Career Move

After 15 notable, if unnoticed, years in Milwaukee, Paul Molitor steps up to the large-market advantages of Toronto
March 29, 1993

While giving directions to Milwaukee—go to Chicago, head north, keep going until you see PABST on all the billboards—Paul Molitor struggles to describe the destination. "There won't be much of a skyline," he says. He thinks about it. In fact, he decides, a visitor might not notice much of anything and could easily sail right past Milwaukee and on to Sheboygan. "Milwaukee's not so much a city," he says, finally, "as it is a more popular place."

Now before Rand McNally decides on a new map symbol for Milwaukee (capital, city, county seat, town, more popular place—size of type indicates relative ability to pay its baseball players), the map people should keep in mind that, as of this spring, Milwaukee is a slightly less popular place than it has been for 15 years. Molitor, who claims never to have eaten a bratwurst but who was still embraced by the city like no other Brewer since Laverne (or Shirley, your pick), has left for Toronto and the Blue Jays.

It's almost unbelievable. Of course, not even Babe Ruth finished out his career with the New York Yankees, and in these days of free agency, baseball careers are as portable as a Pocket Fisherman. But the idea of Molitor, a rare year-round-resident ballplayer who was involved in almost every possible civic cause, leaving Milwaukee for Toronto is shocking. Fifteen years in one place! In a decade and a half, he has been one of the city's most reliable landmarks—go to Chicago, head north, keep going until you see a hard-running, enormously underappreciated .300 hitter, who happens to be the most likable and agreeable man you'll ever meet. For 15 years he has been the dear that made Milwaukee famous.

But enough money, say $13 million spread over three seasons, changes everything. The Brewers claim, as all small-market teams do these days, that they are a struggling franchise, and they didn't come close to Toronto's offer for somebody who, face it, is getting a little long in the tooth and has been reduced to a designated hitter role. And Molitor, 36, who was heading for salary arbitration with Milwaukee, could hardly afford to reject Toronto's interest in the last productive years of his career. Brewer fans, knowing all this, don't know whom to cast as the villain. "Reaction has been all over the place," admits team president Bud Selig. About all that can be said for sure (and Molitor says it) is that leaving the Brewers is "very disappointing."

The break is profoundly disturbing to both Molitor and what's left of the old Brewers. Sitting in the den of his huge home, now for sale, just north of Milwaukee one recent winter day, Molitor seemed more upset about leaving Milwaukee than he was excited about joining a world-champion team. "This goes beyond putting on a new uniform," he said. "These last few months I've been dealing a lot with what's behind me, instead of where I'm going."

So what is left of the old Brewers? Really, only Robin Yount, who was Molitor's teammate throughout his Milwaukee career, remains. "I've been coming to spring training for 15 years knowing he would be here." Yount said upon arriving at the Brewer camp in Chandler, Ariz., last month. "I've just been taking it for granted. But with this system...well, he's just not here, is he?" The lesson: Nothing is forever—except perhaps Yount, who's in his 19th season with the Brewers.

Maybe now, though, as he finds his way out of Milwaukee, Molitor can find his way to fame. Certainly he deserves more than he has received. "It's that small-market thing," says Pat Gillick, the Toronto general manager. Selig agrees, saying. "Even Hank Aaron was underappreciated in Milwaukee." How many people realize that Molitor averaged .303 over 15 seasons, was a terrific fielder (he has played all the infield positions plus the outfield) and could steal 40 bases a year? Apparently, not enough.

He has been so low profile that he has never earned a nickname. Well, there was the Ignitor, for the way he started rallies, getting on base ahead of those muscle-men known as Harvey's Wallbangers in the early 1980s. "But," says Molitor, "aside from its not even being spelled right, it's a terrible nickname. I never once entered a room and my friends said, 'Hey, it's the Ignitor!' " He has been so low profile that even when he admitted to using cocaine in 1981, he was unable to cast off his image as the apple-cheeked all-American boy. (The continued involvement by Molitor and his wife, Linda, in projects that raise funds to fight AIDS and children's cancer has long since wiped his slate clean in the public's mind.) But, right or wrong, he couldn't make an impression outside of Milwaukee.

"He's baseball's secret," says Milwaukee manager Phil Garner. "Playing in Milwaukee, he's a borderline Hall of Fame selection. Had he played in any of the three biggest markets—New York, Chicago, Los Angeles—he would be the highest-paid player in baseball. There's nothing he can't do. And he's a good guy. He's the kind of guy you want to pay the money to."

Molitor has long understood that playing in Milwaukee has denied him the attention and money that, say, Don Mattingly got in New York. But he appreciates the trade-off. "I like the slower pace of Milwaukee,*' he says. "A guy plays here awhile, he's not going to get booed during a slump as long as he runs balls out. There may be a downside to playing in Milwaukee, but, to me. it's been a very comfortable place to play and live."

Molitor is a Midwest guy, through and through, growing up in the Minneapolis area and then traveling, in pursuit of his life's work, all the way to Milwaukee. This is a guy who values modesty, privacy and restraint in all areas outside the ballpark. And yet his wry intelligence could have played to a bigger audience than it has.

Speaking of his new digs in Toronto, he says he probably won't hole up in the SkyDome Hotel, where new teammate Roberto Alomar actually lives, though it would be convenient. "He's got his own elevator so he can get up and down to his room without going through the front," Molitor says, straight-faced. "They're actually renaming it the Alomar Hotel." The curse of his wholesomeness is that his every exaggeration goes unexamined. He is taken so seriously that he sometimes finds it necessary to wink. As in, "Hey, I was kidding."

