Tom Trebelhorn noticed something important, something that might win a ballgame, something he wanted Paul Molitor to know. The Brewers were in the thick of a five-way pennant race back on August 7, 1989, and Trebelhorn, Milwaukee’s manager, had deciphered Detroit starter Paul Gibson’s tendencies in a 2-2 game.
“Paul was on deck, and I called him over,” Trebelhorn recalled. Gibson, he said, was consistently throwing breaking balls on two-strike counts. “He just winked at me. I [realized], he knew it already. And [on a 1-2 pitch], he hit a 400-foot home run,” putting the Brewers in front for good.
“He sees things before they happen,” Trebelhorn said, still impressed by the moment. “He was as aware as any player I ever saw.”
Beginning Monday, Molitor will be the one sharing that awareness with players, the one offering tips to hitters in the on-deck circle. For the first time in 13 years, the Twins have a new manager, one who hopes to turn the savvy and intellect that made him a Hall of Fame player into the foundation of a successful leader.
Ron Gardenhire’s run of division titles far outstripped his achievements as a major league utility infielder; for Molitor, possessor of 3,319 hits, 504 stolen bases, and a first-ballot ticket to Cooperstown, that’s not possible. But the 58-year-old St. Paul native vows to put that attention to detail, that preoccupation with precision, to work on a day-to-day basis in his new job.
Wait, that’s not quite right — and Molitor swears he’s not going to let small imperfections go unchallenged. “It’s not day-to-day — to me, it’s more like pitch-to-pitch,” he interrupted. “I mean, in the course of a game, I don’t know how many pitches a game can turn on, but it’s not too many. And you’d hate to miss a couple of them.”
So that’s how it’s going to be, is it? You dropped your arm on that pitch, you pivoted too early with that swing, you didn’t catch the inside of the bag as you rounded second base? Molitor the Manager plans to turn subtle slip-ups into teachable moments?
“Little mistakes left uncorrected lead to big mistakes, I firmly believe that,” Molitor said. “There’s a right way to do things, and if you don’t emphasize fundamentals, you have to play that much better to overcome it. And we don’t have that luxury.”
Pennants can be won and lost by the details, he said; championships can slip away by the smallest margin.
In Game 7 of the 1982 World Series, Milwaukee led St. Louis 3-1 in the sixth inning when the righthanded-hitting Lonnie Smith came to the plate with one out and Ozzie Smith on first base.
“[Shortstop] Robin Yount would yell when our pitcher was throwing an offspeed [pitch], so I could cheat a step toward the line,” said Molitor, who was playing third base. “But it was so loud I didn’t hear him. Lonnie hit a ball down the line, I dove, and I missed it by [four inches]. They ended up scoring three runs and beat us. ... I’m aware of how important it is to get the little things right.”
The day is almost here
The quest for perfection begins Monday in Fort Myers, Fla., when Twins pitchers and catchers perform the first drills of 2015, and Molitor has been preparing for weeks. The Twins clubhouse in Target Field is empty most of the winter, but Molitor has occupied his office nearly every day, scripting these next six weeks.
He has summoned each of his coaches to the ballpark for meetings at various times this winter; he has reached out to each of his players; and he has put his day-to-day blueprint on paper. Along with bench coach Joe Vavra, Molitor has scheduled each workout, each drill, for the next 10 days, with flexibility built in for anything that needs to be covered twice. Or three times.
Molitor has also expanded and rewritten a defensive reference book that spells out the organization’s strategy for any situation that might come up — “literally, every circumstance that you can think of, we want it spelled out what everyone’s responsibility will be,” Molitor said. He tasked Vavra with finding video clips of each play properly executed — “He really stresses that he wants us to use technology and information to get every edge we can,” Vavra said — and the Twins will distribute the playbook to all levels of the system.
Some of that game-planning will be visible to casual fans, but most will not. The Twins’ system for defending bunts will be different, Molitor said, and they will have new signals. Communication between the dugout and the players will be different as well, and Molitor intends to help his pitching staff better control the running game.
“As a base coach last year, I watched a lot of video and a lot of pitchers, and I knew who would not throw to second base. And that’s an advantage,” he said. “And we have some guys on our team, it was like they had 229 runners on second base and they threw to second base zero times. I mean, we have to do what we can to eliminate advantages.”
He’s also tried to rethink some of baseball’s longtime habits. For instance?
“We’ll cut down on some of the shagging [fly balls] that pitchers do during batting practice, with the idea that standing around in the outfield for an hour and a half isn’t the best thing they can be doing. I know Kyle Gibson thinks that stealing a home run in batting practice is the next-greatest thing to pitching a shutout, but we all remember Mariano Rivera laying [injured] on the warning track in Kansas City,” the new manager said. “There may be a potential advantage to not making them do some of those things.”
Molitor has also put time into thinking about the first full-squad day of camp Saturday, and what he will say to the team. A sheet of paper on his desk is covered with dozens of points he intends to make, though he’s been editing it, too.
“I’m not going to get crazy about that stuff, but I’ve been trying to piece together my comments for our first day. It’s important — you only have one first day,” he said. “I don’t want to give them a dissertation on every little detail of what I expect. But I’m going to paint a picture of accountability. That’s the most important message I can give them.”
