Paul Molitor has finished third in the voting for American League Manager of the Year, presided over one of the worst seasons in franchise history, and exceeded expectations in the first two months of his third season.
There is a saying around the batting cage uttered when one player, on consecutive swings, hits a tape-measure home run, then a nubber that doesn’t leave the dirt: Same guy. Same guy hit both.
Molitor has elicited praise and criticism in what he hoped would be his dream job. Same guy.
He has been the same guy in terms of strategy, and the same guy in personality. The standings determine how the masses feel about him.
Win in 2015? Great leader. Lose in 2016? Not vocal enough. Exceed expectations before a four-game losing streak deflated them? Should have made different moves.
What we have really learned during Molitor’s tenure is a lesson we should have learned from his predecessors, Tom Kelly and Ron Gardenhire. Managers affect atmosphere more than results. A good manager can steal a game every other month or so; a bad manager can destroy the faith of a clubhouse.
Kelly won two World Series in five years, and managed eight consecutive teams with losing records. Gardenhire oversaw a decade of success and the descent into this decade’s morass.
Same guy. Same guy.
“There have been peaks and valleys, there’s no question about that,” Molitor said this past weekend during a conversation in his office. “Last year was as tough a year to go through that I’ve experienced, in whatever role I’ve had a chance to serve in. I don’t know.
“This year, there’s a little more excitement and confidence and I feel like I need to be the one to bring it back, to pull in the reigns, just a tad.
“I don’t want to stop it, but I want to keep perspective so the guys figure out how to show up every day ready to play. I had ups and downs as a player, but in a short tenure in this role … well, I haven’t seen the top yet. I’ve seen the bottom and I prefer the upside, for sure.”
Molitor said this before the Twins lost four in a row, back when they were 26-18 and one of baseball’s best stories.
“People asked me before this season started, ‘Are you still enjoying it?’ ” Molitor said. “The fun part is when you have something out there, a goal, that you know is potentially obtainable. That’s motivational, it’s challenging, and when you start to get a little reward on the kickback part of it with the team playing better, it feels good.
“I’ve felt them both, the highs and the lows. I try to temper the highs a little more. The lows are tougher to deal with. During the highs, I can stay pretty steady. The lows … it was tough last year.”
Molitor has heard the criticism that he remained too passive during the losing.
“You talk pregame, you talk postgame, you have another terrible game,” Molitor said. “How do you go up there and not be more emotional? Well, I don’t feel that’s really beneficial. Unless your team isn’t giving enough effort, and that wasn’t the problem last year.”
The same guy that became the rare Hall of Famer to manage a big-league team in his home state, and is in the last year of his contract, is the same guy who has to worry about his future as well as his next bullpen decision.
“I never even think about that until someone asks me,” he said. “I’m open-minded about being here past this year, for sure. But I don’t worry about whether that’s going to happen or not.”
Does he feel like a player in a contract year? “Not really,” he said. “It’s a different situation.”
That’s because managers have far less control than players. Kelly and Gardenhire proved that. Molitor is merely the latest Twins manager to be buffeted by circumstances beyond his control.