Molitor, 60 on Monday, focusing on the positive in a tough season
MINNEAPOLIS—Twins manager Paul Molitor turns 60 on Monday.
Can you believe it?
"No," says Carol Rolland, second-oldest of the eight children born to Dick and Kathleen Molitor. "It's hard for all of us to believe. I just kind of welcomed him into the world of being 60, which is kind of scary."
What about younger sister Judy Gergen, four years Molitor's junior?
"It's surreal," she says. "That means the rest of us are past 60 or close."
University of Minnesota baseball coach John Anderson, 61, calls it "hard to believe" he's welcoming his longtime friend and former Gophers teammate to Club 60.
"It doesn't seem possible he's 60 already," Anderson says. 'It seems like he just finishing playing yesterday."
Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost, Molitor's teammate with the pennant-winning Milwaukee Brewers, shakes his head, as well.
"It seems like just yesterday we were in our mid-20s playing in Milwaukee, but that was back in the early '80s," Yost says. "I mean, time flies."
Does it ever.
One minute Molitor is hustling his way up through St. Paul's youth baseball scene, playing on as many as three summer teams at once, and the next he's the third-oldest manager in the American League, trailing only Yost, who turned 62 on Friday, and Buck Showalter of the Baltimore Orioles, who is three months older than Molitor.
Already the oldest manager in Twins history — Billy Gardner was 57 when he was fired in June of 1985 and replaced by Ray Miller — Molitor now becomes the first 60-something manager in combined franchise history since Chuck Dressen, then 62, was fired 20 games into the 1957 season with the Washington Senators.
You'd never know it from looking at Molitor, who appears thinner even than he was at the end of his 22-year professional playing career in 1998.
"Oh, I see the little gray hairs on his temple," says Rolland, semi-retired and working in eldercare after many years as a doula, assisting expectant mothers. "There are a few things that remind us all, but he's a solid guy and I think he's handling 60 really well. Ever since playing ball so early, when he was always setting records for being the youngest to do this or that, he's been kind of ageless all along."
'Above and beyond'
Losing takes a toll on everyone involved, particularly the person in charge of the operation. Hall of fame basketball coach Pat Riley has said there are only two states in big-time sports: Winning and misery.
"Oh, no doubt," says Yost, whose reigning World Series champions were puttering along close to .500 this year. "Losing, it's almost unbearable."
So you can imagine how hard this season has been on Molitor in light of his hall of fame playing career and the World Series ring he won with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1993.
Coming off an 83-win debut season in the dugout, Molitor challenged his second edition to "do more" and then watched it promptly fall on its face.
There was the unthinkable 0-9 start, followed by the "total system failure" review from club owner Jim Pohlad a month into the season. Eventually, Molitor was able to right the ship after an 11-34 start but even playing .500 ball over these past 76 games hasn't gotten the Twins out of American League Central cellar.
Along the way Molitor has witnessed the firing of close friend Terry Ryan, who seemed to be tenured as Twins general manager, followed immediately by a public promise by Pohlad that no matter who takes over baseball operations, Molitor will return as manager in 2017.
Even those who know him best marvel at how quickly Molitor is able to process nightly defeat and turn the page to the next day.
"I think he's held up great," says Yost, whose Royals had taken 11 of their past 13 meetings with the Twins, dating to last season, through Thursday. "I voted for him for manager of the year last year. For Mollie to come in and do what he's done here the last two years is fantastic."
As good a job as Molitor did last season, his first managing at any level — keeping the upstart Twins in playoff contention until the final weekend — his work this season might be even better.
"I think he's done an amazing job being a teacher, helping those guys learn and grow," Anderson says. "What he's been through this season, I've been impressed with how steady he's been, how patient, how upbeat and the encouragement he's given his team through it all. That's a special quality not many people have."
With a quarter of the schedule left to play, the Twins are still waiting for their first on-field or clubhouse tantrum from their unflappable manager. Twin Cities media can hardly believe the complete lack of surly responses from Molitor in the wake of loss after loss, even following four-error embarrassments like last Sunday's against the Royals.
"The patience is extraordinary — above and beyond," Rolland says. "I do think some of us (in the family) are much more emotional and distraught over it than he is. My dad, he kept his feelings pretty close to his chest, and Paul is like my dad in that regard. I have to say, I do think some of that patience is God-given."
The texts start buzzing into Molitor's smartphone soon after the final pitch of the night.
When you work in your hometown and come from a family of eight, with dozens of extended family members and legions of friends in the area, managing each Twins game is a communal experience.
It might take him some time, but Molitor always makes sure he answers as many of those texts as possible, if not every single one of them.
Quite often, emojis are part of his reply. The thumbs-up emoji is one of his favorites.
"I have never tried to elicit his reaction," says Gergen, who spends most of her time with husband Bob in Sarasota, Fla. "I'm just trying to let him know so many people here love him and are cheering for him and backing him all the way through. No one's given up here at all."
After an Aug. 11 doubleheader blasting at home, when the Twins lost a pair of games to the Houston Astros by a combined score of 25-9, Rolland sent her younger brother a text that was even more ambitious than usual.
"I said something about it being a 'long journey,' something very poetic," Rolland says with a chuckle. "He wrote back, 'Tough day, but tomorrow is a brand new day.'"
It's that relentless optimism that keeps Molitor from wearing the stress of a losing season on his face or displaying it in his public interactions. His sisters watch his postgame news conferences on Fox Sports North, just to make sure their brother is doing all right, and almost without fail they come away encouraged.
About this Twins' season.
About the future of baseball in this town.
And most of all about the emotional well-being of their famous brother.
"I see his composure," Gergen says. "I look for fissures in that, and they just don't exist. I don't know how deeply he reaches into that well, but he always manages to find it. Sometimes, I'll text him: 'That was your best postgame ever.'"
Looking for light
Even after painful defeats, Molitor will sometimes pause and look directly into the camera and offer a slight, knowing smile before beginning his answer.
His sense of perspective is positively Kiplingesque, one might say, a beacon for an impressionable young roster — not to mention a frustrated fan base — to follow into an uncertain future.
"I love that he's calm," Gergen says. "I love that he's not a table-tipper. As opposed to last year, when it really probably looked too easy, he's had to remind us that regardless of the final score, there are victories in almost every inning with one or two of his players."
There's always a silver lining, Molitor will tell his siblings, if you're willing to search for it.
"He's always looking for that light, that hope, that growth," Gergen says, "all the things he's so good at trying to impact with his brand of dignity and being a gentleman in the game. I believe this year he has revealed more of who he is in his attempt to move this sucker over the goal line."
Rolland agrees, adding that even with two young children there are no signs her brother is gazing ahead to a post-dugout life.
"I think he is doing what he was born to do, being a good teacher and a good mentor for the young players especially," she says. "He doesn't show any signs or doesn't speak any words about slowing down or stopping or he's had enough or this is too hard."
So, how long can she see him managing? Will Molitor still be guiding the Twins when he turns 70?
"He'll know when it's time," Rolland says. "It won't necessarily be because of a championship or whatever. He'll just know. He's smart that way. He knew when to get in, so he'll know when to get out."