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Powers: Molitor a safe choice, but ...

By Tom Powers

St. Paul Pioneer Press

The challenge has been accepted. The possible outcomes are limited.

Years from now, Paul Molitor will be a member of one of two very select groups. The first includes the likes of Joe Torre, Mike Ditka and Billy Cunningham — great players who became great managers/coaches. The second includes Wayne Gretzky, Ted Williams and Magic Johnson — great players who tarnished their legacies by moving behind the bench or into the dugout.

Top-tier players put their reputations on the line when they assume the captain’s chair. It may not be fair, but that’s how it is. More is expected of them because of their prior successes in the arena, and it doesn’t matter that everyone is comparing apples to oranges.

Terry Ryan made a safe, popular choice by selecting Molitor to manage the Twins, who will introduce the new skipper at a news conference Tuesday morning. He gets a highly regarded baseball man as well as a proven teacher. That Molitor is a local boy and a Hall of Famer made Ryan’s job that much easier. And there really wasn’t any doubt about this hire. If Molitor wanted the job — if he really wanted — it was his. All the rest of it was just window dressing.

In hiring Molitor, Ryan tacitly chose intelligence over experience, level-headedness over fire, logic over impetuousness. Just from casual conversation, we know that Molitor will embrace modern analytics, especially in terms of defensive positioning, an area in which the Twins have fallen behind. He’ll also begin with a head start in the respect department, a byproduct of his long and successful career as a player and a teaching coach.

Whether everybody lives happily ever after remains to be seen. The truth is that nobody comes to the ballpark to watch a manager. A popular figure might get a bit more leeway in terms of public sentiment. In the end, the clicking of the turnstiles is directly correlated to the proficiency of the team — and maybe the weather.

The Twins have ridden the popularity of outdoor baseball at Target Field about as far as they can. Season ticket sales are down. People now are demanding a decent product, otherwise they will sit on their patios and enjoy a summer evening for a fraction of the cost.

Molitor is known for his baseball savvy, and he will need it with the sputtering Twins. I don’t know if group inspiration is his thing, but chances are he will find the right touch, the right approach in dealing with this primarily young ball club. He moves easily among the players, offering advice and instruction. They appear to listen. That’s half the battle.

He’s also smart enough to know that “the Twins Way” is broken. It’s obsolete. Baseball has advanced by leaps and bounds with the new emphasis on statistical and technical analysis, even as the Twins have clung to the past.

What’s needed, somewhere in the organization, is a set of eyes that sees things differently. The Twins need someone who doesn’t filter all information through the prism of “the Twins Way.” Molitor knows capable baseball men from time spent in other organizations, and it would be a good idea to bring a few on board his staff. A different perspective would be valuable.

Now, there is the old saying about great players making lousy managers. The theory is that the game came easily for the superstars, and they might not have the patience for the .230 hitter struggling to make adjustments. Utility infielders, backup catchers and marginal relievers, on the other hand, supposedly spend more time studying the game in an effort to survive. World Series managers Bruce Bochy and Ned Yost are a prime example of the latter.

Looking back through Twins history, you’d have to go all the way back to Cookie Lavagetto in 1961 to find a manager with any star power as a player. Billy Martin had a few famous moments, and Sam Mele had a long career. But that’s about it.

Yet it’s not as if Molitor has been sitting in a rocking chair signing Hall of Fame memorabilia. He’s been active, in touch with what’s happening. He took a cerebral approach as a player, always adjusting to various situations as they presented themselves. As a coach, he’s been able to observe the big picture and file away information.

Molitor has had chances to manage before but turned them down. Now, apparently, he believes the time is right. He’s confident enough to put his reputation on the line. You have to give him high marks for that. And then you have to hope that his confidence is contagious.

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