In final year of contract, Paul Molitor will still approach the season his way
FORT MYERS, Fla. — Lame duck is a foreign term to Twins manager Paul Molitor, who has lived 40 years in professional baseball on his terms, from the moment he graduated in 1974 from Cretin High School in St. Paul.
St. Louis drafted him in the 28th round and offered him a $4,000 signing bonus. Molitor demanded $8,000. The Cardinals didn't budge. University of Minnesota baseball coach Dick Siebert dangled a scholarship. Molitor forged ahead and became one of the greatest Gophers ever.
Three years later, the Milwaukee Brewers drafted him third overall. Molitor signed for $80,000. He played all of 64 games in Class A before earning a major-league job at 1978 spring training and debuting as a 21-year-old shortstop.
In 1992, as a 36-year-old free agent, Molitor leveraged a three-year, $13 million contract from the defending world champion Toronto Blue Jays and went on to win the 1993 World Series MVP.
A free agent again in 1995, Molitor returned to Minnesota, collecting his 3,000th hit for the hometown Twins and retiring in 1998 two weeks shy of his 42nd birthday.
"I played a lot of games, but the thing I still try to convey is, every day counts because you only get so many," Molitor said during an interview at his Hammond Stadium office.
It is 8 a.m. on March 17. St. Patrick's Day is evident by the green-tinted lineup card Molitor filled out for an exhibition game against the Tampa Bay Rays and his emerald cap embroidered with a white shamrock the Twins will wear that afternoon.
Molitor is banking on more than the Luck o' the Irish to rebound from a 103-loss season in 2016 that was finished before it started, compliments of an 0-9 start in which incompetent play metastasized into a fundamental crisis.
He is 142-182 (.438) in two seasons managing the Twins. Without a contract beyond this year, and nary a hint about an extension, the beloved Hall of Famer is in the twilight zone as he auditions for new executive vice president and chief of baseball operations Derek Falvey and first-year general manager Thad Levine.
It is the elephant in the board room and clubhouse as the Twins embark on the 2017 season essentially with the same roster that produced the worst record since the franchise moved to the Twin Cities from Washington in 1961.
Yet there is no authority gap, according to second baseman Brian Dozier.
"It doesn't affect us any," he insists. "We know there's new brass and all that kind of stuff. I don't know if half the guys even know Molly's on the last year of his deal. It doesn't faze him in our meetings or how he goes about everything or putting on more pressure. That's a good thing.
"I know Molly probably better than anybody in here. He would never manage for his job," Dozier continued. "He took the job a couple years ago to win and win only. It's not about being a manager and money. He loves this organization and he wants to win here. None of that other stuff fazes him. It doesn't faze us either."
Molitor, 60, has reached the decade of conventional retirement. He still is energized and curious about the game he fell for growing up in the Mac-Groveland neighborhood and playing on the sandlots at the Oxford playground.
"In the words of Mr. Bruce Springsteen, rock 'n' roll and professional sports, they extend your adolescence," he said.
Secure in what he has accomplished in baseball, Molitor is not projecting beyond the daily grind. Forces are in motion beyond his control, from the vulnerability of his roster come the midseason trade deadline to the value his new bosses place in his field skills.
Molitor might not dictate the terms of his future with the Twins. But he is confident in how he will go about commanding his dugout, however long he is still welcome in it.
Here is an edited transcript of the Twins manager's spring training interview with the Pioneer Press:
Pioneer Press: In camp and entering the season, what are the priorities in on-field work, messaging, accountability, that you want to convey?
Paul Molitor: That's a broad canvas. Well, I think the early messaging was about, it's not drastically different because you're coming off a 103-loss season. I think you use that somewhat as a point where you can talk about how the nucleus of your team had to experience that as a whole. And as a whole, we grew through that together. I know some guys did individually. It's one of those things you try to turn it around and use to your advantage as a learning experience.
My focus on camp here has been to try to find a way to assemble a more competitive pitching staff and a lot of emphasis not only catching the ball but protecting the baseball. I think you can probably develop a lot of theories or hypotheticals trying to explain how our (2016) season went the way it did. There are a lot of tools that are available if you want to try to break those things down. But in a simple baseball world, if you're worst in pitching and fielding, it's not going to be a very good combination.
We're here trying to find the right people. The competition has gone relatively well, which I don't put a lot of stock in because last year's camp went really well. Trevor May's injury, notwithstanding — which is a big blow for him and for us — it's been relatively healthy.
PP: How critical is it to get off to a productive start?
PM: I feel that we're doing what we need to in terms of addressing questions that hindered us last year. There's such an unpredictability factor when you start. But I think all these guys know that we've started poorly the last two years. We recovered from one but not the other. Yes, you try to get ready for 162 but you've got to do everything you can to get off to a great start, which could really help the mind-set and confidence of this team.
PP: The fundamentals you mentioned — baserunning, and defense in particular. Those are things casual folks saw and thought, 'Why should I buy in again this year because of those deficiencies?' What's been done to tighten those aspects?
PM: In addition to just the rhetoric, you're more vocal during drills. You reiterate points that somewhat seem basic to the game, when people don't have the focus they need to in those drills. You don't try to make it personal with anybody but you try to call out what's unacceptable and go about it that way. The base running is a little bit trickier. I think you can work really hard on catching the ball and doing the drills. Base running, we've tried to do things differently in drills this year, whether it's sign-awareness, situation-awareness, but it's not the game.
PP: Is baserunning more instinctive than any of the other areas?
