Tuesday, January 6, 2004
Glory days for Molitor
By Jim Caple
Paul Molitor is an enormous Springsteen fan (he spent part of his first year in retirement following the Boss on his 1999 European tour) and I only hope that Bruce has Cooperstown on his 2004 tour schedule. Nothing could be more fitting than to have Springsteen playing when Molly receives the Hall of Fame plaque he so richly deserves this July.
"I guess when you talk about Springsteen lyrics, the theme of 'Glory Days' is the older you get the better you were,'' Molitor said. "So I guess that would be appropriate to play. I'll be able to exaggerate as well as anybody.''
He won't have to exaggerate much. I don't know what words will be on Molitor's plaque, but here's a suggestion: "A terrific, clutch hitter, a versatile fielder, a runner as swift as bad news and the smartest, most fundamentally sound player of his era.''
Some consider Molitor to be the first designated hitter elected to the Hall of Fame, but that's neither fair nor accurate. While he was more or less a full-time DH his final eight seasons, he was an excellent fielder for much of his career, so versatile that he earned All-Star selections at three positions -- second base, third base and first base. He broke into the majors as a shortstop (while teammate Robin Yount was holding out and threatening to join the golf tour) and was the eighth player in major league history to play at least 50 games at each infield position as well as 50 in the outfield.
"It's easy for people to put the DH label on me. I did it for a lot of games and at-bats. But it wasn't always at my choice,'' Molitor said. "The Brewers were the first to put me there to protect me from injury. It wasn't that I was incapable of playing defense -- the fact that I played seven positions shows I was more than capable -- and I enjoyed playing in the field.''
Unlike the typical DH, Molitor could run like the wind. "Baseball America'' ranked him as the best baserunner in the league -- when he was 40 years old. He once stole three bases in an inning. He stole third base 10 times (without being caught once) one season. He stole 40-plus bases in different four seasons. He and Willie Mays are the only players in major league history to hit at least 200 home runs, steal at least 300 bases and retire with a .300-plus batting average. Molitor is the only one to steal 500 bases, hit 200 home runs and reach the 3,000-hit mark (he is ninth all-time with 3,319 hits).
We can only wonder what marks he might have reached had he not missed nearly three entire seasons to injury.
Molitor was hidden in Milwaukee and overshadowed by Yount much of his career, but his peers always knew how good he was. Ted Williams once said he enjoyed watching Molitor bat more than any other player. He also was the overwhelming choice of managers when they were asked a decade ago who they would most want at the plate in the ninth inning with the game on the line. A spectacular hitter in the clutch, Molitor holds the record for most hits in a World Series game (five in Game 1 of the 1982 Series), hit .500 to earn MVP honors in the 1993 Series and finished with a .368 postseason average.
He was dangerous even when he was just standing in the field. Molitor was notorious for swiping signs whenever he got to second base.
"(I'd like to be remembered) as a guy who understood the game more than just a guy who hit homers and had a lot of RBI,'' Molitor said. "A guy who understood the nuances of the game, who knew about baserunning and was always looking for an edge that could help the team.''
The unfortunate thing about Molitor's selection is that even now, he is being crowded from the headlines by Pete Rose, the rat who took 14 years to admit that in addition to betting on baseball, he is a liar.
"I'm a little disappointed in the timing of it,'' Molitor acknowledged. "I'm sure Pete has his reasons for doing it now, what with the timing of his book, but does it take away from the current class and what the Hall does? In my mind, it does a little bit.''
Well, it shouldn't. And we don't need to let it. We can talk about Rose another day (and unfortunately, we will). Today is the day to celebrate the career of a player who was as sweet and dependable as a Springsteen concert.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.