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.

With the hernias--one on each side of his abdomen--successfully repaired in January, it's tempting to think Molitor can go on indefinitely. As he stands in front of his locker in Fort Myers, there's scant evidence of the damage his body has absorbed; aside from the ice pack, the most notable marks are the abrasions over both knees, the product of another head-first slide in a game against Pittsburgh the week before. "I think he can play another three or four years at a high level," predicts new teammate Otis Nixon.

But not all of the ravages can be seen with the naked eye. "There's regular shape and there's baseball shape, which is much tougher to achieve the older you get," says Twins catcher Terry Steinbach, who at age 36 ought to know. "When you're younger you come down in the spring and maybe you're careful about your arm and legs for a week before you're in baseball shape. You hit 30 and it becomes two weeks. Now, for me, it's like three or four weeks."

When the subject is broached with Molitor, he pauses a long moment before answering. "Some people say I could play another four or five years. But there's a lot involved in staying at the top of your game, a mental edge and a body that cooperates. The hardest part for me is the preparation, getting ready to perform. Once the game starts, the adrenaline and competitiveness take over, but there are days when you wake up and say, 'I don't know if I'm going to play today.' I'm certainly not going to make any announcement of retirement, but probably more than ever I'm approaching this as my last year."

So are those who are closest to him. "Paul is not a 'Farewell Tour' kind of guy, but I'm pretty sure this is his last year," says his sister Judy, who, like all of Molitor's seven siblings, lives in the Twin Cities area. "I went down to spring training this year with that in mind." Other relatives and friends offer similar opinions.

And so while the Twins again figure to be a bad team owned by a skinflint who has his eyes on Carolina, you might consider making your way to the Metrodome sometime during the club's 81 home games this year.

It might be your last chance to see Paul Molitor at work.

Why is Mollie alone worth the price of admission? Begin with The Swing. Molitor counters big-league pitching with one of the swiftest, sweetest strokes in the game. It is the capstone on an inimitable approach to hitting that childhood friends say he developed as far back as high school. Whereas most hitters generate momentum by cocking the bat and striding into the pitch, Molitor's feet are virtually still, and he waits longer to initiate his swing than any player in the game today. Says Crowley, his hitting coach: "What Mollie has done is eliminate many of the things that get hitters into bad habits, like overstriding or dropping the back side and shoulder so you're uppercutting at the pitch. He's got strong hands and a compact swing that gets the bat head to the ball in a very short, explosive path. There's nothing but good habits there."

According to veteran catchers such as Steinbach and Baltimore's B.J. Surhoff (who has been converted to the outfield), Molitor's ability to wait is a crucial advantage because he's less apt to have his timing spoiled by slower pitches or to chase after balls that break outside the strike zone. "When you can read the break on a curve or the arc on a change-up before committing yourself, you're forcing the pitcher to throw strikes," Steinbach observes. "In other words, when Paul is going good, he makes it so that he gets nothing but good pitches to hit."

Molitor's last-second swing also prevents fielders from getting a jump on the ball. "His hands are so fast and his bat control is so great that you can't read what he's going to do," says Brent Gates, who played the infield for Oakland and Seattle for five years before joining the Twins this season. And at the major-league level of precision, the slightest hesitancy out in the field spells the difference between a hit and an out five, 10, 15 times a season.  

Molitor's batting style is as unorthodox as it is successful. Nobody copies it because nobody else blends the physical talent and mental discipline necessary to make it work. "You need quick hands, but you also need great hips for leverage so you can turn on the ball," says Surhoff. "Above all, you need the reflexes and concentration that Paul has, for that incredible hand-eye coordination."

It is not a skill one learns overnight. Jim O'Neill, the current baseball coach at Cretin whose friendship with Molitor goes back more than 30 years, remembers a favorite game the two used to play. One would be the pitcher, the other the hitter. The pitcher would stand very close and throw a tennis ball as hard as he could at the hitter, who would try to make contact using a hollowed-out bat. Decades later Crowley says, "Mollie has the ability to hit a line drive on every pitch put in the strike zone, no matter where it is. There is no way to consistently get him out. There are only about two or three hitters in the game you can say that about."

Just how consistent is Molitor at the plate? A batting average of .300 is considered the mark of a great hitter. If you break down Molitor's 20 years in the majors on a month-by-month basis, his average ranges from a low of .302 in May and September to a high of .315 in April. No wonder the legendary Ted Williams, long regarded as the greatest hitter in baseball history and the last to top the elusive .400 mark, cites Molitor as the contemporary batter he most likes to watch.

