MORE THAN HALFWAY THERE

Milwaukee's Paul Molitor stretched his hitting streak to 31 games but has far to go to catch Joe DiMaggio
August 23, 1987

A hitting streak, like a hothouse flower, is a fragile thing. It needs the heat of a torrid bat and the sunshine of good fortune to survive. The icy bite of a single unhittable fastball or just one superlative catch will cut it in an instant.' As of Sunday, Paul Molitor, the designated hitter of the Brewers, had his streak alive and flourishing at 31 games, matching Ken Landreaux's 1980 string as the longest of the decade. Pete Rose's 44-game streak of 1978 was barely coming into sight; Joe DiMaggio's 56 was still far beyond the horizon.

It has, of course, been a streaky year for the Brewers. They opened the season with 13 straight wins and shortly thereafter lost 12 straight. Molitor hit .370 during the winning streak and suffered a hamstring pull just before the losing started. It is no small coincidence that Molitor's hitting streak has corresponded with a bit of a Brewer renaissance. Last week the team moved within 8½ games of the Blue Jays in the American League East. Overall, the Brewers are 47-26 with Molitor in the lineup, 14-30 without him. No wonder they call him the Ignitor.

The righthand-hitting Molitor is a rock of discipline at the plate. His ritual never varies. As he moves from the on-deck circle to the batter's box, he carefully tightens the Velcro straps on the black batting gloves he wears on both hands. Stepping in, he kicks at the dirt to prepare a toehold for his back foot. Then he smooths out the front of the box, removing all vestiges of previous occupancy. The box belongs to him. He takes a quick step out for one, and only one, practice swing; then he is ready to hit. As the pitcher winds up, Molitor stands almost stock-still, his six-foot, 175-pound body bent forward slightly at the waist. His bat almost rests on his shoulder. The only signs of intensity are his hands, gripping and ungripping the bat as he prepares to unleash his swing.

Molitor's streak began on July 16—the day he returned for the second time from the disabled list—with a ho-hum 1-for-4 performance against California. (Who thought DiMaggio's 1-for-4 day against the White Sox on May 15, 1941, was a big deal?) It took awhile, but as the hits began piling up, Molitor and his teammates soon sensed that something special was happening. "I once had a 17-game streak," says Molitor. "When I got to 15 or 16 this time, I realized I had a chance to better that. Then the next big number was the team record [Dave May's 24-game streak in 1973]. A lot of the pressure went after I passed that."

And what about the magic numbers that lie ahead? Rose's 44? DiMaggio's 56? "It still seems like a fantasy to catch a streak like Rose's," says Molitor. "If you're realistic, you realize that each day your chances of it continuing are less and less. I try not to look past one day at a time. It's fun to think of those things, but one of these days it'll be over."

One of those days could have been last Thursday in Baltimore, when Molitor came up in the ninth inning without a hit for the third time in the streak. Suddenly, with the count 1 and 0, he ripped one of Tom Niedenfuer's fast-balls far over the leftfield fence. "I had been struggling in that game," Molitor says. "I'd swung the bat more like a guy with a 27-game hitless streak." A seventh-inning single on Friday, a first-inning bloop single on Saturday and a third-inning double on Sunday put the streak at 31 and counting.

Molitor's accomplishment was remarkable not only for the quantity of hits (53 in 129 at bats for a .411 average) but also for their quality. The streak included 6 homers, 26 RBIs, 34 runs scored and 15 stolen bases (his 29 overall is fifth best in the league). Unfortunately his recurring injuries have so far kept him from getting enough at bats to place his gaudy .363 average among the official league leaders. If he can stay healthy the rest of the season, he may yet press Wade Boggs (.371) for the league batting title.

But given Molitor's nearly continuous outpatient status, such a scenario is unlikely. Only three of Molitor's 10 major league seasons have been injury free. In the last four seasons alone, he has spent more than 200 games on the disabled list. He has injured his ribs, elbows, wrists, ankles and hamstrings. He has had pulls, tears and sprains.

What accounts for this affinity for affliction? Mostly it's the aggressive way Molitor plays the game. As one of baseball's best leadoff men, he makes good things happen for his team by doing bad things to himself—sliding, diving, charging hard every time he heads down a baseline. "Whenever he does something, you just hope he gets up," said outfielder Rob Deer after the Brewers' 6-2 win over the Orioles on Friday. "You can look at his knees right now. He's got strawberries all over them. It's always that way." Because manager Tom Trebelhorn wants Molitor's bat in the lineup every day, the manager now uses him exclusively at DH, aware that Molitor is unable to play with his throttle in any position but full-speed ahead.

In the early years of his career, that selfless quality of play, along with his soft-spoken manner, his dark good looks and his storybook childhood—he was one of eight children in an apple-pie family in St. Paul—made Molitor one of baseball's most overtly virtuous stars. The image was shattered when, during the 1984 trial of a Milwaukee cocaine dealer, Molitor was discovered to have been a customer of the accused. Caught completely by surprise, Molitor refused to respond to reporters' questions at the time. Later he admitted openly that he had indeed used the drug. "In '81 I was injured and not traveling," he says. "I used bad judgment a few times. It's all very much in the past."

Now Molitor is considered a wholesome role model once more, admired by fans and fellow players alike. "Hey," says Deer. "I feel if I can get a five-or six-game hitting streak, it's awesome. You have to tip your hat to him. Early in the season he went through some frustrating times. If he's had any luck at all, it's been bad. He deserves this."

PHOTOJOHN BIEVER PHOTOJERRY WACHTERMolitor stood safely at second after a double kept the streak alive in Baltimore on Sunday.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)