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Molitor easing in as leader of the Twins

Minnesota Twins manager Paul Molitor, right, talks with Twins center fielder Max Kepler, left, as Twins first base coach Butch Davis listens in during a Spring Training game against the Miami Marlins March 24 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Steve Mitchell - USA Today Sports)

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Near the end of spring training, Paul Molitor made bunting an emphasis in the daily morning meeting with players in the Twins clubhouse. That afternoon, Danny Santana and other players made a point of going out and trying to drop the first successful bunts of the spring.

“At least that shows they’re listening,” Molitor said with a smile.

Heading into Year 2 of his late-blooming managerial career, the hall of fame player from St. Paul seems even more at ease in a role he had never held before 2015 — at any level.

With an 83-win debut season under his belt, Molitor is tasked with completing the Twins’ turnaround from regular 90-loss also-rans into perennial postseason contenders and more.

From his bosses to his fellow coaches to his players, those around Molitor see a 59-year-old baseball lifer coming into his own as a leader.

“I would say he’s probably more comfortable in the job,” Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. “He knows what it’s like to deal with (the media) on a daily basis. Dealing with everything that comes with the job, which is an in-depth process. You’ve got to have people in position,

you’ve got to be organized; you’ve got to be detailed.”

No one has ever questioned Molitor’s ability to notice the details, but he has shown a human touch that goes well beyond a mastery of the game’s fundamentals and intricacies.

“He pays attention to detail,” Ryan said. “He communicates well. We have meetings all the time. I’m sure that sometimes he could get overwhelmed, but he is on top of things. I don’t think that’s anything that’s a surprise.”

Enjoying himself

Asked this spring what he learned about being a big-league manager in his first year at the helm, Molitor smiled and said he learned he “enjoyed the job.”

That was no small realization for a man who spent a full decade roving in the minor leagues as a base-running and infield instructor after serving one season as the Seattle Mariners hitting coach in 2004. One of the key questions — maybe the key question — Ryan needed Molitor to answer after Ron Gardenhire was dismissed following the 2014 season was whether a man with a young family and nothing to prove in baseball actually wanted to put himself out there.

Rather than bristle under the daily scrutiny of his lineup decisions and in-game maneuvers, Molitor has taken on a professorial tone and a willingness to admit his mistakes, sometimes even offering them up himself to an appreciative media corps.

“When he has to make a decision on the field, you guys are going to second guess, the fans are going to second guess,” Ryan said. “Everybody can second guess, but ultimately he’s got to live or die with that decision he makes on the field and he does that quite well. He admits when he might not have made the right call. He’s been very good about that — more than most, I would say.”

While plenty of Molitor’s contemporaries will show the strain of a long season, especially amid prolonged stretches of losing, he stayed cool as a rookie skipper, even after a 1-6 start that included an embarrassing loss to the Kansas City Royals in the home opener.

When he was asked after that 12-3 defeat if it all was maddening enough for him to flip the postgame clubhouse spread in a show of frustration, Molitor answered calmly and directly. He said he hadn’t seen anything “worthy of rebuke,” so why put on a show just for the show’s sake?

“He’ll say, ‘Listen, I screwed that up. It didn’t work, and I take accountability for it,’ ” Ryan said. “I think the players recognize that and the players respect it and appreciate that we don’t always make the right decisions.”

In the run-up to Molitor’s first season, a common story line was whether he would have the requisite patience to handle the inevitable mistakes that accompany a young team. As it turned out, Molitor had more than enough patience to avoid the sort of snaps that sometimes characterized Gardenhire’s final, trying years.

“He’s been there,” Twins second baseman Brian Dozier said. “He did it for 20-something years (as a player), and he’s never forgotten how hard the game is. A lot of people forget how hard the game is. He’s been in the trenches. He’s been 0 for 30. He’s been through making mistakes on the field. He’s done all that.”

Personal touch

When Miguel Sano found out Tommy John surgery would wipe out his 2014 season, Molitor was one of the first to comfort him, sharing his personal experience as the first position player to return to the majors after undergoing the complicated ligament-replacement elbow procedure in the 1980s.

