season was a particularly noteworthy profile in courage. A tremendous collision at home plate just two weeks into the season again landed him on the disabled list for what everyone assumed was a strained abdominal muscle. When the injury didn't heal, Molitor elected to play through it for the remaining five months of the Twins' schedule. The pain never diminished, hampering the most significant physical components of Molitor's play: his quick, explosive swing and his baserunning prowess. "There were times when I had to force one foot in front of the other," he now admits. Yet on the last day of the season, in a meaningless game against Cleveland, there was Molitor diving into first base in an attempt to beat out an infield hit. "We've got more than 90 losses and are getting ready to go home and he's still busting his hump trying to reach base," marvels teammate Ron Coomer. "That shows you what Paul Molitor is made of."

Even with the injury, Molitor emerged as the Twins' best and most consistent hitter during '97, leading the team with a .305 batting average and 89 runs batted in, and ranking second in total at-bats. When the pain intensified during the off-season, he finally sought a second opinion and discovered he was suffering from a double hernia. "Years from now when I've left the game, I'll look back on Mollie hitting .305 last season and tell people I witnessed a miracle," attests Twins hitting coach Terry Crowley.

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