Paul Molitor Goes Home: The Brewers Miss Out on the Ignitor, Part II
Continuing on the trend of Brewers free agent signings that were not meant to be, and as a follow-up to the frustrating departure of Paul Molitor from Milwaukee in 1992, I’d like to discuss a lesser-known chapter of Brewers offseason history this week. It takes place three years after Molly left the Brewers for the Blue Jays, when the team actually made play to bring Molitor back.
Molitor had been brilliant during his first two seasons in Toronto. In 1993, he led the league in hits and placed second in MVP voting as the Blue Jays won their second straight World Series. In 1994, a year ended by the strike, he posted a .341 batting average – the second best of his career. 1995, however, was a pedestrian year, especially by Molitor’s standards. He batted just .270 and his slugging percentage fell by nearly 100 points. His Blue Jays had fallen even harder, posting the worst record in baseball. With a $4 million option year on his contract and a long rebuild effort ahead of them (they wouldn’t return to the postseason until 2015), the Jays were all but certain to decline the option and make Molitor an unrestricted free agent.
All around baseball, the effects of the strike were still being felt. Diving attendance and the lingering fan backlash had many teams scrambling to shed payroll heading into the 1995 off-season. For 1996, the Brewers were projecting a miniscule $15m payroll, with half of that total already committed to Pat Listach and Greg Vaughn – former standouts who had been plagued by injuries. The tightened budget was causing strain throughout the organization. Outfielder and fan favorite Darryl Hamilton lashed out at the team just after the season and filed a grievance with the players’ union, claiming that he had been benched late in the year to keep him from accruing enough playing time for an option year to vest on his contract. He accused the team of putting finances ahead of the product on the field – listing complaints that went back to 1992 and the loss of Molitor.
For the Brewers, Molitor’s departure from Toronto gave them the chance to correct a major misstep. Bringing Molly back into the fold could be both a box office boon and a badly-needed public relations coup. Molitor was also just 211 hits away from 3,000 – which could generate the kind of positive feelings and fan interest that hadn’t been seen at County Stadium since ’92. To the delight of Brewers fans, Molitor said publically that the only places he could see himself playing in 1996 were Toronto, Minnesota (where he grew up and went to college), or Milwaukee.
On November 2, the Blue Jays officially declined Molitor’s option. They still had until December 7 to offer him arbitration (and the Brewers would sacrifice their 1st round draft pick in 1996 if they signed him before that date), but the team gave little indication they were interested in bringing Molitor back. In Milwaukee, with the disgruntled Hamilton bound for free agency and pitcher Bill Wegman about to retire, the Brewers had the payroll room to offer Molitor what they considered to be a very competitive offer. “I don’t think anyone has a better chance [to sign Molitor] than we do,” Brewers GM Sal Bando said.
Of course, there was still the lingering awkwardness from Molitor’s departure, when he had given the Brewers ample opportunity to keep him, only to see Bando and company dither about his lack of a position in the field and offer him an insulting pay cut. But both sides were in a different place in 1995. The Brewers were seeking to set Molitor’s legacy by having him end his Hall of Fame career where it had started. Molitor, having finally won the title he so badly wanted, was looking for a familiar place to spend his farewell seasons. “Three years ago, the chance to win was a priority in my decision,” Molitor said after the Jays declined his option. “This will be whatever is a good fit. I’m looking for a place where I’ll be happy whether we win or lose.”
In late November, Molitor flew to Milwaukee and the Brewers made their offer: $4 million over two years, with another $1 million to be earned over five years working in the front office after his retirement. It was, unlike their offers in 1993, a reasonable and fair market deal. During the meeting, where Bando showed Molitor the models of the Brewers’ new convertible-roof stadium that was scheduled to open in 1999, team president and acting commissioner Bud Selig, who was mostly absent from negotiations in ’92, took a hands-on role. After the meeting, both men praised Molitor, Bando citing his versatility (and his potential to play in the field) and his clubhouse leadership as major assets.
Although he already had offers from the Blue Jays (who now wanted him back at a significant pay cut), the defending AL champion Indians, and was expecting an offer from the Twins, Molitor’s best fit seemed to be Milwaukee. The Brewers were the only team of the bunch that had offered Molitor a post-career job and had playing time available at both DH and first base. Brewers fans waited with tense optimism.
But the dreams of seeing Molitor back in Brewers blue were shattered on December 4, when Molitor agreed in principle to a two year, $3.5 million deal with the Twins. Molitor admitted he originally favored the Brewers, but as he thought less of his post-career life and more of his present-day needs, he drifted back to his hometown and the Twins. He also admitted that he was unsure of how the Milwaukee fans would treat him after his absence. There was love in Milwaukee, but he knew it would never be the same. “I thought about trying to recreate something after you’ve been removed from it,” he said, “and I wasn’t sure how it was going to be.”
After losing out on Molitor for the second time in three years, Bando was far more reserved than he had been in 1992. “We gave it our best shot,” he told the Milwaukee Journal. Selig, on the other hand, was just a bit less than gracious in being passed over. “Here all along I thought Milwaukee and this franchise were his home,” Selig told the Journal. “It turns out it was Minnesota. Ron Simon (Molitor’s agent) told me, ‘The one thing you could not deliver was his hometown for him to play in.’ The only problem is, I thought this was his home.” Selig was so hurt by the matter that he didn’t speak to Molitor for months afterward, even when Molitor returned to County Stadium with the Twins.
Molitor felt right at home in the Twin Cities in 1995. He batted .341 and tallied a career-best 225 hits, including 41 doubles and eight triples. On September 16, Molitor collected his 3,000th hit in Kansas City. By then, all with Selig had evidently been forgiven. “It was a privilege to have Paul play for us,” Selig told the Journal. He added he would place a congratulatory call to Molitor as soon as he could. Molitor played two more seasons for the Twins before retiring.