Last year the weekly newspaper Baseball America rated 40-year-old Paul Molitor the best base runner in the American League. "He seems to have one of those athletic bodies that doesn't age; especially his legs," says Twins general manager Terry Ryan. "The other day I was with a scout who once played against Paul, and he had the stopwatch on him running down to first. The scout stood there shaking his head and said, 'The guy is 41--this just shouldn't be.' But if you watch him hit a double, go from home to second, or from first to third, you see that extra gear come out. In that way he is healthier than most of the kids we've got."

Yet it isn't so much speed as instinct and cunning that have made Molitor such a catalytic presence on the base paths. Stolen bases aren't his forte; he hasn't swiped as many as 30 since 1992. But no runner in the game today is better at recognizing and exploiting weaknesses in an opponent's defense when the ball is in play.

Say Molitor comes to bat with a man on second and hits a single to center. Before he even reaches first base, he's considering all the variables that will affect the dynamics of the play: How hard did he hit the ball? How fast is the teammate who was on second? How strong and how accurate is the throwing arm of the center fielder, and what position is he in as he fields the ball? How alert are the infielders who might receive or cut off the throw? These are questions all heads-up players ask themselves; they just lack the knowledge and experience to answer them as quickly and accurately as Molitor can.

Once the information is processed, the instincts take over. And if the extra base is there to be taken, the extra gear is engaged. "The way I'll always think of Paul Molitor is him hitting a single and turning it into a double, which he does all the time," says B.J. Surhoff. "Remember, this is a guy who scored from first on a single during the World Series. That's amazing."

Adds Terry Steinbach: "He's almost never wrong when he goes for the extra base. It's like at the age of 6 he went to the Academy of Baserunning or something." And that's not far from the truth. Jim O'Neill remembers that on the Oxford and Linwood playgrounds in St. Paul, Molitor, who didn't hit his growth spurt until his sophomore year in high school, always played with the older boys. "He was this little speedy kid playing sandlot ball in games that had very little structure. That's where you develop your instincts," O'Neill says.  

When it comes to the more high-profile art of the stolen base--in which the base runner takes off as the pitcher is delivering the ball to home plate--Molitor has traded quantity for quality as he has gotten older. "When he steals a base, it's usually when we really need it," asserts Ryan, the Twins' GM. More often than most players, Molitor is likely to steal third base, a kind of theft that again places a premium on guile over speed. "Paul will be out on second, watching the catcher give signs to the pitcher, and after about three pitches he'll be able to figure out what kind of pitch is coming next," says Twins shortstop Pat Meares. "A lot of times he'll take off on a curve or a change-up and steal the base easily."

After failing to acquire any power hitters to supplement last season's anemic lineup, this year more than at any time in the history of the franchise the Twins will rely on baserunning to spark their offense. The club's most significant free-agent signing during the off-season was outfielder and leadoff man Otis Nixon, one of only 18 major-league players with more than 500 career steals. (Molitor has 495.) Nixon claims that if Molitor hadn't spurned more lucrative offers from Baltimore and Toronto and elected to play for the Twins this season, he wouldn't have come to Minnesota.

"Paul and I share the philosophy that if you have any chance to get another base, take it. Now we're sharing that feeling with the team, saying that we need to put pressure on the pitchers and the fielders and distract them as much as we can." To reinforce the message, manager Tom Kelly asked Molitor to tutor the team's younger players on the base paths this spring.

Molitor's capacity for mentoring extends far beyond the intricacies of baserunning. Ask what he learned from Molitor, the man he calls The Doctor, during their six years together in Milwaukee, and B.J. Surhoff slowly shakes his head. "I don't have enough time for that. You don't have enough time for that. Let's just say I learned a tremendous amount."

During the off-season Toronto's general manager, Gordon Ash, tried to hire Molitor to manage as well as play for the Blue Jays. In a recent Sporting News poll, his peers voted him the smartest player in baseball, ahead of Cal Ripken, Jr. Despite being what general manager Terry Ryan calls "the most unassuming future Hall of Famer you'll ever meet," Molitor is accorded the respect and protection of a resident sage throughout the Twins organization. When his lame shoulder reaches high for a throw during infield drills in Fort Myers, manager Tom Kelly barks at his players to "keep it down," and during batting practice the manager curses whenever one of his pitches to Molitor strays outside the strike zone.