The same goes for position changes, which Molitor was asked to make almost annually at the outset of his playing career, and off-field failures that threatened to derail his greatness even after it was made apparent.

“He’s been through it,” Dozier said. “He knows how tough it is and what you’ve got to do to rebound from that. That’s what made him successful as a player and that’s why everyone loves him as a manager.”

One of the first things Molitor did after being named Twins manager in November 2014 was to invite star first baseman Joe Mauer, a fellow Cretin-Derham Hall High School graduate, out to lunch. Following that conversation, Molitor determined Mauer was “in a good place,” physically and mentally.

What followed was a 2015 season that saw Mauer post career highs for games played, plate appearances and consecutive games reaching base (43).

“I think he understands how to relate to players and try to get the best out of them,” Mauer said. “I think he’s really good at that. We’re doing a lot of things, paying attention to little details. That’s an expectation he has for everybody in this room, and I think everybody understands that.”

While some managers prefer to deliver their message with a withering stare or biting words within earshot of others, Molitor makes it a point to stay calm and respectful.

When Byung Ho Park, the Twins’ rookie slugger signed last winter out of the Korea Baseball Organization, got doubled off second base early in spring training, Park trotted back to the dugout with his head down in clear disappointment.

“Mistake,” he said glumly as he passed Molitor at the top step of the dugout.

The manager stopped him, looked into his new player’s eyes and thanked him for making a strong effort to get back to second base on a line drive to the pitcher.

“Most guys,” Molitor said, “wouldn’t have been able to even make it that close.”

Reassured, Park went on to run the bases without incident the rest of the spring.

“I think that’s the way to do it,” Mauer said. “You don’t have to have a big meeting or a production about getting your point across. I think doing it that way, and through one-on-ones or smaller groups, is a lot more effective. That’s pretty good.”

Core principles

Twice last season, Molitor used a five-man infield in a desperation attempt to extend the game and cut down the potential winning run at home plate.

When the gambit worked in a midseason game at Kansas City, the Twins’ dugout was immediately energized. It hardly mattered that they went on to lose to in extra innings; their astute manager had shown the willingness to roll the dice with a tactic rarely seen in the modern game.

Asked if his first season had convinced him a long-held belief might no longer apply, Molitor said he couldn’t think of any such examples. He plans to do a better job of running his bullpen, promises to be more cognizant of the wear and tear associated with relievers who warm up but don’t appear in that night’s game.

But overall, the core principles Molitor has developed over these past four decades in pro ball, and at the University of Minnesota before that, remain unchanged.

“I think he was always pretty confident,” Mauer said. “He’s got that presence. We have that confidence in him. To be honest, I haven’t seen a whole lot of difference in him from last year, which is a good thing. Having said that, he’s always trying to do things better and make adjustments as we go along.”

What’s it like to look down the dugout now at a manager who has a 13-win improvement under his belt, the seventh-best in 55 years of Twins baseball, and see him operate?

“Obviously, he has the knowledge; everyone knows that,” Dozier said. “But he’s got the respect of everyone in the big leagues, not just his players. One of the most unique things about him is he has that way of having a unique relationship with every single person. It just seems very natural and fluid.

“It’s not that you look at him as this manager that’s a hall of famer and he’s so strict and all this kind of stuff; it just kind of flows, and you need that. He’s got a way of making a connection with each individual player in here. That’s what you need from a manager.”

As the Twins seek to integrate a fresh crop of high-profile rookies, as they attempt to claw their way past the Royals to the top of perhaps the game’s toughest division, they figure to take their cues more than ever from the calm, discerning figure watching intently from the top step of the dugout.

“It’s just a sense that he’s more comfortable interacting with every player and handling in-game situations,” Dozier said. “I’m not saying he wasn’t comfortable last year, but you can just tell it’s on a different level this year. You can sense that from him in our meetings and the way he talks. He expects us to be pretty dang good, and that means a lot.”