Things will be different, Paul Molitor vowed Tuesday as he took control of a baseball team for the first time. The St. Paul native, hired as the 13th manager in Minnesota Twins history, might change elements as sweeping as the starting rotation or as mundane as the bunt sign. He understudied for Ron Gardenhire last season and has been in the Twins organization for a decade, but as owner Jim Pohlad said at Molitor’s introductory news conference, “I suspect we’ll see him doing a lot of things differently, during games and in the clubhouse.”
Which is fine, as far as it goes. But those aren’t the changes Molitor was hired to make. Fortunately, he also pledged to address the only transformation that matters: “I’m coming here to win.”
“It’s very important to lay that out there right from the start,” Molitor said, despite the Twins’ average of 96 losses over the past four seasons. “Things can change very dramatically at this level, very quickly. … I want [players] to believe they can win now. I hope to set that tone right away.”
Nothing about his promotion to the Twins’ top on-field job happened right away — General Manager Terry Ryan referred to the process as “our five-week ordeal” — but Molitor said the wait didn’t bother him, especially considering how long it took him to get here.
“It’s been a long journey for me. I’ve had opportunities to think about this for many years,” the 58-year-old Hall of Fame player said. “I have no doubt I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be today.”
And where he’ll be next season: in the dugout. Molitor was the winner of what evolved into a three-man derby to become only the third Twins manager in 29 seasons, with Class AAA Rochester manager Gene Glynn and Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo the other two contenders. Pohlad flew to Los Angeles to meet Lovullo, summoned Glynn from Venezuela (where he’s managing a winter-league team) for a one-last-look interview, and said he was impressed by both.
But he agreed with Ryan’s recommendation that Molitor, who grew up about 10 miles from Target Field, fit the team’s needs best.
“Any of the three would have been great, I had no doubt about that,” said Pohlad, who insisted the decision was Ryan’s, not his. “But Paul is an insider. He has a lot of institutional knowledge, about the team and the players coming up. Mostly, Paul’s been a winner in just about everything he’s done.”
Maybe, but he’s never done this before. Molitor, who agreed to a three-year contract but declined to disclose its terms, becomes the first Twins manager since Ray Miller in 1985 to assume the job with zero managerial experience at any level, though he and Ryan agreed that a veteran coaching staff, still to be appointed, should take care of any unforeseen problems. In particular, Molitor said, he wants to hire an accomplished pitching coach to help organize the staff, though “it’s important for me to be involved, too.”
One pitcher he’ll be managing — Twins closer Glen Perkins, like Molitor a University of Minnesota alumnus — believes the learning curve will be fairly shallow.
“If he has a weakness, it’s probably in that,” Perkins said, “But he’s got pretty good aptitude for learning.”
For teaching, too, which is what especially attracted Ryan to the new manager. Molitor demonstrated his aptitude for preparation and his patience for tutoring during the 2014 season on Gardenhire’s staff, Ryan said, and his insight into the game is legendary.
“I have never heard anybody question his baseball savvy,” Ryan said.
Questions about past
No, the doubts Molitor had to overcome were about his commitment to such an all-consuming post, his age and experience, and his admittedly problematic past. Molitor and his wife, Destini, have two preteen children at home, and “there was some misperception about how high my desire was to take this job,” Molitor said. But he discussed the job with his family at length, considered how he’ll handle the daily workload of a major league manager, and made peace with the commitment.
“If you’re in, you’re in. You can’t say, ‘Let’s see how it goes the first year,’ ” Molitor said. “And I think [the Twins] needed to hear that from me.”
Actually, Ryan said he wasn’t as concerned about that as Molitor suspected. A decade of traveling to the organization’s farm clubs, patiently teaching hitting, baserunning and fielding, went a long way toward convincing him that Molitor was as willing as he is able.
“For that man to go down to the minor leagues for a decade — if that’s not commitment, I don’t know what is,” Ryan said.
Still, the Twins conducted a background check on their new manager, and had a frank conversation with him about the more inauspicious aspects of his past. Molitor has admitted to a period of heavy drinking and frequent drug use while he was a player, he fathered children out of wedlock and endured a contentious divorce from his first wife.
“There are areas of his history that he’s not proud of, and we addressed that to make sure that it’s not a part of his present or his future. That was discussed freely and openly and in depth,” Ryan said. “I’m satisfied, as is ownership, that we will not have to worry about that.”
Added Twins President Dave St. Peter: “We understand that we’re all human, we’ve all made mistakes. The great thing about Paul is he’s owned up to that.”
He does, unflinchingly; in fact, Molitor said, that background might someday actually do some good.
“It might sound a little funny, but I think experiencing some of the things I have … are going to help me. When I can talk to a player about things he’s doing or not doing or needs to do, I can relate certain things that I had to learn for myself. … That’s more powerful than some guy that comes to talk about, ‘Don’t do it.’ ”
Overcoming his past wasn’t easy, but neither is baseball, Molitor said, and there were few better than the Cretin graduate who needed only one minor league season to blossom into one of the game’s greatest hitters. Such ability has not always led to managerial success in previous cases of Hall of Famers in the dugout, but Molitor is confident he can be an exception.
“I will never forget the game is very, very difficult … but we’re going to try to get these guys to improve,” he said. “Tell them again, help them again, support them again, encourage them again. Stay after it. Not [give in to] frustration that they don’t get it.”
He plans to expand the Twins’ use of statistical tools, be open to progressive ideas about using players and positioning fielders, and especially focus on creating a clubhouse culture that puts aside personal achievement for team goals. His existing relationship with minor league players who will soon graduate to the majors is a big advantage, he said.
And if it doesn’t work out? Molitor said he’s not worried about damaging his legacy. As Jeff Idelson, president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame reminded him via text message this weekend, “Relax. Enjoy this. No matter what you do, your plaque is going to stay.”