As a player, Paul Molitor demonstrated competitiveness not with gestures or celebrations, but with stone-faced, head-first slides into spikes. As a coach, Molitor almost always masked his emotions.
In 2001, he hinted at the fires within. The baby Twins, having led the American League Central for most of the season, were ambushed by a veteran Indians team in Cleveland late in the season. Molitor, then coaching under Tom Kelly, thought the opponents and umpires were displaying disrespectfulness to his team. It took multiple people to keep him from bursting onto the field to physically make a point.
Last season, as the Twins lost 92 games, Molitor — promoted from coach to manager on Tuesday — again tried to remain below boiling temperature.
“There were times last year when we’d get on the team bus after a loss and Paul would look over at me and just shake his head,” Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony said. “He had that look in his eye, like he was ready to explode. And I know that look, because I was sitting on that bus thinking, ‘That was a game we should have won.’
“We won 70 games last year. I think we should have won 78. To go from 78 to 88, or something close, I don’t think that’s unreasonable. I think we should be competitive this year.”
At his first news conference as manager, Molitor said: “I’m coming here to win.”
His first order of business should be introducing a new mentality to the clubhouse.
During their four consecutive losing seasons, the Twins tried to exercise caution with injured or bruised players. Anyone complaining of an ache was given an extra day or two off. There is logic in that approach. There is also danger. The Twins clubhouse became a place where you could collect a check without actually taking the field.
One of the early tests of Molitor’s tenure will be his handling of his best player, Joe Mauer.
Both grew up in St. Paul. Both played baseball at Cretin High. Both had the early years of their careers defined by constant injuries. The difference between them is important. Molitor’s desire to play was obvious. Mauer’s is not.
When the guy making $23 million a year begs out of the lineup because of a bruise, it’s difficult for the manager to push others to play through pain.
Molitor’s predecessor, Ron Gardenhire, believed in maintaining cordial relations with key players. That approach worked for most of a decade. It appeared to fail in recent years with Mauer.
Can Molitor play the bad guy?
“Yes,” he said. “It is a necessary part of the job. But for me, it’s kind of like surgery. It’s kind of the last option. I want to reach people in different ways before that needs to be done. We all know that different players have different buttons that need to be pushed.
“We can all talk nice and fluffy about, ‘Well, you can all get along, and then they’ll play for you.’ In reality, not everyone is going to fit into that mode. They’re going to challenge you along the way, and see where you stand. I will choose other things first, but yes, there will be times when you need to be tough.”
Does Mauer expect to be managed differently? “Well, I’d like to think I don’t need a lot of managing, as long as I get in the lineup,” he said.
Does closer Glen Perkins, who is friends with Mauer and an admirer of Molitor’s, believe the new manager will have to push this group of players?
“I think that there’s an inherent respect for him that’s going to make guys do the things they have to do,” he said. “I don’t think there’s going to be any lackadaisicalness. With him, it’s the same thing as with Terry Ryan. When Terry walks into the room, you stand up and shake his hand. He commands respect. Paul Molitor is the same way. Nobody is going to feel right about trying to get away with certain things.
“The culture changes with just hiring him, and him being our leader. It’s a welcome change.”