If he continues at his current pace, 40-year-old Paul Molitor of the Twins will bang out the 211th hit of his remarkable season later this month, giving him 3,000 hits for his career—a total that has always guaranteed entry into the Hall of Fame. When Molitor becomes eligible for the Hall, there should be no argument against his enshrinement at Cooperstown, but there will be. That's because at week's end 1,148 of his hits had come while he was a designated hitter (chart, right), a role that might have allowed him to extend an injury-plagued career for many years.
Molitor says he expects some purists among Hall of Fame voters to place a mental asterisk next to his numbers because he has played so many games at DH. "I'll understand it more than it will bother me," says Molitor, who through Sunday was leading the American League with 193 hits and was batting .343, fourth best in the league. "Probably more than any player in the last 20 years, I have reaped benefits from the DH rule."
One of those benefits is that he has a chance to become the oldest man to lead the American League in hits. (That distinction belongs to the White Sox' Minnie Minoso, who had 184 hits at age 37 in 1960.) He could also end up with the highest average ever by a player 40 or older—now only Ty Cobb, who hit .357 for the Philadelphia As in '27, and Sam Rice, who batted .349 for the Washington Senators in '30, are ahead of him.
Early in his career Molitor spent almost as much time on the disabled list as he did on the field. He missed 492 games primarily because of injuries—the equivalent of more than three full seasons—in his first 10 years in the majors. Since then, thanks to the DH rule in the American League, he has gone from injury prone to injury free, or "from tin man to iron man," as he puts it. He has played 716 games at DH and 139 in the field in the last six years, mostly because his managers have not wanted to risk an injury that would keep him out of the lineup. For instance, Molitor says he could have played first base a lot more than he did when he was with the Toronto Blue Jays from 1993 to '95, but manager Cito Gaston didn't want to chance it.
Molitor isn't defensive about being a DH, but he does point out that he's the opposite of the stereotypical big, slow, slugging designated hitter who couldn't play a position very well. Molitor, who has 481 career stolen bases, started out as a shortstop in 1978, then moved to second base, centerfield, third base, back to second, back to center and finally to first. "Maybe I incurred some injuries because I played so many positions," he says. "You know, learning a new position, the change in throws. I wasn't a Gold Glover, but I was decent defensively."
If Molitor's numbers are to be challenged because he spent so much time as a DH, then the stats of several Hall of Earners should be challenged, too. Reggie Jackson was a first-ballot inductee mostly because of his 563 career homers. But take away the stats from his 2,198 at bats as a DH and he had 462 homers, 2,084 hits (not 2,584) and 1,374 RBIs (not 1,702). He still might have gotten into the Hall, but it would have been a closer call. Without his at bats as a DH, George Brett—a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1999—would have had 2,615 hits, not 3,154. Dave Winfield, a likely first-ballot inductee in 2001, would have had 2,711 hits (not 3,110), 406 home runs (not 465) and 1,613 RBIs (not 1,833).
The bottom line is this: The DH, like it or not, is a part of the game. The DH is used everywhere in baseball except the National League. If there were no DH rule, Molitor would have played in the field for some team because he has always been a superb offensive player. Maybe his career numbers wouldn't be as good, but they would be good enough for Cooperstown. "He's a great team man, he knows the game, he helps other players, and he runs the bases as well as anyone," says Gaston. "He's a superstar no matter how many hits he has as a DH."
The Sinking Ship
The Pirates, who have held some devastating fire sales during the last few years, appear to be in worse shape than ever. While every other team in baseball is looking for young, talented lefthanded pitchers. Pittsburgh last week traded Denny Neagle, who had a 27-14 record the last two years while the Pirates were 48 games under .500, to the Braves for pitcher Jason Schmidt and two minor leaguers, outfielder Corey Pointer and first baseman Ron Wright, who had 36 homers while splitting time in Class A and Double A this season.
Owner Kevin McClatchy, who bought the Pirates in February and vowed to make them more competitive by increasing the payroll from $18 million to $21 million, reversed field recently and told Pittsburgh general manager Cam Bonifay to cut the payroll back to around $18 million. Bonifay had no choice but to unload Neagle, the Pirates' most marketable player, and his $2.3 million salary. Bonifay got good value in return, but it might take until the year 2000 before his acquisitions start to pay dividends.