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Mike Downey

Molitor's Feat Is Just in Playing

August 19, 1987|Mike Downey

The amazing thing about Paul Molitor's recent bat-o-rama is not that he has hit in 33 straight games but that he has played in 33 straight games.

It gives him the longest hitting streak of the decade, topping Ken Landreaux's mark of 31, and sends him off tip-toeing through a mine field toward Pete Rose and Joe DiMaggio territory. "How DiMaggio ever hit in 56 straight games is beyond me," Molitor said.

Yes, it is.

But at least Molitor, a nice guy who deserves to finish first, has had the satisfaction of staying in the lineup and showing what he can do over an extended period of time.

Because, frankly, 30 or more games is an extended period of time for Paul Molitor.

He has, as George Brett has, developed a reputation for being fragile. That is a naughty word in the sports world, and a lousy break. Those who know Molitor don't call him fragile. They call him unlucky.

If this guy ever stuck around for a couple of full seasons, we might see what a real leadoff hitter can do, a prototype leadoff man who can run, bunt, hit and hit with power. This is an explosive player we're talking about here, a Molitor cocktail.

We also might see more seasons like 1982, when an uninjured Molitor became the first man to get five hits in a World Series game, and carried the Milwaukee Brewers to the brink of a championship before the St. Louis Cardinals rallied to win the seventh game, 6-3.

That was a nice, long, uninterrupted year for Molitor.

"When you're young and strong and healthy, you think every year is going to be like that," he said. "You feel like you can take on the world. It never occurs to you that different parts of your body might let you down. You feel like you could play forever."

Longest hitting streak of the decade? Let us brave a look at the Paul Molitor decade, remembering all the while that the one year he stayed in one piece, his team was the best in baseball until the sixth inning of the 174th game.

Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy career.

Molitor was voted to the American League's starting lineup for the 1980 All-Star Game but had to excuse himself. A pulled chest muscle forced the Milwaukee infielder to miss almost a full month of play, from June 24 to July 18.

In 1981, Molitor tore ligaments in his left ankle May 3 and was on the disabled list until July 12.

In 1983, a wrist injury bothered him all season, and his batting average, hit and RBI totals fell way off from the year before.

In 1984, Molitor hurt his right elbow in spring training, played 13 games before undergoing surgery May 21, and never came back.

In 1985, Molitor made the All-Stars again, but spent Aug. 13-29 on the disabled list with a sprained ankle.

In 1986, Molitor hurt his hamstring, was put on the disabled list from May 10-30, hurt it again three days later, and returned to the disabled list from June 2-17.

Even this season, after the Brewers got off to an eye-popping 13-0 start, they went out of the picture as soon as Molitor did. When their third baseman got hurt again, the Brew Crew turned blue. Rarely has a front-runner disappeared so fast.

"It was disappointing, not so much for me personally, but in the sense that we might have stayed in the thick of the race all season long," Molitor said. "Nobody ran away with the division this year, so, with a little luck, we could have been right up there with Toronto and the Yankees and Detroit, slugging it out. We're not that far back now.

"I don't care so much for me, although it is frustrating. Personal achievements are nice, just like this hitting streak is nice, but what really matters is that I'd like to relive 1982 again before I'm through. I'm not indispensable to my team, and we don't lose ballgames just because I'm out of the lineup. But, I'm a factor. My being there can help, and my not being there can hurt. I want to be there for my team."

It's mutual. As outfielder Rob Deer said about him during the team's hot start in April, "Without Paul Molitor, we're not an ordinary team, but we're certainly a lot more ordinary than we were." In Milwaukee, Molitor makes the young guys relax, the old guys feel more secure, and the fans' hearts go pitter-pat.

There was a time this season when baseball lovers thought they might actually see a man pursue Roger Maris' 26-year-old record of 61 homers in a season, one of the most difficult records there is to break. But Mark McGwire tapered off, and that's life.

Lately, with every passing day, people began to wonder if Paul Molitor could catch some lightning and challenge DiMaggio's 46-year-old record of hitting safely in 56 consecutive games.

In his fourth at-bat Tuesday night, Molitor had an infield single to extend his streak to 33 games.

Well, doesn't matter.

Milwaukee will be thankful if Molitor merely plays in 56 straight. And so will Molitor.

"I never take my position for granted anymore," he said. "I treasure the time spent playing as much as I do the performance."

Paul Molitor will turn 31 Saturday. May he play until he is 41, day in, day out.

On second thought, just make it day in.

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