Six weeks ago, Paul Molitor said: “People used to come by and ask how I felt. They don’t anymore because they already know the answer. It’s a joke.”
Except it wasn’t a joke, not for one of the game’s best and classiest players. Paul Leo Molitor was once the prototype of a great leadoff hitter and the one that, at least for a while, Rickey Henderson was measured against.
He was not only handsome and articulate, but had speed and power. His teammates nicknamed him, “The Ignitor” because, as catcher Bill Schroeder said, “How many times do you see him single, steal second and wind up scoring in the first inning? He gets us going.”
His 28-game hitting streak is no aberration. It’s not the case of a pretty good player having a great streak because Molitor has never been considered less than a great player. In this streak, he has batted well over .400, and for one glorious month, every baseball fan has seen him at his best.
He has raised his average from .323 to more than .360 during the streak, and, if he averages four plate appearances a game the rest of the year -- i.e., if he doesn’t get hurt -- he might still challenge Wade Boggs for the batting title.
And he hasn’t just hit. He’s also 14 for 15 stealing bases during the streak, and is only 10 behind league-leader Gary Redus.
For this one month, there have been no torn-up elbows, wrecked ankles or pulled muscles. Molitor, 30, estimates he has broken 10 different bones playing baseball, the worst being a jaw broken in a Colorado amateur league the summer before his last season at the University of Minnesota.
“I had my jaw wired shut for eight weeks,” he said. “Lost 40 pounds. I’ve always had a problem with injuries.”
That’s an understatement. He was on the disabled list in 1980, 1981, 1984, 1985 and 1986 (twice). A 1984 elbow injury nearly ended his career, and his current hitting streak began just as he was leaving the disabled list for the second time.
“Unfortunately, I’ve had a lot of experience coming off the disabled list,” he said. “I was able to start hitting 10 days before I came back, and when I got back, I was ready.”
His streak is the longest in the majors this year and only one streak in this decade has been longer. He has done it in style, hitting .429 (48 for 112) and only three times needing his last at-bat to keep it alive. Thursday night, he kept it alive by homering on his last chance.
“I don’t think I’ve ever swung the bat like this for this long,” he said. “And the good part is that it’s not just my streak. I’ve been productive and able to contribute while the team is winning. That’s what I like about it.”
His career has been nothing if not interesting. He was the Brewers’ No. 1 pick in the 1977 draft and played only 64 games in the minors.
His first full season, 1978, he played second, third and short, hitting .273 with 26 doubles and 30 steals. He hit .322 and .304 the next two seasons, but, since 1979, has played only two full seasons.
One of those was 1982 when he was a catalyst for the American League champions. He remains that. The Brewers are 43-24 with him starting this season, 16-30 without him. Even the last two seasons, when they’ve lost 174 games, they’ve been plus-.500 with him.
He’s asked about feeling sorry for himself, for a career that might be remembered for something less than a .291 career batting average.
“I don’t dwell on what has happened,” he said. “I can’t get it back. The thing is, it has happened so many times that I focus on coming back. The first couple of times it happened, I think it probably did get me down. I’m doing my best to stay healthy. I don’t say I’m trying to play more under control, but I’m trying to be smarter about it. But when you get in a situation where you can help the team by stretching a double into a triple, you’re still going to try to do it.”
He was at his low point in 1984 when he played only 13 games before tearing up his elbow. He eventually had reconstructive surgery, a tendon being removed from his left forearm and transplanted to hold the elbow together. Doctors told him he might never play third again and might never be able to play at all.
He did recover, though, and until this year, the elbow had given him no problems at all.
This season, he has already missed 44 games. His most serious injury has been a pulled hamstring, but he has also had a groin pull, sore ankle and puffy elbow. He says the elbow is healthy enough to allow him to play third base, but the Brewers, being cautious, are using him as designated hitter.
The longest previous streak for a Brewer was Davey May’s 24-game streak in 1973, and Molitor said passing May was the only pressure he has felt. He extended the streak to 24 last Sunday in his last at-bat in Chicago.
“I flaired a hit to right,” he said. “That’s really been one of the only lucky ones.”
The Brewers had huge walk-up sales three days this week with Molitor getting standing ovations with almost every at-bat.
“After I broke the record, I had pretty normal days,” he said. “If it goes on longer, there may be some pressure, but I haven’t felt it yet.”
No, he said, he hasn’t thought about Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game record in 1941. Yes, he said, he has thought about Pete Rose’s 44-game streak in 1978.
“That was my rookie year,” he said, “and I’ve got an issue of The Sporting News with me on the cover. One of the headlines on the cover is, ‘Rose extends hitting streak.’ I’ll always associate his streak with my rookie year, and I still remember Gene Garber jumping up and down when he got Rose out to end it.”