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Sunday, July 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Major League Baseball
By Larry Stone
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. On Wednesday night, as Paul Molitor hurried out of the Mariners' clubhouse with his suitcase, someone asked him where he was going.
"To Cooperstown," Molitor said, the matter-of-factness of the words belying the magnitude of the journey.
For Molitor, the Mariners' hitting coach, it was a six-hour plane flight 20-plus years in the making. His career was fraught with pitfalls, ranging from drug abuse during his early years in the majors to an incredible run of injuries that threatened to wilt his vast skills before they could blossom.
He played most of his career in Milwaukee, far out of media spotlight. Once described as "the most nondescript superstar in baseball," he made his name by dint of perseverance, eventually building a résumé including 3,319 hits, a 39-game hitting streak and a World Series MVP award that was simply too vast to ignore.
Even the stigma of being a designated hitter for 1,174 games, far more than any other player in Cooperstown, didn't keep him from being a first-ballot Hall of Famer in January, with 85.2 percent of the votes.
Today, Molitor will take his place with baseball's immortals when he is inducted into the Hall of Fame, along with pitcher Dennis Eckersley. In February, Molitor was given a private tour of the Hall, as all inductees are, and only when he was shown the vaunted plaque room did the achievement hit home.
"Seeing where your spot's kind of picked out that is what really brought the goose bumps, when you looked at the other faces on that wall that you were going to join," he said earlier this week.
"The other kid"
He was one of eight children, including six sisters, whose presence "encouraged me to go out and play baseball," he joked.
He was a scrawny kid, and injury-prone, too, foreshadowing his major-league misfortunes. Molitor estimates he had 10 broken bones as a youth, once breaking his arm when he fell out of a tree.
In 1977, after an outstanding stint at the University of Minnesota, the Brewers drafted him in the first round. He remembers being brought to County Stadium after signing his first professional contract, and Sal Bando, then the Brewers' third baseman, tossing Robin Yount an outfielder's glove, joking to the Brewers' star that Molitor was going to knock him out of his shortstop's job.
Manager George Bamberger took a look at the 21-year-old Molitor, marveled at his advanced skills, and stuck him at shortstop. On Opening Day, he got a hit and fielded flawlessly. In his second game, he had three hits, including a home run, and drove in five runs. A star was born, albeit one which would at times flame and burn.
"I remember we were very worried about Robin's absence," recalled baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who owned the Brewers then. "George said to me, 'The kid's going to play shortstop.' I said, 'No, the kid's not going to play,' because that was Robin's nickname.
"George said, 'The other kid. The kid from Minnesota.' I said, 'Oh, really.' Sure enough, he opened the season, and none of us realized how good he was. Within a week or two, Bambi nicknamed him 'The Ignitor,' and he was. Through all the greatness of Cecil Cooper, Ben Oglivie, Gorman Thomas and the rest, it was always Molitor and Yount."
Yount returned after a month, and Molitor was moved to second base. But he never relinquished his spot as a regular, except when injuries forced him to the sideline a rib-cage pull, torn ligaments in his ankle that required surgery, lingering hamstring problems, another operation on his right elbow, and on it went.
"The injuries were frustrating, and I couldn't really pinpoint what it was," Molitor said. "I thought that I worked out and took care of myself. Some were more flukish, and some were recurring things."
It has been estimated that Molitor missed 500-600 games in his career because of injury, which, if he had performed at his normal average, could have added close to 1,000 hits to his total.
Drugs and darkness
It was in the early, injury-riddled years of his career that Molitor began using cocaine and marijuana, which came to public light in 1984, after drug dealer Tony Peters testified in court he had sold cocaine to five Brewers players, including Molitor. Peters eventually was sentenced to 22 years in prison; Molitor faced no legal consequences
Molitor, who has said he stopped using drugs in 1981 without any rehabilitation, has since visited dozens of schools to preach about the dangers of drug use. His long-time agent, Ron Simon, detailed Molitor's drug use in his 1993 book, "The Game Behind the Game: Negotiating in the Big Leagues."
A chapter entitled, "Paul Molitor, My First $4 Million Man," begins: "The police were called to my house on Christmas Day 1980. They had to break in to see if Paul Molitor was inside, dead or alive."
Simon writes in his book how Molitor, while house-sitting for the agent, was "sleeping off a wild night of cocaine abuse. ... On Christmas Eve, Paul invited some friends to my house for a cocaine party. After the revelers left, long after midnight, Paul was unable to sleep. High on cocaine, he stayed up all night. He unplugged all the telephones, then finally fell asleep somewhere between 6 and 7 a.m.
"While he was sleeping, his parents, six sisters, and brother were gathering for a family Christmas dinner at his parents' St. Paul home. When Paul didn't show by 11:30 a.m., his family became concerned."
