The Messy Divorce of the Brewers and Paul Molitor
Twenty-Four years ago this winter, Milwaukee lost an icon
When the Brewers finished the 1992 season just short the playoffs, designated hitter Paul Molitor had just completed the finest two-year stretch of this storied career. He batted over .320 both seasons, made two all-star teams, and was in perhaps the healthiest stretch of his career. In 1991, he led the league in runs, hits, and triples. In 1992, he was the spark plug in a surprising Brewers offensive attack and stole 31 bases – the eighth time in his career he had swiped 30 bags or more. He had also just completed a 3-year, $9.6 million contract that was signed before the 1990 season. The 1992 Brewers had posted the franchise’s best record since the 1982 pennant-winning club and it was apparent to fans and players alike that the team needed Molitor back in the fold if they were to have any chance of competing in ’93. Molitor himself said publically that he wanted to stay in Milwaukee with the only organization he had ever known. And few people could imagine Molly wearing anything but the Brewers blue when the next season opened.
Even before the offseason free agency period began, the Brewers were pleading poor. General manager Sal Bando, in his first year on the job, said that retaining Molitor was his top goal, but did not know how budgetary matters might affect the process. The team already seemed resigned to losing pitchers Chris Bosio and Dan Plesac to free agency, both of whom were career Brewers and major contributors in ’92. And as the days and weeks passed, there was stunningly little news about the Brewers’ plans with Molitor.
Nearly a month after the end of the regular season, Molitor reiterated his preference to stay in Milwaukee, but admitted that he was frustrated with the lack of communication from the club and said that he heard nothing from Bando about a new contract. “I don’t have any idea what [the Brewers] are thinking right now,” Molitor said. He also confirmed the rumor that he was going to begin entertaining offers from other clubs. Meanwhile, Bando said he was holding off any decisions until after the November 17 expansion draft that would stock the rosters of brand-new Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins.
Brewers GM Sal Bando’s efforts at retaining Molitor were both financially and strategically half-hearted
Just after the draft, the Brewers made a surprise trade with the Rockies, swapping young outfielder (and future all-star) Dante Bichette for Kevin Reimer, a 29-year-old who had spent the majority of his career as a designated hitter – Molitor’s position. Days later, it was reported that the Brewers payroll would be slashed by as much as $8 million – from $30m to $22m – after an alleged total of $10 million in operating losses over the past two years. The early ‘90s Brewers had been somewhat free-spenders, handing out contracts worth a total of $22 million to Franklin Stubbs, Ron Robinson, and Ted Higuera before the 1991 season (the Brewers got virtually no production from that money) while players like Molitor and Robin Yount were in the midst of generous extensions. But now, Bando and team president Bud Selig were trying to reverse this trend.
On November 20, Bando offered some less-than-encouraging hints about how the team would approach the Molitor situation. He told the Journal that the team would treat Molitor as a designated hitter during the negotiations – a role Bando considered to be less valuable than a position player. Bando noted that the last deal Molitor signed was drawn up when the player was still the team’s regular third baseman, an indication that he expected Molitor to take a pay cut, even after two straight MVP-caliber seasons.
It was not until November 24 – a full month after the World Series ended – that the team and Molitor finally got together to talk. The Brewers had left themselves with just two weeks to negotiate before the December 7 arbitration deadline. If the Brewers did not come to terms with Molitor or offer him arbitration by that date (if offered arbitration, Molitor would have the option of accepting and allowing a third party to decide on a salary for a one-year contract that both side would be bound to accept), they would lose the rights to negotiate with him until the following May, virtually guaranteeing he would sign elsewhere.
Molitor wanted badly to remain with the only organization he had ever known
Bando was adamant that the Brewers would not offer Molitor arbitration, and told the press that their budget restrictions would require a “creative” contract package. On November 30, the Brewers made their first offer: a one-year deal with a base salary “far less” than his 1992 pay of $3.2 million with various incentives and deferred pay that, taken together, still amounted to pay cut. Three days later, Molitor rejected the offer and said he would not take a reduction in pay. Meanwhile, the Brewers resigned reliever Jesse Orosco, who had pitched all of 39 innings in 1992, to $1 million pact.
The day after his rejection, the Brewers countered with a second offer. According to Molitor’s agent, the second deal would have paid $1 million in base salary for 1993, with another $1.3 million deferred, without interest, over the next five years. The team also wanted a $2 million option for 1994. “I don’t know if we closed the gap or not,” Bando told the Journal. “That’s about it unless we print more money.”
Molitor was taken aback by the way the team was treating him. Bando was publically acting as though Molitor was lucky to get their offers, while Selig was disengaged from the entire ordeal, seemingly more focused on his role as acting commissioner. “This whole negotiation and the way it has transpired has been an unexpected sequence of events for me,” Molitor said. “I’m trying not to take it personally. It’s not what I expected, but I’m not offended.”
On December 7, with the Brewers still insisting they could not afford to offer arbitration (the mostly likely deal would have been for about $4 million), Molitor rejected the second offer and it seemed as though his tenure with the Brewers was over. With Molitor at home in Mequon, his agent was in Nashville at the winter meetings. Rumors had it that his likely landing spots included Toronto, Boston, and California. “If I thought their offer was reasonable,” Molitor said, “I’d be more hesitant to leave.”
As the zero hour approached, Bando and Selig suddenly jumped back into the negotiations. With less than an hour before the deadline, Selig unexpectedly called Molitor with an arbitration offer while Bando announced the move to the media. “When Selig was speaking to me,” Molitor later recalled, “all I could think of was that we were down to the last hour and he’s doing something that’s going to play with my emotions.”
Just before Selig made the call, however, the Blue Jays had agreed in principle with Molitor on a 2-year, $9 million contract. When Molitor’s agent told Bando about the deal, he said that the Brewers GM was “relieved.” Relieved – evidently – that Toronto’s offer was so great that Molitor would be forced to decline arbitration, preserving the Brewer budget and making it appear as though they had done their all to retain him. Molitor’s declining of arbitration would also necessitate that the Blue Jays send the Brewers their first-round draft choice in 1993 (the Brewers would also get a second “sandwich” pick between the first and second rounds as compensation). Still, the Jays were so concerned about Molitor taking the lesser deal to stay in Milwaukee that they added a third year and $4 million to their offer. But Molitor was not taken with the last-minute appeal. He agreed to the deal with Toronto that evening.
The reaction in Milwaukee was as foul as could be expected. Bando, continuing his series of unfortunate public comments on the matter, blamed the fans for the Brewers’ poor financial situation and the loss of Molitor. “If all the fans are upset,” he said, “Where were they the last 15 years when we had him?” In looking to the future, he was downright delusional. “I think we're every bit as good as last year's team,” He told the Journal. Selig also downplayed the loss. “Before people overreact,” he told the media, “I will tell you this right now: We will be a very, very competitive club next year.”
The 1993 Brewers went 69-93, their worst mark in a decade, while Molitor had one of the greatest seasons of his career and won the World Series with the Blue Jays. Kevin Reimer, taking over as Milwaukee’s DH, hit .249 in 1993 and never played in the major again. Dante Bichette became one of the Rockies’ biggest stars and made four all star teams in Colorado. With the two compensation draft picks the Brewers received for losing Molitor, they picked pitchers Kelly Wunsch and Joe Wagner. Neither ever played in the majors for the Brewers. Molitor played five more season after 1993 and totaled over 1,000 hits in his post-Brewers career.