07/24/2004 5:15 PM ET
Bauman: Molitor's modesty evident
Hall of Famer continues to downplay achievements
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Election to the Baseball Hall of Fame has not cracked Paul Molitor's lifetime pattern of not letting his achievements get in the way of his modesty.
|Paul Molitor reflected on his career Saturday during a Hall of Fame media session. (Jim McKnight/AP)
Saturday, one day before his induction into the Hall, Molitor, along with fellow inductee Dennis Eckersley, was at Cooperstown High School, answering questions from the assembled scribes. And in describing his feelings about the election, Molitor had a typical, unscripted Molly moment. He considered some of the names on the ballot, players who did not receive enough votes to reach the Hall and said:
"Not to be overly humble or anything, but these guys were a lot better players than I was for a given period of time." He mentioned specifically Jim Rice and Ryne Sandberg in that context. This from a man who is eighth on the all-time hits list. This from a man who was always seen by teammates and opponents alike as somebody who played the game the "right way," with heart and mind, every time out. This from a man of whom Eckersley said: "I didn't want to face him. I didn't feel comfortable facing him. I didn't know how to get him out."
Molitor as a player was always sought out by reporters and not simply because he was so often the star of a given game. He was routinely thoughtful and articulate on baseball issues, general or specific. When the topic came to his own considerable merits, though, he was typically much more reticent.
So after the media session Saturday, the question lingered: All due modesty aside, isn't it tougher to remain humble while you are receiving the highest individual honor that baseball can bestow? As always, Molitor weighed the question carefully, answered honestly, answered in good humor. He acknowledged along the way that he had played "pretty well," but he left the high school auditorium with his modesty still intact.
"When you're around this environment and you hear what people have to say, you realize that all that stuff really happened," he said smiling, about his career. "They don't really make it up.
"But it's one of those things that it's hard to take a lot of credit for other than the fact that you worked your butt off and tried not to leave with anything left when you walked away from it.
"But humility is a good thing, you know. The things that we try to take credit for when there's giftedness involved, I just don't get that, I guess. But you've got to go out there and do it, and yes, I do realize that I played pretty well, I did some good things. I was entertaining. I liked my craft. I took pride in studying pitchers and getting good jumps and being able to bunt."
Typically, while baseball writers around the country were suggesting that Molitor was a virtual lock to become a first-ballot Hall of Famer, Molitor was the last man to jump on his own bandwagon.
Part of this was a reaction to the way his career went. He lost the equivalent of more than three full seasons to injuries during the early stages of his career, with the Milwaukee Brewers. So a Hall of Fame watershed mark, such as 3,000 hits, seemed truly distant. But with advancing age, his hitting talents grew rather than diminished. And, remarkably, he became much healthier.
"For a long time, 3,000 hits was not much of a reality because of the games missed," he says now. "Even in my third year in Toronto (1995) I was 38 or 39 and hitting .240 in June and thinking that I was done. So it wasn't a matter of 'I'm done, I'm not going to the Hall of Fame.' It wasn't even on the back burner.
"But I finished the second half strongly, and I got a chance to go back to Minnesota. And the 3,000 hits became more of a possibility then. At least history tells you that is something that opens the door.
"But I don't know of many players who include in their Major League aspirations going to Cooperstown. Barry Bonds, I read one time, said that he thought that he was going to be a Hall of Fame player before he even got to Arizona State. And he was right, that's not really a negative. But I just don't think that it's a thing that a lot of people give a lot of thought to, until things start to fall into place over a long period of time.
"And when you take off the uniform for the last time, and the Hall of Fame becomes in some peoples' minds a matter of time, you still have your apprehensions. You have an innate sense of protecting yourself from the vulnerability of it not happening. Whether it was the DH question or who knows what, I was one to hang onto the possibility if not in the long run, maybe not in the short term.
"You don't think about it and the years go by and all of a sudden you're within the calendar year, and then you're down to months and weeks and days and naturally anxiety builds and the expectation builds. And you hold onto that reservation just to ensure against the letdown that you saw other people experience who thought that call was coming."
But now, Paul Molitor is about to become a peer of the baseball realm, about to officially join the greats of the game.
"I'm still a little intimidated around some of them, but in a good way," he said. "Who stands out in that fashion? I think Willie Mays is one, for me, that is just a larger than life person. When I had a chance to talk to him I found myself having a little trouble getting the words out."
The Hall of Fame is a singular honor, but inside that, for Molitor, there will be the honor of joining Robin Yount, for 15 years his teammate and friend in Milwaukee.
"I'm definitely going to talk a little bit about Robin tomorrow," Molitor said of his induction speech. "Just the fact of what I learned from him, being around him, watching him go about his business, how he handled himself, how he prepared himself, how he dealt with injuries. Naturally to follow him, with the Brewers hat on the plaque, there will be two of us representing that organization in the Hall and it doesn't get much better than that."
At the end Saturday, Molitor couldn't resist one last bit of self-deprecation. To the question of what comes next in life after the Hall of Fame induction, Molitor helpfully noted that he was the hitting coach of the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners, including the hitters, have been so disappointing that they are in the process of being disassembled and rebuilt.
"I've really got our team raking this year," Molitor said, and the crowd roared in appreciation.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.