"He later told me, 'Although I didn't seek treatment, I was actually desperate, crying out for God's help. I would literally pray to God on my hands and knees each day for forgiveness and to help me overcome the problem. I believe that God answered my prayers and gave me the strength to fight the addiction and finally to stop using cocaine."
Simon theorizes that Molitor succumbed to drugs partly because they were prevalent among ballplayers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and partly "to escape temporarily from his image. It isn't easy being Mr. Squeaky Clean 24 hours a day, and Paul was burdened with the unrealistic expectations of family, friends and baseball fans."
Today, Molitor buys into that theory, while adding "I don't go there (discussing his drug use) too much anymore. It doesn't seem like there's a lot of benefit at this point.
"I think given the climate of social behavior at the time, given the fact I was put into a world that was about success ... It wasn't so much I felt like it was something I deserved, as much as I think I wasn't handling having to be this person that everybody thought.
"We had this young, Jack Armstrong, All-American boy who's come to play for the Brewers. I just think it wore me down. It was kind of my way of stepping outside, so to speak. Combine that with the fact it was prevalent I certainly wasn't the only player on my team (using drugs) at the time.
"That doesn't make it right. I'm thankful I got through it. First of all, I didn't kill myself. Did anything good come out of it? Only in the fact I've been able to share my story. Who you are is shaped by the things you've done, in some ways. Am I better for doing it? I don't know if 'better' is the right word. It's just kind of a part of my history."
Forging a path to greatness
But as that part of his history dimmed in memory, his baseball exploits flourished and burned their way into the record books. In 1982, the Brewers won the American League pennant with a wonderfully colorful squad of sluggers known as Harvey's Wallbangers, after manager Harvey Kuenn.
"We had some characters, to say the least," Molitor said. "The personalities made it great, because when we all played together, it was about winning for that group of guys. We were hungry. A lot of them had been around a while and hadn't won. Whether it was (Rollie) Fingers, (Ted) Simmons, Cooper, Oglivie, Thomas, Robin you just go down the list, and they all had their style."
In 1987, after returning from yet another injury at midseason, Molitor began his 39-game hitting streak, which ranks seventh on the all-time list. It was ended by a young Cleveland pitcher named John Farrell, with Molitor on deck as Rick Manning delivered the winning hit in a 1-0 Milwaukee victory.
"It was very weird, because we won a big game at home, 1-0, in the middle of a pennant race, and it was totally quiet at the stadium," Molitor said. "It was the only time in my career I was brought out for a curtain call."
After a painful departure from Milwaukee in 1993 that temporarily strained his relationship with Selig (since repaired; when the Mariners were in Milwaukee earlier this year, Molitor showed up, unannounced, at a testimonial dinner for Selig), Molitor landed in Toronto, where he had a magical season. He hit .332 in 160 games, scored 121 runs and drove in 111, and stole 22 bases. In the World Series, he hit .500 against Philadelphia and scored ahead of Joe Carter on his Series-clinching homer off Mitch Williams in Game 6.
"The last 180 feet were as close as I ever came to moon-walking," Molitor would say afterward.
A hit at home
Molitor landed in 1996 in Minnesota, where he became just the first player over 40 to record 200 hits in a season since Sam Rice in 1930 225 of them, to go with a .341 average and 113 hits. One of the hits, on Sept. 16, was his 3,000th, making him the first player to get No. 3,000 on a triple.
"I remember the Minnesota media saying it was a nice story that I was coming home to play, but why would they invest in an older player when they were trying to find a way to get back to winning?" he said. "And to be able to come back and be a productive player and have one of my better seasons it wasn't my motivation to prove those people wrong, but it was nice to say that it was a good decision they brought me back."
Molitor retired after the 1998 season, fittingly after more injuries including double-hernia surgery and a bum shoulder greatly curtailed his effectiveness. Five years later, he ascends to the game's loftiest honor, today revered as one of the game's smartest players and most tenacious hitters.
"I never saw a player, even to this day, that was able to be ready for any situation with two or three alternatives like Molitor," his former Milwaukee manager, Tom Trebelhorn, recently told the Rocky Mountain News. "He was the best guy I ever saw about being ready with 'A' to do, but also maybe 'B' or 'C.' He had the greatest pre-play mode in an era of replay. And he was the greatest base runner I ever saw."
Added Sparky Anderson, who with Detroit managed against Molitor in his prime: "Oh, could he play. I knew how great he was, and then I took an All-Star team to Japan in 1988. When we got done, I told my coaches, 'We're kidding ourselves if we don't think he's the best player we've got.'
"Paulie had a way about him where if you gave him a chance, he could always beat you. He's what I call a winning player, like Joe Morgan. They're just winners."
And now, he's just a Hall of Famer.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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