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Trouble Down the Line : Like His Nicaraguan Father, JetHawks’ Molina Finds Path to Majors Full of Cruel Twists

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last Sunday was Father’s Day in Nicaragua, so Luis Molina made sure he called his dad in Central America during the week. After some aimless chitchat about the weather and family matters--the kinds of things people talk about when they’re trying to avoid much weightier subjects--the discussion turned to Luis’ physical condition.

Rubbing the uncomfortable neoprene brace that holds his left knee together, Luis cursed his luck. And two time zones away, his father, Julio, felt the pain.

On the last Sunday in May, Molina, the JetHawks’ starting shortstop, planted his feet to take a throw at second base during a California League game at the Hangar. A split second later, Modesto’s Jose Castro rolled hard into Molina’s left leg and the infielder collapsed awkwardly. It was a dirty play, Molina insists; just aggressive baseball, say others who were there. Either way, the play ended with Molina writhing on the ground in pain.

“I thought something was broken, the pain was so intense,” Molina said in Spanish.

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It was worse than a broken bone. Molina suffered tears to his anterior and medial lateral cruciate ligaments as well as a medial meniscus tear.

“It’s probably one of the worst knee injuries you can have,” JetHawk trainer Rob Nodine said.

The previous inning, Molina singled to drive in a run and lift his batting average to .254, up 40 points from a few weeks earlier. Larry Beinfest, director of player development for the Seattle Mariners, the JetHawks’ parent club, long has said Molina “has some of the best hands in the organization. . . . Anything hit near him is an automatic out.”

And now Molina was hitting as well as he ever had in a four-year professional career. Finally, things were beginning to come together. Suddenly, it all came apart.

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Perhaps bad luck is a family trait. If so, it has been passed down through the Molina clan because Julio Molina also knows about bad timing.

In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Julio was a home run-hitting right fielder who had a cannon for an arm. On the Nicaraguan national team, he played with the likes of Dennis Martinez, Porfi Altamirano and Tony Chevez. But while those three went on to the major leagues, Julio toiled in obscurity for 14 seasons in what passes for professional baseball in Nicaragua.

“For me,” he says now, “the timing wasn’t right.”

Thirty years ago, at age 18, Julio Molina was good enough to earn a tryout with El Boer of Managua, the country’s most-storied franchise. At the time, Nicaragua was home to one of professional baseball’s top winter leagues and Molina seemed destined to test himself against major league stars such as Jim Kaat and Ferguson Jenkins. And if he distinguished himself? Well, a scout was sure to notice.

But that same year, 1967, Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza withdrew the government’s financial support and the country’s 11-year experiment with winter ball ended.

By 1973, baseball had rebounded in Nicaragua and the national team was among the best in the world, finishing second in consecutive world championships. Major league scouts returned in droves and the Baltimore Orioles snapped up young pitchers Martinez, 18, and Chevez, 19, while the Philadelphia Phillies took a chance on the 21-year-old Altamirano. But by then Molina, at 25, was too old to be considered a prospect.

“Besides,” he says, “I couldn’t go. I was married. I had kids. It would have been difficult.”

The major leagues, however, didn’t become a dream forgotten; simply a dream deferred. And Julio Molina took the first step on that new path in 1974 when Luis was born.

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By the time young Luis had turned 4 civil war had broken out in Nicaragua, and the people of Chinadega, Molina’s hometown, were among the first to rise up against the Somoza dictatorship. The insurrection lasted 18 bloody months and claimed more than 55,000 lives before the government finally toppled. But peace was short-lived in Chinadega.

With the support of the U.S. government, remnants of Somoza’s deposed Guardia Nacional regrouped in Honduras and began to strike at towns close to the border. One attack, later traced to the CIA, destroyed the Chinadegan port of Corinto in 1984. In response to the attacks, a national draft was instituted and young boys barely into their teens were conscripted into the military.

Julio Molina had seen enough. Taking advantage of his wife’s Panamanian citizenship, he moved the family away from the war to Panama City. Luis was just a month shy of his 11th birthday, but his athletic talents quickly helped him win new friends in Panama where, as in Nicaragua, baseball is the national pastime. He was eventually selected for Panama’s junior team and, like his father, followed baseball to places he never could have visited on his own.

Unlike his father, Luis Molina was soon drawing the attention of professional scouts. The Seattle Mariners were the first to offer a contract, signing the 18-year-old infielder during a tournament in Mexico in 1992.

And he wasn’t the only member of the family to join the Mariners. Shortly after signing Luis, the club also offered Julio, a youth-league baseball coach, a job as a scout.

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Luis Molina knew where he wanted to go--to a small patch of AstroTurf between second and third base in the Kingdome. A direct flight from Panama could have taken him there in a matter of hours, but the Mariners had a more circuitous journey in mind.

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His first stop was Peoria of the Arizona Rookie League, where he batted .214 in 39 games. Next came stops in Bellingham, Wash., of the Class A Northwest League, two trips to the Class A Midwest League and a brief visit to the Arizona Instructional League, where he batted a robust .342.

Still there was something missing. “I would like to see his bat come along, and I think that could happen when he becomes stronger, more confident at the plate,” said Beinfest, Seattle’s director of player development.

If all went well at Lancaster this summer, Molina would move up to double A next summer, a promotion that would, in his words, leave him “a step away from the big leagues.” Now all that thinking is as scrambled as the inside of Molina’s knee.

“My plans are changing a lot,” he said sadly. “This is really going to slow down my career.”

The din of a radio, tuned to a JetHawks’ road game, provides the background noise as Molina, only 22, assesses the situation. Days like these can be the toughest because when the team is on the road Molina is left alone with his thoughts in the Lancaster apartment he shares with several teammates.

Although no one has given up on Luis Molina, Beinfest said the injury “does hurt his chances.”

The 90-minute operation to repair the ligament and cartilage tears went well, doctors say, and Molina has begun rehabilitation. If he makes normal progress, he should be at full strength by next spring.

“People want everything to be easy, but everything is not going to be a bed of roses. I know that. I’m not going to give up on baseball just because I hurt my leg. “If all this [rehab] is a success, I’m going to make it. . . . If not, at least I’ll be able to say I tried.”


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