‘He won’t sit on his hands’
Yount played 15 seasons with a teammate nicknamed “The Ignitor,” and has no doubt about what sort of manager the Twins have hired. Some instincts just don’t change, he said.
“Knowing the way he plays and thinks, he’ll be an aggressive manager, maybe the most aggressive manager in the game,” said Yount, a fellow Hall of Famer. “He won’t sit on his hands. He never played that way. He was a catalyst. He made things happen, and if he has the right players, I’ve got to believe that’s going to be his identity as a manager.”
Aggressive, perhaps, but probably not Gardenhire-fiery. Charging an umpire, challenging a player, it’s just not him.
“I like calm. I like consistency,” Molitor said of his reputation as a cool, calculating personality. “I’ve settled in, through the years, to a not-very-high-or-low existence. Some people say, ‘You need to be emotional for your players to play with emotion.’ I get that. But players are going to be who they are.”
As is Molitor himself.
“Paul’s demeanor was extremely consistent,” said Trebelhorn, who managed Molitor for five seasons. “He was demanding of himself, but he never got out of control. It’s a long season, and he thought playing with an even keel helped him.”
He could get angry on occasion, particularly during clubhouse card games. “We’d get in disagreements,” former teammate Jim Gantner recalled in the book “101 Things Brewer Fans Should Know.” “Paulie was always good for throwing the whole deck of cards. If he was losing, he’d throw the whole deck and say, ‘There, we’re done.’ ”
That won’t work with modern ballplayers or umpires, he knows.
“I don’t think I’ll be intimidating. I don’t think intimidation works very often,” Molitor said. “It’s not always going to be fluffy around here, but my approach is, ‘OK, this is how men talk, and we’re going to work this out.’ ”
Can he motivate and inspire players three decades younger that him? At 58, Molitor is older than all but two American League managers (Baltimore’s Buck Showalter and Kansas City’s Ned Yost), older by a year, in fact, than Gardenhire. Yount believes that will pose the biggest challenge for his old friend.
“This is a whole new generation, guys who grew up with smartphones and the Internet instead of card games in the clubhouse. ... He’s got great credentials, but I don’t know how much that matters to kids who don’t remember his playing career,” Yount said. “But his personality is probably a good fit for today’s player. He’s not a yeller and a screamer. He wants to solve problems.”
Molitor is a believer in using statistics to help him make decisions, to scout opponents, and to advise and prepare players, though “not to the extent where smoke is coming out of their helmets,” he said. “Some guys can get locked up by too much information.”
Molitor is open to platooning players to take advantage of right-left tendencies, and he’s a believer in shifting fielders, sometimes drastically. He’s not afraid to take risks, he said, but he’s willing to be patient with players in slumps. He’s an admirer of the open-minded approach and motivational techniques (like costumes on road trips and friendly wagers with players) of Cubs manager Joe Madden — but he has a different organizational model in mind.
“You watch a team like the San Antonio Spurs [of the NBA], or the New England Patriots [of the NFL], these teams somehow are able to create a team-first atmosphere,” Molitor said. “When young players arrive, it’s about ‘Do I belong, can I stay, will I make a living?’ Well, you have to teach them that if you buy in to what we’re doing collectively, if that becomes your focus, it’s going to work out for you individually, too.”
There are skeptics
Not everyone is convinced it’s going to work out for Molitor the Manager. Skeptics abounded when the Twins chose a man who has never managed at any level before, and the track record of Hall of Famers in the dugout is mostly dismal. The Boston Globe’s annual preseason managerial rankings placed Molitor dead last earlier this month, citing the difficulty of “trying to apply the things that made him great to players who will likely be inferior.”
But Molitor has his believers, too.
“If I owned a team and could choose a manager, I would choose Paul, I really would,” said Larry Hisle, a former Twins outfielder who was Molitor’s teammate in Milwaukee and his hitting coach in Toronto. “[He’s] intelligent, hard-working, and just thirsting for knowledge. He deserves as much respect as anyone I’ve ever met.”
Molitor has similar respect for his former managers Trebelhorn, Phil Garner and Cito Gaston — the latter impressive because “I never saw any game or situation get him flustered. He could always stay the course, and that gave the team great confidence.”
But if Molitor has a favorite manager, it’s probably Tom Kelly, whom he clearly hopes to emulate. When he arrived in Fort Myers for his first spring training with the Twins in 1996, Molitor was put through several practices on first-base fundamentals, even though he’d played the position for six years, and even though he was mostly to serve as a designated hitter.
“That was the first time anyone had showed me the finer points of playing the position. It had always been, ‘Go play first,’ ” Molitor said. “TK didn’t leave details like that to chance. We worked on angles, footwork, anticipation, all those things. And that’s the kind of focus I want us to have.”
Will it work? Can Molitor turn a 70-win team into a pennant contender? He’s secure enough to admit that he isn’t sure, that he doesn’t yet know what he doesn’t know. But he’s certain of one thing: He will be true to himself.
“You’ve got to set a tone for your team. You can’t be all gimmicky and catch-phrasey,” Molitor said. “Control what you can control. I have a vision of where I want to go and how we’ll get there. But it starts with: Today matters. That’s where I’m going to put my energy, figuring out every day what we’re going to do to help these people improve.”