"It can be kind of tough to be his coach, because he actually knows more about the game than I do," says Ron Gardenhire, the Twins' first base coach who also tutors the infielders. "I go to him all the time. I think most of the coaches do." Kelly describes Molitor as "a terrific player from the old school who can think like the younger fellows. He's especially good with young guys like [outfielder Matt] Lawton and Meares, who have a couple years of experience under their belts."

Both players confirm this. "Just the other day I came up with runners on first and third and the pitcher worked me pretty good and didn't give me anything to hit," says Lawton. "I went back and asked Paul what he would do in that situation. What I have learned from him is that you can't go up there just hoping you'll get a pitch down the middle that you can drive--you've got to have a plan. I know he has helped make me a better player."

Meares is even more of a disciple. "Two years ago I would go down to Paul's locker before every game and ask him what his approach was going to be against the pitcher that day. He's encountered so many pitchers and been in so many situations that I found him to be pretty accurate in almost everything he said."

Pressed for an example, Meares practically rolls his eyes back into his head and begins channeling Molitor. "Today we've got Jimmy Key," he says, referring to the Baltimore left-hander who'd be pitching against the Twins that afternoon. "The approach today is to give up the fastball inside unless you've got two strikes on you. Look for the change-up--he throws the change-up a lot. He'll nibble with the first two pitches, and if he doesn't get strikes, if you get him down 2-0 or even if the count is 1-1, he'll throw a change-up. He's not going to give you a cookie to hit--Jimmy Key will never give in--and you shouldn't try and do too much with a guy like him or he'll have you swinging off your front foot and make you hit a ground ball.  

"Sometimes the catcher can also have a lot to do with it," Meares adds. "Some pitchers shake off the catcher's signs a lot and some don't. If they don't, that means the catcher is calling the game--you're battling him and not the pitcher." He breaks the séance and beams proudly. "Paul taught me that too."

One of the most difficult feats for any athlete to master, let alone instill in others, is how to thrive under pressure when a game, a championship, or a legacy is in the balance. These are the moments that ultimately define a superstar; for better or worse, personally and professionally, they stay with a player for the rest of his life. Four years ago Sports Illustrated asked every major-league manager which hitter in their league they'd most trust to win the game if there were two outs and runners on first and second in the ninth inning. In the American League, Molitor was the clear-cut choice.

The more important the contest, the better he hits. His career batting average jumps from .308 in regular-season games to .357 in League Championship Series play to a whopping .418 in the World Series. In the first game of Molitor's first World Series in 1982, he rapped out five hits, setting an all-time record. In the final game of his second and last World Series 11 years later, he scored the winning run and was named the series' most valuable player.

"I think he has a hunger for clutch situations," says first base coach Ron Gardenhire. "He wants to be the one who decides the game--that's what really motivates him. Some guys talk tough but aren't really sure when the time comes. Mollie doesn't talk about it much, but when it happens you can see the desire and the confidence come out."

You can also hear it in his voice as Molitor describes his approach. "I try to take pleasure in those opportunities rather than fight the mental side of what it would be like to fail. I certainly try to go into the batter's box with a solid plan for that at-bat. There's probably more pressure on the pitcher in those situations than there is on me. If I can wait long enough to get a pitch I know I can handle, it's going to work out most of the time."

Within that answer is a potent blend of rigorous discipline and freewheeling self-confidence that is as rare as it is valuable. For Molitor, however, it is a natural by-product of the way he was raised.

Both his parents were devout Catholics who didn't stop producing offspring until Kathie Molitor nearly died delivering their eighth child. Sending them all to parochial school on Richard's salary as an accountant with the Burlington Northern railroad company made for tight budgets that Molitor describes as "lots of Hamburger Helper and maybe a White Castle special on the weekend."

For the first 10 years of his life, the family was wedged into a three-bedroom house just off Grand Avenue, too happy to notice any constraints. Almost as soon as he knew how to walk, Molitor spent his nonschool hours tossing a ball against the brick house or pedaling his bike to the local playground for pick-up games. At night he would lie in the top bunk between his baseball glove and Smokey the family cat and wait for his mother to come tuck him in.

