It was after the fireworks had burst and crackled above him, after Joe Carter had thrown his arms around him and shouted in his ear, "Hey, this is for you," and after a roar went up in Toronto that would carry all the way up Yonge Street—the longest street in the world—that a great feeling of relief washed over Paul Molitor. It came in the middle of all that euphoria around home plate at the Sky-Dome last Saturday night. It hit him so fast and so hard that he wept right there on the held. "Yes," he said later, "and I'm not ashamed or embarrassed to admit that."
A journey had ended, and Molitor knew it. He had waited 16 years for a world championship, and it arrived on the lightning bolt of Carter's ninth-inning home run. To get to this point Molitor had endured, over the years, a pulled rib cage muscle, torn ligaments in an ankle and an elbow, a sprained ankle, a torn hamstring, a dislocated finger, an impinged shoulder, a fractured knuckle, a broken thumb and, worst of all, a broken heart. Only now was he whole.
"I definitely respect the game, and that's why I felt a somberness, a stillness, knowing how long I'd waited to feel that," he said. "It was everything I imagined. Days and weeks and months from now, I'm sure it will grow deeper and deeper in meaning. But right now I'm very peaceful with it. Yes, you get excited, and there's a rush of adrenaline. But there's something very peaceful about it."
The last blow belonged to Carter, but the Fall Classic belonged to Molitor. the Blue Jay designated hitter who, at 37, became the World Series MVP. It wasn't just his 12 hits in 24 at bats or his record-tying 10 runs or his 24 total bases (one short of another record) that made him so deserving. It was that at last, after 15 seasons in Milwaukee and one in Canada, the world came to know him as he has been all these years: a template of the refined ballplayer. At the start of the World Series, Blue Jay manager Cito Gaston had called him "the best-kept secret in baseball." Now the secret is out.
Molitor wants only to play the game and to play it right. When he crushed a 393-foot home run to give Toronto a 5-1 lead in Game 6, he briefly considered making a show of his exuberance. But as he rounded second base, he caught the gaze of his father in the stands and settled instead for that knowing moment of eye contact because "it's much more respectful to the opposition."
Respect for the game is what he showed when he grounded a ball to shortstop in the ninth inning of Game 3, with his team six runs ahead and the hour approaching one o'clock in the morning; he then churned his 37-year-old legs so fast that he beat the throw to first.
"I still think that's what baseball is all about," he says. "Baseball can sell itself if it is played right. You play it the same way whether it's the playoffs, the World Series or the preseason. I've had enough baseball taken away from me, so even grounding out is not that bad."
All those injuries kept Molitor out of more than 400 games from 1980 to '90. After he stayed healthy and hit .325 and .320 the next two seasons, the Blue Jays began thinking about signing him as a free agent, and Toronto president Paul Beeston and executive vice-president Pat Gillick took him to dinner last Thanksgiving eve. As they left the restaurant, Beeston turned to Gillick and said, "Is this guy as good as he seems?" But Beeston already knew the answer.
"Paul Molitor doesn't have a phony bone in his body," Beeston says. "With some guys you ask, Is he for real? and the inquiry sign goes up immediately. With that guy, no inquiry sign went up. I said, 'Let's get it done.' "
Molitor had been a fixture with the Brewers and had grown so close to their owner, Bud Selig, that Selig says Molitor is "like a son to me." Beeston is one of Selig's best friends. "I was almost hoping we didn't get him because of my relationship with Buddy," Beeston says.
The Brewers, because of what Selig called the limited resources of a small-market team, offered Molitor an $800,000 pay cut to $2.3 million for 1993, with an option for '94. Toronto offered him $13 million over three years. On Dec. 8, only hours after Carter had re-signed with the Blue Jays, Molitor, with a bit of reluctance, accepted Toronto's offer.
Still, Molitor didn't think of himself as a Blue Jay until about six weeks into the season. By June 25, when he returned to Milwaukee's County Stadium, his heartbreak had healed. He sat across from Selig in the owner's office and said, "I was the victim of the system, wasn't I?" Now Molitor realizes, "There wasn't anyone to blame."
Molitor batted .361 after the All-Star break and finished at .332, with career highs for home runs (22) and runs batted in (111). Thanks in part to the fact that the Jays used him almost entirely as a DH, he had stayed off the disabled list for a third straight season—a first for him. Over those three seasons, no one in baseball has had more hits or runs. He has cut down his swing to a nearly perfect, economical motion. He holds his hands still until the last possible moment; then, with virtually no stride, he attacks the baseball with a quick, powerful stabbing action. But it took a record six straight hits in the American League Championship Series and a .500 World Series batting average for the beauty of his swing—and his entire career—to be properly appreciated.
"That," he says, "is almost humorous to me. The things I've done this year, if you don't count my injuries, aren't a lot different than what I've done before."
There he stood at the plate in the ninth inning last Saturday night, better than ever at 37. With one out and Rickey Henderson on base, Molitor told himself, Man, you hit a two-run homer and you win the Series. But then he quickly corrected that notion and thought, No, play the percentages. Keep the rally moving.
Seated behind him, in a special box, was Selig, the acting commissioner. "It hurts, no question about it," Selig would say after the game. "I wanted nothing more than for Paul to win a world championship in Milwaukee. But I was not as emotional watching it as I thought I would be. We have to change the salary system. Something is very wrong when he wants to stay, and we want him, and he can't stay."
Molitor laced a fastball into centerfield for a single. Carter, batting next, then hit one into eternity. One of the first to congratulate Molitor in the clubhouse was Selig, who hugged him, kissed him lightly on the cheek and said, "I'm happy for you." When Selig left the clubhouse, Molitor's wife, Linda, threw her arms around the owner and shouted, "Thank you!" to the man who had made a world championship possible for her husband.
Molitor was touched that so many of his teammates "went out of their way to tell me how much it meant to them to see me win." As pitcher Al Leiter said, "We've had so much success here that people begin to think, 'When are we going to play, and who are we going to beat.' Then he comes here after all he's been through, and you see how precious winning is."
Pat Hentgen, a 24-year-old Blue Jay pitcher in his first full season in the big leagues, hugged Molitor around the neck. It was a minute until Hentgen let go. Then Hentgen sat down and wiped his eyes.
Molitor, save those few moments on the field, kept his emotions under control. He has made a career of maintaining the same emotional speed and pitch—"Like riding a merry-go-round," he said—so why lose it now? A good ballplayer always respects the game. Someone told him in the Blue Jay clubhouse that he was wanted in the interview room. Molitor headed toward the door with a bottle of champagne in one hand and a can of beer in the other. Suddenly he stopped. "I better not take these with me," he said. "It might not look too good." He bent and placed them underneath a desk and then walked out, a world champion.
The MVP trophy made a big hit with Molitor, the big-hit man.
Donning a glove was alien to the Blue Jays' DH, but he was flawless afield at two positions.
After 15 years in Milwaukee, Molitor was warmly embraced by the fans in Toronto.