PM: Baserunning has a tendency to be more instinctive than the other areas and there are some guys that have that feel better than others, whether it's innate or experience or whatever. There's a mindfulness that needs to become present when you're a base-runner. And the more extenuating circumstances you can put into your mind before the ball's put in play, the better chances you have of making a good decision.
The old adage that you've done your job when you get on base, now it's somebody else's responsibility to drive you in, it's way too simple. There's an art to trying to score runs. That's why some guys seem to be at the high end every year. It doesn't work out this way, and you make the point — I know I said it one day — if you do nothing as a base-runner and you score 60 runs or 70 runs, if you can somehow add five, seven, eight, 10 (runs) by taking your job as a base-runner more seriously, you start adding those numbers up, it could be a huge difference.
We all know there are so many one-run or two-run games where a base-running play can change the momentum to get you a run. Sometimes a game might be lopsided, where we win by five but did something in the third inning that extended the inning and we found a way to score more two-out runs and you win the game handily and people might not remember that one little thing we did.
PP: The continuing gaffes last season had to grind on you.
PM: It's frustrating for me, the baserunning mistakes, making the third out at third (base), and not being ready on balls in the dirt, getting doubled off on line drives in bases-loaded situations ... whatever we do that's foolish. As much as baserunning can be momentum-changers, it works conversely. Somebody does something that takes you out of an inning, it's very deflating. So you try to address that. But when you combine how fast our game is, and the emotion of the game — you see it in the batter's box, you see it on the mound — when guys get sped up, their clarity and ability to make decisions gets clouded.
PP: You mentioned getting off to a good start to instill confidence in the clubhouse, I imagine it would take the edge off your situation as well.
PM: It would be more fun to manage a more competitive team for me. Too many days last year where I was trying to get through a game rather than try to win a game. As far as my situation, I haven't thought about it a lot. There's been a huge transition for our organization with new leadership. There was some talk about how I fit into that equation. I get all that. But it really hasn't changed too much for me. I'm not looking at this year any differently than I did the previous two years.
I know the vulnerability of roles such as these. Sometimes you can self-inflict and cause yourself to get moved, and other times it's the nature of the game. It's just not a huge concern for me.
PP: For the record, has there been any initiation or discussion about a contract extension?
PM: There has not.
PP: What about the clubhouse? Does having a lame-duck manager resonate at all? Some guys might have no clue about your status. Others might. You tell me.
PM: I don't think they think about it, whether it's the most experienced in a guy like Joe (Mauer) or a guy trying to win a major-league job out there. I don't think that's an issue that's on their radar, which is fine.
You strike me as someone who's very secure in an occupation where all managers, to a certain extent, are managing for their jobs. Do you ever feel that?
No. We all know that my journey to this position is different. To have a chance to compete and be in leadership and try to develop people, men, players, that's where I try to get my value. I want to win. That should be your primary focus. People who are watching our team and our game, that's what it's about. People want to cheer for a winner. So I try to do what I can to move it in that direction. Everyone talks about relationships and how you've got to have good relationships. And that's true. If somewhere along the way you can bring young people over hurdles they're facing and steer them in a direction that can elongate their careers and find some solace in how they're going about attaining that, then you're having an influence.
PP: After two seasons, what kind of self-evaluation have you done about how you can improve in the dugout in terms of in-game strategy, or communication in the clubhouse?
PM: After 21 years playing, in hindsight, I know I learned all the way through, but I wish I would have learned more. And then you're done. In player development and coaching for 'X' number of years, these last three years for me, you look at all those ways of trying to improve, whether it's trying to find the right buttons to push for different people, trying to make good decisions during the game. Learning to run the bullpen has been a work in progress. You try to lean on people you can trust. I feel like I'm in a much better place than I was 2 1/2 years ago. But far from perfect.
PP: You've experienced a lot over 40 years in the game. What still drives you? What gets the juices flowing every day?
PM: There's not much that replaces competing in a sport at its highest level. Managing and coaching is not playing, but there's something that's still very rewarding about not only winning but watching people that you've tried to help start to get it. I don't know if I could find the fulfillment in anything else than being around the game.
PP: Have you set any timeline or any goals like, 'I want to win a World Series by X?'
PM: No. I'm not projecting two or three years. A lot of people talk about, well, the Twins 2018, 2019. Derek and Thad talk about long-term extended, competitive, championship-type team. That's what they should have as goals. For me, while you don't lose vision of the future, my thinking is more present. Mine's day-to-day.
PP: Well, you have to do something to get to that future.
PM: You see some funny things in our game, the ups and downs of teams and players. I don't put limits on what could happen. Playoff formats, .500 teams, come mid-August, can find a way to get into playoff contention. There are a lot of things that have changed about reasons that encourage you to try to envision how rapid things can change.
PP: Do you sense that come July or August, you're going to lose control of your roster depending on where the team's at?
PM: Yeah, that's out there. How many times during spring training will a manager talk about the 25-man roster, how it's going to shake out, and then you get to June and it's all irrelevant because things change so dramatically. It can have an affect on me. Those things kind of unfold how they're going to unfold.
PP: Is this still fun?
PP: What about this is still fun?
PM: All the clichés that you hear from the people in our game, in the clubhouse, my coaches. One of the hardest things about our game is we've got to play 162 games. But it's also one of the best things about our game. You get about 20 off days in six months and the other days you get a chance to go out and do something. That's pretty good. I enjoy that part.
I love that there's tomorrow.
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