Fort Myers, Fla. – Paul Molitor might have been the smartest baseball player of his generation. As a Brewer, he became famous within the game for his ability to steal signs. As a minor league instructor with the Twins, he would sit on the bench with awestruck youngsters and call “slider” just before the opposing pitcher released just that.
He turned hitting into a science and baserunning into an art form. He seemed born to manage a baseball team, but with kids to raise and doubts about choosing the correct career path, Molitor tried out coaching before settling into a role as adviser and instructor with his hometown team.
After the 2012 season, Molitor decided he was ready to take the field again. The Twins were close to naming him to their coaching staff … and then they weren’t. Those close to the situation say that manager Ron Gardenhire, in the last year of his contract and with no assurances of being retained, didn’t want his likely successor on staff.
When the Twins signed Gardenhire to a two-year contract last fall, they insisted on Molitor being hired, putting another St. Paul native and Minnesota alum into Twinstripes.
“He sees the game differently than most,” said Twins vice president of baseball operations Rob Antony. “He brings presence and credibility. No disrespect to our coaches who didn’t have distinguished big-league careers, but this guy is a Hall of Famer. With him, it’s not just a title. He wasn’t just a good player. He was one of the smartest players who’s ever played the game. I want to believe our players will be all ears. I would be.”
Near the end of his playing career, Molitor would speak each spring about the joy of putting on a big-league uniform. Asked to imagine another opening day in Minnesota, he said, “It’s going to be great. It’s not like I’m getting ready to play my first big-league game, but I’m getting back to where I want to be. I have a team.”
As a player, Molitor could, like a great point guard, make the players around him better. When Molitor hit .341 in 1996 while turning 40, Chuck Knoblauch, Rich Becker and Scott Stahoviak all enjoyed the best seasons of their careers.
As a coach under Tom Kelly, Molitor once threw a tee onto the field to protest a call, another time in Cleveland he looked as if he wanted to fight the umpires and the Indians all at once.
“I think I got thrown out more as a coach in those two years than I did in 21 years as a player,” he said. “I don’t remember exactly why I snapped, but we heard about the Twins being a contender for contraction and it would be really bad for baseball if the Twins won.
“I don’t know how much there was to that, but against certain, more veteran teams, we weren’t getting a fair shake and our young players were getting taken advantage of by umpires, and other teams weren’t showing us the respect I thought you should have for any other team no matter how many times you’ve beaten them.
“It all boiled over, and I was still transitioning. As a player you have control. As a coach you don’t. TK thought I was losing my mind there a few times, but I think it’s good to back up your players, to show that you’re not whimsical about winning and losing.”
When he met with Gardenhire in the fall, Molitor asked whether the game has changed much. He wonders how he’ll adapt to players who are “more showy.” He wonders whether he’ll be able to steal signs.
“If someone lets their guard down you have to be ready to take that opportunity,” he said. “It’s important to let players know there is information being exchanged. There are a lot of things that go on, things that have to be communicated, and the question is, can you crack the code?”
At 57, did Molitor become a coach so he can coach now, or manage eventually?
“I wouldn’t call this a steppingstone,” he said. “This might enlighten me a little on where I think I’m going to spend the next half a dozen years or longer. I’m not getting out front like that.
“To be back on the field, in the day to day grind, we’re going to find out if it’s a good fit for me. If it is, we’ll take it where it goes.”
The man belongs in a big-league uniform. The Twins are lucky he wants to wear theirs.