Molitor hits theory about age for a loop

JOHN EISENBERG

October 09, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

TORONTO -- Paul Molitor is 37 years old and getting better, which, because he isn't a bottle of wine, makes no sense.

What is the portrait of a player, even the best player, at the grandfatherly baseball age of 37? Neither his bat nor his reflexes are as swift and steady as they were. Something somewhere is slowly giving out. Maybe his knees. Maybe his confidence. At the most, the very most, he is maintaining. But certainly not getting better.

How, then, do we explain Molitor? Simple. We don't even begin to try. Because there is no explanation.

"What he is doing," Blue Jays batting coach Larry Hisle said last night at SkyDome, "is basically impossible."

You can look it up. He was a .290 hitter as a twentysomething, a .320 hitter since. He was a walking HMO in his first 13 years in the bigs, with 12 turns on the disabled list for everything from arm surgery to a sprained ankle to a dislocated ring finger, but he has been pain-free since he turned 35. And then suddenly, this season, his 16th, he surpassed 20 homers and 100 RBI for the first time, hitting .332.

Are we making sense here? No. Not even close. Where is the slow fade? Where are the creeping injuries attached to age?

"Paul Molitor," Jays manager Cito Gaston said, "is an absolute marvel."

For most of his career he was the backup to Robin Yount's lead in Milwaukee, a relatively obscure, useful component when healthy. Only twice did he attract much attention: hitting .355 in the 1982 World Series, and putting together a 39-game hitting streak five years later.

As he gets older and his average continues to rise, however, suddenly he is no longer a backup, but the lead. That he could replace a run-producer such as Dave Winfield was unthinkable just a few years ago, but the Jays asked him to do that this season when they signed him away from the Brewers, and he has fulfilled their highest expectations.

"I would be hard-pressed to think of another player who has done what he's doing," Hisle said. "Just continued to get better and better, regardless of age. I can't say that I've ever seen it before."

The only person to whom it seems to make any sense is Molitor.

"I don't know that I can explain it fully, but I can try," he said, smiling. "Not being hurt all the time, like when I was younger, that helps. That I can be a DH and don't have to play the field, that helps. That I continue to learn to do what it takes to be a successful hitter, that helps."

It also helped to move from the Brewers to the powerful Jays after 15 years. The parting was emotional and extremely difficult -- "it took me awhile to refer to the Brewers as them" -- but his hitting has benefited.

"There's less pressure on me here with all the talent," he said, "and I won't deny that's nice. It was pretty much me and Robin in Milwaukee the last seven or eight years, and that wears on you."

In any event, he is certainly a different hitter now. No one knows better than Hisle, Molitor's teammate in Milwaukee from 1978 to 1982.

"In those days Paul was a free-swinger who would hit that first-pitch fastball, and hit it hard," Hisle said.

He was no piker, but he surpassed .300 only three times in his first nine seasons. Then he got older. "And he's a much better hitter now," Hisle said. "It's not really even close."

The portrait of Molitor at the plate, in his 37th year, is a piece of sporting art. As he waits for the pitch, then swings, there is almost no stride, no hand movement, no body movement -- virtually no motion at all except the swing itself. The terrific speed of his moving bat, a gift, enables him to wait later than just about any other hitter.

"Being able to wait gives me more time to recognize the pitch, which, of course, is the key element of hitting," Molitor said.

He is an unassuming soul whom you would never single out for such excellence. His manner is mild, his build average, except for thick forearms. But now that he is back in the postseason for the first time in 11 years, everyone else in baseball is seeing what the Orioles and the rest of the American League East saw all season: a devastating hitter who stands out even in the Jays' devastating lineup.

Six straight hits in the first two games of the playoffs put his name in the record book and sent reporters scurrying to his locker.

"Were you hot toward the end of the season?" someone asked.

"Not really," Molitor said.

There was a pause. A reporter from Milwaukee chimed in: "Just the usual .330, right?"

Molitor laughed.

It became the usual, of course, only when he got too old.

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