No umpire was harmed in the playing of this Twins season.
No bat racks have been overturned, no holes have been punched in office walls, no dugout phones have been smashed to bits. To a man, the Twins say barely a voice has been raised.
“I’m not a food thrower,” Paul Molitor said. “I’m not a tantrum guy.”
But don’t be fooled. At 59, the Twins’ manager may appear stoic and detached. Yet he feels the sting of every loss amid the worst Twins season in more than three decades.
“I’ve been disappointed fairly deeply by the fact that we have to play under these circumstances for the remainder of the season,” he said. “You look at the standings, you hear the jokes, you understand what people are saying. I try not to take it too personally.”
He tries, in fact, to remain the same person today, at the helm of the American League’s worst team, as he was one year ago, when he was applauded for leading his hometown club to the brink of a playoff berth as a rookie manager. If the stress of losing is taking a toll, the damage is entirely internal, because Molitor betrays virtually none of it, save for the occasional sarcastic remark about “our plight.”
“I’m handling it OK, I think,” he said.
That’s not to say he’s oblivious to it, of course.
“I don’t like it when I find myself talking under my breath about a player to myself. Which, yeah, I do,” he said. “I try to remember as a young player just how little I knew.”
Isn’t that steady calm, in a role that sometimes generates cartoonish displays of temper, in a season of steady and innumerable calamities, a little … weird?
“No, I wouldn’t say it’s weird at all. It’s just who he is,” said General Manager Terry Ryan, Molitor’s boss and occasional confidante. “I’ve never seen him go off. That’s not his personality, and if he did, there would be a phoniness about it that would undercut whatever he was trying to accomplish.”
That’s important to Ryan and his team, because what Molitor is trying to accomplish now is the resurrection of a season that was left for road kill back during its seven-win April. No, the Twins aren’t going to the playoffs, their stated preseason goal, and even avoiding the franchise’s second 100-loss season in history will require a significant turnaround. But already it’s become clear that 2016 won’t be a total waste if it is used as immersive development for the team’s under-25 corps of prospects.
And for that, Ryan asserts, Molitor is an ideal counselor.
“He’s a positive guy. He’s a guy who tries to correct things, to explain the right way to do things without berating a player, embarrassing a player,” Ryan said. “This hasn’t been easy for him — I can see it on his face. He’s watched some mistakes that are very difficult to accept, and he tries to correct them. But it’s constructive.”
Doesn’t shy away
Molitor is a constant presence in his team’s clubhouse, not one to hole up in his office and stew over his players’ gaffes. He pulls aside players for discussions about their decisions on the field, for explanations of his decisions off it, for correcting their missteps and suggesting drills and workouts that might help.
“You see some things that are repeated,” Molitor said. “It bothers me if it’s a focus issue, rather than just guys trying to figure out some things up here.”
Sometimes those dialogues are best left private, so Molitor has called players into his office, sometimes just to chat about the team’s often-fragile state.
“We’ve had numerous talks this year. It’s a serious matter to him, that we haven’t played the way we expected, and he seems energized by the challenge of changing that,” said second baseman Brian Dozier. “At the same time, he’s a mellow guy. He doesn’t like getting too high or too low.”
Molitor doesn’t hide from the issues that fans see: throwing to wrong bases, taking unnecessary risks on the bases, swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. He just tries not to speak out of anger.
“I don’t think I’ve fallen short in terms of calling people out one-on-one, but when I talk to them, I try to mix in positivity with the negative,” Molitor said. “Being tough and being angry are two different things.”
The manager has called a number of team meetings this season, Dozier said, “but it’s not like a ‘Rudy’ speech,” referring to the inspirational movie, “where he’s climbing on a chair or screaming. He understands there are times to criticize what you’re doing and times to encourage you, and he does a good job of balancing that.”
It’s not a job you can escape from very often, not with another game every day. You can’t dwell on yesterday’s failure, because another first pitch is always just hours away.
“Sometimes I don’t sleep at night, and I know he’s the same way,” said bullpen coach Eddie Guardado.
How does Molitor cope with four losses a week? He tries to take a walk every day on the road. He brings his youngest children, 12-year-old Julia and 9-year-old Ben, to Target Field when he can. He also values his solitude.
“I rarely step outside of the hotel except for my walks. I don’t go out to dinner much. I enjoy the time alone in my room, I enjoy reading, I enjoy being able just to decompress,” he said. “You learn how to use your time after a game to refuel yourself.”
Ryan has no plans to change his leader in the dugout, and owner Jim Pohlad told the Star Tribune last week that Molitor will return in 2017.
“I think he’s doing a great job. Does that sound stupid to say, since we have the worst record in baseball?” Pohlad said. “But there’s nothing to indicate to me, or anything I’ve heard, that anything has changed on the bench from last year.”
No, but plenty has changed in the lineup, and on the pitching staff. The Twins have used an astonishing 42 players already this season, or six more than all of last year. Some 23 pitchers have taken the mound for Minnesota in just three months, one shy of the franchise record. Heck, Molitor has even had to deal with turmoil on his coaching staff; pitching coach Neil Allen was suspended for six weeks after an arrest for alleged drunken driving.
Molitor used 75 different starting lineups over the team’s first 85 games, and hasn’t used any batting order more than three times all year. He has been flexible enough to expand Eduardo Nunez’s utility role into a full-time starting job, to back away from the decision to move Miguel Sano to the outfield when it became apparent it wasn’t working, and to allow Robbie Grossman to win regular playing time. He found a new closer in Brandon Kintzler — “He’s a great story,” Molitor said — and made over a bullpen that includes only four pitchers who opened the season with the team.
“He’s had to scramble for answers, and he’s trying to balance developing young guys while still trying to win games,” said Roy Smalley, a Twins broadcaster and friend of the manager. “It’s not easy — people think, ‘What’s one more loss?’ but that’s not fair to these guys. You have to manage for now, in some respects, not just the future.”
Molitor said he is genuinely looking forward to the season’s second half, and to watching players like Max Kepler and Byron Buxton improve.
“It’s going to be fun seeing who responds,” he said, “It’s fun when you see the joy, you see how they start to change as they figure things out. If you feel even a small iota of contribution, that’s good. It’s part of the reward of teaching.”
Fun? This season? From the right perspective, absolutely.
“You sit on the top dugout step, you look around and remember where you are. I’ve had to do that a few times this year, remind myself that this is good,” he said. “It’s not always going to go the way you want to. But this is what I wanted to do, and I’m in it. I’m in Major League Baseball and I’m running a team.
‘‘And yeah, it is good.”