WILLMAR -- It's been many years since former major league standout Paul Molitor has been in Willmar. The Hall of Famer who played high school baseball at Cretin-Derham Hall, remembers playing a game here once in American Legion baseball.
"I don't remember much about it," he said, by telephone recently. "It's been a long time ago. But I remember going to Willmar to play."
Molitor will be back in town tonight, throwing out the first pitch before the Willmar Stingers open their inaugural baseball season in the Northwoods League against the St. Cloud River Bats at 7:05 p.m. at Bill Taunton Stadium.
Molitor got a boost from playing in a summer collegiate league similar to the Northwoods League after his sophomore year at the University of Minnesota when he played in Grand Junction, Colo. He feels the current college players will benefit from playing every day, getting a chance to travel and bonding with new teammates.
"This is going to be a stepping stone for a lot of these players," he said. "It's a great opportunity. This is a very good league and the players will gain a lot of experience playing good competition every day. They will get to gauge their passion scale, as well as their talent scale."
The Northwoods League is for players who still have collegiate eligibility, meaning current seniors in college are not eligible, but high school players who recently signed letters of intent to play college next fall are eligible. The league uses wood bats, unlike the aluminum they are accustomed to in high school and college. Teams will play 70 games over the next two-plus months.
"Just playing a lot of game will help the players," said Molitor. "The game teaches you more than any coach ever has."
Molitor played 21 seasons in the major leagues. He was originally drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 28th round, but chose to go to college first. He was an All-American twice as a shortstop with the Gophers. After his junior year, Molitor was selected No. 3 overall by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 1977 major league draft. He played from 1978-92 with the Milwaukee Brewers, 1993-95 with the Toronto Blue Jays and from 1996-98 with the Minnesota Twins before retiring. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2004. Despite missing nearly 500 games in his career with various injuries, the seven-time All-Star finished with 3,319 hits (ninth best all-time in the major leagues), 234 home runs, 1,302 RBI, 504 stolen bases and a career batting average of .306. He is the only major leaguer to record his 3,000th hit with a triple and is one of only four players in major league history with 3,000 hits, a .300 career average and 500 stolen bases, joining Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Eddie Collins. Molitor was also the World Series MVP in 1993 when the Blue Jays were world champions.
After retiring, Molitor spent three seasons as the Twins' bench coach under Tom Kelly and is now is a roving minor league instructor for the Twins. He still has aspirations of managing a big league club some day.
"I think if the right opportunity came along I would like to get into managing," he admitted. "I thought maybe I was going to be the next manager of the Twins (after Kelly), but things didn't work out that way."
Molitor, who currently lives in the Twin Cities, doesn't go around campaigning to throw out first pitches around the country.
"I don't get asked to do it a lot," he said. "But if I'm asked and I can work it out, I'll do it. If someone wants me and I can bring a little different element to the ballpark, as sort of an ambassador to the game, I'll do it because I like giving something back to the game."
Molitor's first professional team was Milwaukee's Class A Burlington Bees of the Midwest League. Now, he'll be back on the field tonight throwing out the first pitch for the Stingers.