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STILL GOING STRONG

40

Baseball: Paul Molitor continues to defy science, while helping Twins rebuild.

June 29, 1997|PETER SCHMUCK | THE SPORTING NEWS

Life does not begin at 40, but Twins designated hitter Paul Molitor is proving it doesn't end there, either.

The Angels' Eddie Murray has begun to act his age, right-hander Dennis Martinez recently retired after being recently released by the Mariners and a few other fortysomething players are in the throes of a midlife crisis, but Molitor still looks and plays like a much younger guy.

Need proof? During June he has batted nearly .400 for the month, and his overall average again is among league leaders.

Need more proof? Molitor is on pace to pile up 191 hits this year, even though he missed 15 games in April with an abdominal strain.

None of this should come as a major surprise, considering the way he swung the bat a year ago. He celebrated his 40th year -- he turned 40 last August --by establishing a career high of 225 hits and batting .341 for the second time since batting .353 in 1987. It defies science.

The Hall of Fame is just around the corner, if he ever retires, but Molitor does not seem inclined to walk away just yet. His 3,000-plus career hits already have paved his way to Cooperstown, but his enjoyment of the game -- and of playing it in the Twin Cities -- is yet to waver.

There were plenty of contending teams that wanted to sign him when he became a free agent after the 1995 season, but Molitor made a commitment to his hometown team and seems content to be the role model for an organization trying to recapture the glory of 1987 and '91.

That probably won't happen this year, but you aren't going to hear a lot of trade rumors involving Molitor this summer. He isn't clamoring to go to a contender. He already has a world championship ring -- the one he won in Toronto in 1993 -- and he apparently is happy to help with the rebuilding effort.

The Twins aren't entirely out of it anyway. After taking two of three from the Astros last weekend, they stood within striking distance of the first-place Indians. The likelihood that they will make a legitimate run at a wild-card playoff berth seems remote, but Manager Tom Kelly has a way of getting the most out of marginal talent.

Molitor has been forced by circumstance to get the most out of his talent at a time when many star-quality players are getting the most out of their fishing gear. He was plagued by injuries early in his career, making one wonder what kind of numbers he would have if he had not lost several large chunks of playing time (including all but 13 games of the 1984 season) during his prime.

Coming into 1997, Molitor averaged 127 games per year and 1.24 hits per game. If he had been able to average 145 games per year, he might be threatening the 3,500-hit plateau this season. As it is, he's about to pass Cap Anson and move into 16th place on the all-time hits list, and might still reach the top five if he stays around a couple more years.

The way he's swinging the bat, Molitor is likely to reach 3,200 hits by the end of the season. Then it becomes a matter of how long he wants to keep playing. He makes it look so easy, but it is the part of the job that the average fan does not see that makes it so difficult to remain at the top of your game at 40.

"Day games after night games, the travel, asking your body to bounce back over and over, those are the toughest things," Molitor told the Minneapolis Star and Tribune. "As you get older, the day-to-day preparedness is what's really difficult and important."

Molitor hasn't missed a beat. In fact, he became a better hitter in his late 30s than he was in the years when the average player is considered to be at his physical peak. Molitor is hitting in the .330s this season, thanks to his hot performance over the first two weeks of June.

No doubt, the Twins will want him back next year, but the ball will be in Molitor's court this winter. The contract he signed last October includes a player option for 1998, so he will have to decide whether he wants a bigger piece of baseball history.

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