'Cerebral' Molitor quickly finding his way as the Twins' manager

After Paul Molitor took over as manager of the Minnesota Twins, former Twins manager Tom Kelly offered Molitor many thoughts and pieces of advice, including this one: Take a photo of yourself the first day of spring training and compare your face to it as things go along to see how you're holding up under the demands of managing.

"If you look a little ragged, then you need to call timeout," Kelly said. "I told him to check that picture every once in a while to make sure he's taking care of himself. Because you can get caught up in this grind we call baseball.

"It sounds like a joke, but it's not a joke."

It's not. Kelly says he kept such a photo in his desk drawer that he checked when he managed the Twins from 1986-2001.

Molitor says he got the message, and while he doesn't literally check a photo, he thinks about slowing down when he can. "I really need to have balance. So far it's a little more consuming mentally away from the field than I would like it to be."

Which is not surprising. Molitor took over a team that has finished in last place in the American League Central three of the past four seasons while averaging 96 losses per year. That's the worst stretch in Twins history, so he wasn't taking over a team deep in talent or with high expectations. On top of that, newly signed starter Ervin Santana was suspended 80 games for PED use just before the season started, while Ricky Nolasco went on the disabled list just four innings into his first start. And then the Twins lost six of their first seven games and were six games back one week into the season.

Fortunately, the Twins have recovered since then, winning 10 of their past 13 games and rising above .500 to third place in the American League Central. So Molitor probably hasn't looked into the mirror and seen Wilfred Brimley's face recently.

"I think I have a greater appreciation for people who do this, having been in this seat for a short while," Molitor said. "It's fun. It's challenging to find ways to pull out things from people. To try to motivate them.

"Overall, it feels right."

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Molitor is a rarity in baseball -- a Hall of Famer turned manager after induction into Cooperstown as a player. Philadelphia manager Ryne Sandberg is also in that limited class, as was Ted Williams (many Hall of Famers, such as Rogers Hornsby, Lou Boudreau and Frank Robinson, were player/managers before entering Cooperstown). Yogi Berra and Bob Lemon are the only Hall of Famers to take a team to the World Series after induction and Lemon did so while managing only partial seasons.

Why have so few Hall of Fame players become managers and why have they had so little success?

"I don't really buy into the philosophy that people who played the game at a high level don't have the patience," Molitor says. "That's individual to individual, how you're wired. I think I've done enough player development-wise that I don't think that's an issue for me.

"I don't really know why more guys haven't tried. Maybe they don't have the need or are afraid of the commitment or afraid of failure."

Molitor isn't afraid, nor should he be considering his résumé. Few know the game as well as he does. He had a .306 career batting average, with 1,782 runs scored, 234 home runs, 504 stolen bases and 3,319 hits in his 21-year career. He also played every position but pitcher and catcher. He was an All-Star as a second baseman, third baseman and DH.

"He knows the positions. He knows the fundamentals of those positions," said Twins outfielder Torii Hunter, who played a few games as a teammate of Molitor with the Twins in 1997 and '98 before Hunter hit the big leagues full time in 1999. "So Molly has so much info wound up in that head, and he just wants to give it away. If you're not seeking it, something's wrong with you."

"He knows the positions. He knows the fundamentals of those positions. So Molly has so much info wound up in that head, and he just wants to give it away. If you're not seeking it, something's wrong with you."
Torii Hunter, Twins outfielder, on manager Paul Molitor

In addition to his considerable knowledge, Molitor is an exceptional communicator who listens closely and speaks gently and wisely. One former teammate said his only question about Molitor's managerial ability is whether he can get sufficiently angry at players who need a good tongue-lashing.

Molitor says he will always try civil, man-to-man communication first and explore other avenues before going the yelling route. But he can get plenty angry in the dugout -- and he has.

"Not so much over physical errors, but by what I consider timidity, or a lack of courage or things that happen that work against our team," Molitor said. "So far I've chosen to address that down in the tunnel between innings or wait until the next day. I'm not going to walk down to the end of the dugout when a player comes in and start berating him in front of the rest of the team.

"It's the old cliché. Some people need a kick in the butt more than a pat on the back. But if you do a pat on the back the right way it works with most everybody. I always try to work on the positives before you start throwing around the negatives so that you give them something to build on."

Molitor said he doesn't want to just help players maximize their potential on the field, but off the field as well. "I do believe that in a role like this, you have a chance to influence people and not just their performance," Molitor said.

Given that he retired in 1998, Molitor waited a long time before taking a managerial job. He served one season as a hitting coach in Seattle in 2004, but otherwise had a flexible schedule working in player development. The managerial bug returned when he served as a full-time coach on former Twins manager Ron Gardenhire's staff last season, and with his children several years from high school age, Molitor saw an opportunity after the Twins let Gardenhire go.

"I felt like I had a window," he said, "and if I was ever going to do this, this was the right time."

Molitor is just the third Twins manager since 1986, the fewest any club has had in that stretch. Kelly was the most successful, winning Minnesota's only two World Series. The two talk frequently, with the current manager taking copious notes from the old skipper in what Molitor calls his "T.K. list."

"He's learning as he goes," Twins bullpen coach Eddie Guardado said of Molitor. "He's going to hit bumps, he knows that. But at the end, I think he's going to prevail."

Managing isn't easy, though. Sandberg finished in last place in his first year managing the Phillies in 2014, and Philadelphia is in last place again, with ace Cole Hamels a trade possibility. Ted Williams never finished higher than fourth, and Frank Robinson had only five winning seasons in 16 years as a manager.

Molitor faces a similar challenge in Minnesota.

"It all comes down to whether you have some pitching and whether you have some people who can play some," Kelly said. "Whether you can communicate and keep them in position to do their jobs. Especially the starters -- if they pitch into the game and keep the bullpen organized and rested properly. And we certainly don't have [a perfect roster], but Molly's mixing and matching well. He hasn't looked overmatched. He seems prepared with all the moves.

"He's cerebral, as we know, and he likes to think things out, but he seems to be well-prepared. If the players come through for him, things will work out."

They can. Kelly's 1991 Twins team began the season 2-9 and went on to win the World Series, thanks not only to his strong managing but also because of the play of Kirby Puckett, Jack Morris, Scott Erickson, Chili Davis, Shane Mack and Kent Hrbek.

So give Molitor and the Twins time to develop. It probably won't be this season, but one day Molitor may be able to compare his early 2015 image with a future smiling selfie taken inside a World Series dugout.