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Angels, Molina Seal Deal

Baseball: One-time longshot catcher rewarded with a four-year, $4.25-million contract after breakthrough season.

March 17, 2001|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TEMPE, Ariz. — Bengie Molina was so frustrated when he wasn't drafted after his second season at Arizona Western Community College in Yuma, Ariz., that he nearly quit playing baseball in 1992.

After signing with the Angels as a free agent in 1993, Molina spent seven years in the minor leagues, battling occasional weight problems and a reputation for being injury prone, before getting a legitimate chance to be a big league catcher in 2000.

So it wasn't so much the financial security of the four-year, $4.25-million contract he signed Friday that was so gratifying to Molina, 26. Rather, it was that the deal, which includes a team option for a fifth year, signifies that Molina has finally made it, that he's here to stay.

"When you sign a long-term deal, it's because they want you, they think you can help them win the World Series," said Molina, who grew up in Puerto Rico. "I'm very honored. For me, this is the greatest day of my life."

Molina, who hit .281 with 14 home runs and 71 runs batted in and was impressive on defense as a rookie last season, received a $500,000 signing bonus and will make $225,000 in each 2001 and 2002. His salary will jump to $1.3 million in 2003 and $1.9 million in 2004.

A $3-million option for 2005 can be bought out for $100,000. Molina's base salary in 2005 will increase by $500,000 every time he plays 120 games or more in the next four years and by $300,000 every time he makes 475 plate appearances, giving him the chance to make an additional $2.1 million.

"We're proud of Bengie because he's earned everything he's gotten," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "He's a guy who pushed through the cobwebs of not playing every day in the minor leagues, who was not considered a top prospect, but emerged as one of the top catchers in the American League."

It wasn't just Molina's catching, throwing skills and durability--he caught 130 games last season--that impressed the Angels. They love his work habits--he lost 10 pounds before the season and remained in great shape throughout--and the way he called games and took charge of the pitchers.

"He had a great year offensively, defensively, and up here," Angel General Manager Bill Stoneman said, pointing to his head. "It wasn't just the confidence he showed, it was the confidence his pitchers had in him. At this point a year ago, there were a lot of doubts about our catching. A year later, we've erased those doubts."

Molina, who finished third in American League rookie-of-the-year balloting last season, is the second young Angel to sign a long-term deal this month, joining third baseman Troy Glaus, who signed a four-year, $22-million contract March 6.

Stoneman signed left fielder Garret Anderson to a four-year, $20-million extension in 2000. He is negotiating with Tim Salmon's agent in hopes of signing the right fielder to a multiyear extension and would like to extend center fielder Darin Erstad's contract, which expires after this season.

"This shows Bill is committed to keeping young talent here, as we strive to be a perennial contender," Scioscia said. "I think this is great for Bengie and the organization."

So does Molina, who could only shake his head as he considered the difficulty of the road he traveled to get here.

"I look back at [what happened in 1992] and I have to thank God for bringing me back to baseball," Molina said. "This is going to ease my mind. I don't have to worry about contract talks; I can just play. . . .

"I know this is a business and I could have to leave later, but I want to be an Angel for life. They gave me the opportunity to go to the minor leagues. They gave me the opportunity to play in the big leagues. I want to be here until I retire."

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