The moment Paul Molitor’s foot touched home plate, the World Series was over. He had been on first base when Toronto teammate Joe Carter hit a historic home run off Philadelphia’s Mitch Williams to end the 1993 World Series, making him the winning run. Molitor remembers being overwhelmed by the moment.
“In that brief second, when you realize what’s happening, it’s amazing — you experience the flashback to all the toil, to all the days and weeks and years of sweat, of what it took to get you here. And now you’re going to be a world champion,” Molitor said. “It was very emotional. I was obviously elated, but in that moment, it’s incredible all the things and all the people you think of.”
It took Molitor 16 years to experience that elation, to finally accomplish the objective of every major league franchise, executive, manager and player. He considers himself lucky, because most of his teammates during his Hall of Fame career, those in Milwaukee and Minnesota, never stormed those gates, never climbed to the peak of that mountain.
“We all wanted to win so badly. In Milwaukee, after we made the World Series [and lost to St. Louis, in 1982], we thought we would eventually,” Molitor said. “But you start to realize as your career goes on — winning is really, really hard. Sometimes it almost seems like it’s impossible.”
So at least he knows what he’s getting into. Now, 17 years after retiring as a player, Molitor has decided to pursue that distant, demanding, difficult goal again, this time from the dugout. The new Twins manager approaches his task, with a 92-loss team no less, with a destination in mind and a map for getting there. But what are the milestones along that route?
“Getting 25 guys to commit themselves to winning,” Molitor said. “You devote yourself to your teammates and playing the game right, for each other. And even then, there are no guarantees that you succeed. It’s a monumental task, really.”
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Terry Ryan knows monumental tasks. The Twins general manager retired from the game during the summer of 2007, riding the wave of four division titles in five seasons, and intended never to return. But he was summoned back to the post in November 2011, just as the team, its core now aging and adrift, went into free-fall.
“I don’t know how many losses we’ve averaged since I’ve been back,” Ryan said, “but I know the number begins with a nine.”
He’s right, it’s 95, a number only two major league teams — the Astros and Cubs — have eclipsed over the past three years.
“That bothers me. That’s not acceptable around here, and I’m sick that it’s happened,” Ryan said. “I’ve said many times, the only thing that’s broken in this organization is our major league record. Everything else is in order. Ownership is stable. We have a president who gets it and who wants to do things the right way. The minor leagues are in good shape. International scouting, amateur scouting, we’re fine. Unfortunately, our record isn’t indicative of that stability, and I’ve got to change it.”
Yes, but how? On that, opinions abound. “I don’t think you can point to any one thing and say, ‘That’s how you win a World Series,’ ” said Red Sox manager John Farrell, who nevertheless managed to achieve that in 2013. “Look at the Giants — you can say they won because of [MVP pitcher] Madison Bumgarner, but he can’t do it alone. There are a lot of other guys who got them there. … You’ve got to score runs, you’ve got to play defense.”
Farrell’s own Red Sox championship was credited largely to David Ortiz, who went 11-for-16 in the 2013 World Series, hit two home runs and walked eight times, while his teammates hit a collective .168.
“It’s confidence. It’s attitude. Chemistry. The best teams have guys who pick each other up,” Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. “More and more, it’s being smart about what you do, who can find an edge. That’s on and off the field. You have to have hitters and pitchers, of course, but there are so many factors that go into winning.”
The Kansas City Royals came within one run of capturing their first championship in 29 years by emphasizing defense and relief pitching, both among the best that any team has fielded in years.
“They looked at their own organization, its strengths and weaknesses, and went a different way than a lot of other teams,” Ryan said of the Royals. “Give them credit for understanding that they could still win.”
And even then, the Royals made smart adjustments: After leading the majors in stolen bases during the season, Kansas City stole exactly one base in the World Series. After finishing last in the majors in home runs, the Royals hit more homers and doubles than the eventual champs.
“You’ve got to have the right mix,” Farrell said. “One through 25.”
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And then there are the Twins.
There is no blueprint to fixing them. There is no step-by-step to-do list, because Ryan doesn’t need one. His playing days, his scouting roots, his major league experiences have boiled down his philosophy about building a winner to two words:
For all the talk of intangibles, for all the growing excitement over such prospects as Byron Buxton, for the desire for a balanced attack and aggressive baserunning and bench depth and a lights-out bullpen, Ryan insists that none of it — or even all of it together — matters as much as finding live arms that can record outs.
“I’ve always believed that if you don’t have effective starting pitching, you’re not going to succeed, ultimately,” Ryan said. “I’ve always felt that way. Baseball starts and ends with your starting pitching. You can’t win without it. Teams that have a lot of hitting are fine, teams with good bullpens are fine, but you’re not going to find many World Series winners who didn’t get there without a consistent, quality pitching rotation.”
There is irony here, of course. The 99-loss team Ryan inherited in 2011 had just finished 26th among the 30 major league teams in ERA among its starting pitching. And since then, the Twins have finished 29th, 30th and 30th. The Atlanta Braves under John Schuerholz — division winners for 14 consecutive full seasons, largely because of their pitching — might be Ryan’s model, but the Minnesota version has quite a few blemishes yet.
Not that Ryan hasn’t tried to put his philosophy into action. He has signed four free-agent starting pitchers over the past two winters, at a cumulative cost of $185 million, to staunch that wound. He has shuffled prospects, converted relievers and executed trades, trying 25 starting pitchers over three seasons. The Twins have tried to overload the pitching pipeline by emphasizing pitching in the draft, particularly power arms.
“There’s no formula for pitching, so we look at everybody. Whether you throw 95 or 88, or you have a trick pitch, or you’re a control-command guy — it’s about winning games, and there are a lot of ways to do it,” he said. “[Brad] Radke did it one way, [Carl] Pavano did it a different way, [Johan] Santana did it another.
“You want a definition of one of those guys? It’s guys who are consistent, who give you a chance every five days, who maybe give your bullpen a bit of a break, that are mentally tough and physically sound. Who are competitive and take care of business. Not a lot of hand-holding required.”
In that light, Ryan’s most notable trades of his second tenure are entirely understandable: He dealt outfielder Denard Span for righthanded prospect Alex Meyer, then swapped another outfielder, Ben Revere, for righties Vance Worley, since departed, and Trevor May. The deals have indirectly hamstrung the Twins because they have been unable to adequately fill the vacancy left by Span and Revere — but Ryan would make them all over again.
“If you’ve got the ability to acquire guys like that, you’re giving yourself a better future,” Ryan said. “Obviously, we had very good reports on Meyer and May. They haven’t established themselves yet, OK. I know our fan base is worried about that. But that’s what you have to do to go out and get good pitching. Certainly, it’s a risk, but oftentimes you have to take risks in order to get good people, and we’re willing to do that. …
“We want to win. I believe this is how we get there.”