"She would go from bed to bed and help us say our prayers and sing us lullabies or songs from State Fair," recalls Molitor's younger sister Judy. "It was a special time, when you got the chance to talk to her about anything you wanted to say. It has been 10 years since my mother died. I always say her life ended early because she poured so much love and life into her children."

But especially into Paul, her fifth child and first son. A baseball fan even before Paul got involved in the game, Kathie Molitor did everything she could to foster his increasingly hectic athletic life, from playing catch in the backyard to laundering his uniforms, driving him to the ballpark, and cheering him on when he was playing for as many as three organized teams each week. "I think his siblings may have thought he was favored because of the relationship he had with his mother," says Richard Molitor. Judy expresses no resentment, but she does observe that "the routine questions around the house were always, 'Are we eating late? Is there a game? Where is Paul playing tonight?' For a while Paul decided he didn't want my mother to come to the games anymore. So she bought this blond wig and these Jackie O glasses and hid behind some trees so she could watch anyway."  

Adds childhood chum O'Neill: "It was kind of unusual, but if he had a best friend in high school it was probably his mother."

The other dominant influence in Paul Molitor's life was St. Paul's parochial school system, through which he progressed from Immaculate Heart of Mary to St. Luke's and Cretin High, a Catholic boys' military school that endeavored to enforce discipline in the anything-goes early '70s. With Molitor the results were mixed. An honor student and ROTC officer during the school year, he'd grow his hair long and stop shaving during the summer. A summer with the Pillsbury company convinced him he never wanted to work in an office again; much more to his liking was a job tending the playgrounds at Oxford, where he could ride his bike barefoot to work and listen to the music of an obscure young songwriter named Bruce Springsteen. About that time, Molitor announced to his parents that if he didn't make it as a baseball player, he was going to become a beach bum. It was, of course, an idle threat; faith, family, military school, and above all sports clearly defined the boundaries of his life.

A decade later, in 1984, a convicted drug dealer shocked the sports world by revealing that three years earlier he had sold cocaine to Molitor, who at the time was a squeaky-clean baseball star in Milwaukee. Sitting in the dugout in Fort Myers, Molitor talks openly about the subject. "I lived such a regimented, disciplined life when I was younger, always trying to be the son, or be the athlete, or be somebody that could meet other people's expectations. It got to the point where maybe I wasn't handling everything that came my way as well as I should. And I think I had to reach a point where I realized it was starting to cut into the things that really mattered to me. Once I did that, I was able to move on to the next stage pretty quickly. It's amazing to me that I had that chapter in my life and I am still a major-league player some 17, 18 years later. I don't underestimate that."

The last--but hardly the least--of the many reasons to stop down at the Metrodome and say goodbye to Paul Molitor this season is that he is a man of integrity who has made himself a life both inside and outside of baseball that is too good to be false. He and his wife Linda have been married for 17 years, which, as Molitor notes, "is a tough challenge when you're in major-league baseball." When he declared himself a free agent this winter and was mulling over whether to sign with Baltimore, Toronto, or Minnesota, his 13-year-old daughter Blaire advised him to "follow your heart." Three days before he would have been prohibited from re-signing with the Twins until May 15, his agent informed general manager Terry Ryan that Molitor had "a change of heart": He signed a one-year contract for considerably less money with the Twins so as not to interrupt his daughter's life again. The family lives in Edina, not far from Linda's childhood hometown of St. Louis Park.

As for the future, Molitor acknowledges that he found Toronto's offer to become a manager "intriguing, because I certainly have aspirations to do that someday." His father says that he has also considered taking a front-office job so he wouldn't have to travel as often. Says Ryan: "He could manage; he could be a general manager; he could be a part of the [baseball] commissioner's office; and he could be more involved with the player's union--because he is highly respected on all those fronts. But personally, I'd rather see him in a uniform, playing ball."

Which is where he'll be for one more year. And although it won't officially be known as a farewell tour, those most intimately involved with the game will cherish every moment. "What makes him so special is that he is sort of a dinosaur," says Twins manager Tom Kelly, sitting shirtless in his Fort Myers office, a cigar clamped in his mouth. "He is one of the last ones from the old school who play the game with respect. When he's gone, there aren't any of the newer-wave fellows I can think of who will be as classy or as solid, who you can count on to execute things the proper way, with some feeling and meaning behind it."  

Kelly leans back in his chair and stares into his lap. "You won't replace him after he's gone."

News intern Erik Farseth contributed to this story.

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