Still, there is a what-if quality to his career. What if he had played in a major media market? What if he hadn't missed so many games because of injuries? What if the Brewers had gotten more postseason exposure than that one World Series in 1982? What if in hitting safely in 39 straight games in 1987 he had kept the streak alive and surpassed Pete Rose's 44-game feat, which was played out in a media blitz nine years earlier? "It could be fun to think about," Molitor says, "but so far, I just haven't."

Of all the factors that have prevented his taking a more prominent place among baseball's elite, the most important is probably number of games missed. Coming to his story late in his career, after he had played 158 games each of the past two seasons, some fans might be hard-pressed to remember how often he had been injured in the past. From 1977 until '88 there were only two seasons in which he played in more than 140 games. Until two years ago his career was chronicled in calamity.

Most of the injuries were commonplace, unusual only in their frequent occurrence. In 1980 he went on the disabled list for the first time, with a pulled ribcage muscle. In '81 he needed surgery to repair torn ligaments in his left ankle and played in only 64 games. That was the year he briefly—and without legal consequence—dabbled in drugs during his downtime, a mistake he admitted to three years later (after a drug dealer testified in federal court that he had sold cocaine to five Milwaukee Brewers, including Molitor) and is still maddeningly confessional about. In 1984 he had surgery on his right elbow and missed all but 13 games. For three seasons after that he was hampered by hamstring injuries. Still, in '87 he batted .353, had that 39-game hitting streak and stole 45 bases.

"Without all that downtime," says Yount, "his numbers would have been in the top one percent. But nobody had more bad breaks than he had. Freakish things." In 1990 Molitor broke a knuckle when he caught his left index finger in the opposing first baseman's glove while trying to run out a grounder; he missed about 40 games. But never mind what those missed games meant to Molitor. It's interesting to note that the year in which he played 160 games, '82, Milwaukee won its only pennant.

Molitor has been injury prone since he was a kid. "I've run out of ways to explain it." he says. Growing up, he guesses, he had about 10 broken bones, everything from an arm (by falling out of a tree at age eight) to a jaw (while playing baseball at the University of Minnesota). In his earlier days with the Brewers he might have played recklessly, but it wasn't as though he were suicidal.

As far as Molitor is concerned, his medical history deserves nothing more than a shrug—500 games down the tube. Certainly it wasn't a basis for predicting the six seasons he has had since 1987 (he has hit over .300 in five of them), years most decidedly after his prime. The last two, during which he hit .325 and .320 with career highs of 75 and 89 RBIs, have been the most productive of his life. A lot of folks think that's because over the last two years he has gradually given up playing the infield. His right arm has not been the same since his elbow surgery in '84, and he has been allowed the luxury of performing almost exclusively as a designated hitter. (He'll DH and play some first base for the Blue Jays and will presumably profit from their speed-oriented park.) But Molitor believes that even as he enters his late 30's, his hitting is improving. "I put in a lot of time talking to coaches, watching other hitters," he says. "I feel I'm a much better hitter than I was five years ago."

That Molitor does not take his hitting for granted might surprise some. But when you've had a season go down the drain because you tangled a finger in somebody else's glove, you learn to appreciate more fully the games you do get to play. "Getting older is part of it, too," he says. "When I was much younger and we were in the World Series—really, my greatest memories in baseball, that season—I thought surely there'd be lots more like it. There weren't. Even my hitting streak, it didn't seem that big a deal at the time. But now I'm still thinking about pitches I missed in that 40th game. Still, it was quite a joy-ride. I never take for granted putting that uniform on."

No longer will it be a Brewer uniform, though. That will be strange. "I remember the first day I came to Milwaukee County Stadium, in 1977," he says. "The Brewers had just drafted me as an infielder, and they invited me to the park—really rolled out the red carpet for me. I've still got a picture of myself sitting on the bench. My coat and tie are way too big. I'm totally geekish. And I'm sitting in the dugout with Robin, who was in uniform. He may have been 21 or 22, but he'd already had something like four full seasons. I called him Mr. Yount, I remember that. And Sal Bando threw Robin an outfielder's glove and said, 'Well, I guess this will be your last year at shortstop, kid.' All I wanted was to get out of there."

But after playing just 64 games in the minors, he was back in County Stadium to stay. For 15 seasons Molitor and Yount and infielder Jimmy Gantner were partners on the Brewers. None of them had much in common beyond their long tenure, yet they were unusually close during the season. Their relationship may be emblematic of Molitor's relationship with Milwaukee: a result of circumstances but, after 15 years of teamwork, increasingly heartfelt. Now everything has changed, disrupted by the economics of baseball.

As the 1993 season begins, with Molitor gone and Gantner's playing career ended by shoulder surgery last season, only Yount is left, playing with a bunch of kids. In a way, the thought of his old friend, suddenly alone, is what haunts Molitor most about his move to Toronto. "Robin just doesn't know a lot of guys on the team," Molitor says, "and I worry about that. I mean, who's he going to eat breakfast with on the road?"

For his part, Molitor has yet to make the kind of breakfast buddy he used to enjoy. Through three weeks of spring training at the Blue Jay camp in Dunedin, Fla., he remains a little apart from the team. He fits in; everybody likes him. "I guess if they get on you in the clubhouse you're doing all right." he says. But at times he catches himself wondering what the guys are doing in Arizona. It could all pass. But, for now, it seems that Molitor, after 15 years in Milwaukee, ought to be a lot happier than he is.

PHOTOBUCK MILLERWith mixed emotions, Molitor packed his new uniform into an old bag for spring training. PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONMolitor, Yount (19) and Gartner were together for 15 years. PHOTOJOHN IACONOMolitor was a blur in '87, batting .353 with a 39-game hitting streak and 45 stolen bases.
PHOTORONALD C. MODRAHours in the cage have made Molitor a .303 lifetime hitter.
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)