While giving directions to Milwaukee—go to Chicago, head north, keep going until you see PABST on all the billboards—Paul Molitor struggles to describe the destination. "There won't be much of a skyline," he says. He thinks about it. In fact, he decides, a visitor might not notice much of anything and could easily sail right past Milwaukee and on to Sheboygan. "Milwaukee's not so much a city," he says, finally, "as it is a more popular place."
Now before Rand McNally decides on a new map symbol for Milwaukee (capital, city, county seat, town, more popular place—size of type indicates relative ability to pay its baseball players), the map people should keep in mind that, as of this spring, Milwaukee is a slightly less popular place than it has been for 15 years. Molitor, who claims never to have eaten a bratwurst but who was still embraced by the city like no other Brewer since Laverne (or Shirley, your pick), has left for Toronto and the Blue Jays.
It's almost unbelievable. Of course, not even Babe Ruth finished out his career with the New York Yankees, and in these days of free agency, baseball careers are as portable as a Pocket Fisherman. But the idea of Molitor, a rare year-round-resident ballplayer who was involved in almost every possible civic cause, leaving Milwaukee for Toronto is shocking. Fifteen years in one place! In a decade and a half, he has been one of the city's most reliable landmarks—go to Chicago, head north, keep going until you see a hard-running, enormously underappreciated .300 hitter, who happens to be the most likable and agreeable man you'll ever meet. For 15 years he has been the dear that made Milwaukee famous.
But enough money, say $13 million spread over three seasons, changes everything. The Brewers claim, as all small-market teams do these days, that they are a struggling franchise, and they didn't come close to Toronto's offer for somebody who, face it, is getting a little long in the tooth and has been reduced to a designated hitter role. And Molitor, 36, who was heading for salary arbitration with Milwaukee, could hardly afford to reject Toronto's interest in the last productive years of his career. Brewer fans, knowing all this, don't know whom to cast as the villain. "Reaction has been all over the place," admits team president Bud Selig. About all that can be said for sure (and Molitor says it) is that leaving the Brewers is "very disappointing."
The break is profoundly disturbing to both Molitor and what's left of the old Brewers. Sitting in the den of his huge home, now for sale, just north of Milwaukee one recent winter day, Molitor seemed more upset about leaving Milwaukee than he was excited about joining a world-champion team. "This goes beyond putting on a new uniform," he said. "These last few months I've been dealing a lot with what's behind me, instead of where I'm going."
So what is left of the old Brewers? Really, only Robin Yount, who was Molitor's teammate throughout his Milwaukee career, remains. "I've been coming to spring training for 15 years knowing he would be here." Yount said upon arriving at the Brewer camp in Chandler, Ariz., last month. "I've just been taking it for granted. But with this system...well, he's just not here, is he?" The lesson: Nothing is forever—except perhaps Yount, who's in his 19th season with the Brewers.
Maybe now, though, as he finds his way out of Milwaukee, Molitor can find his way to fame. Certainly he deserves more than he has received. "It's that small-market thing," says Pat Gillick, the Toronto general manager. Selig agrees, saying. "Even Hank Aaron was underappreciated in Milwaukee." How many people realize that Molitor averaged .303 over 15 seasons, was a terrific fielder (he has played all the infield positions plus the outfield) and could steal 40 bases a year? Apparently, not enough.
He has been so low profile that he has never earned a nickname. Well, there was the Ignitor, for the way he started rallies, getting on base ahead of those muscle-men known as Harvey's Wallbangers in the early 1980s. "But," says Molitor, "aside from its not even being spelled right, it's a terrible nickname. I never once entered a room and my friends said, 'Hey, it's the Ignitor!' " He has been so low profile that even when he admitted to using cocaine in 1981, he was unable to cast off his image as the apple-cheeked all-American boy. (The continued involvement by Molitor and his wife, Linda, in projects that raise funds to fight AIDS and children's cancer has long since wiped his slate clean in the public's mind.) But, right or wrong, he couldn't make an impression outside of Milwaukee.
"He's baseball's secret," says Milwaukee manager Phil Garner. "Playing in Milwaukee, he's a borderline Hall of Fame selection. Had he played in any of the three biggest markets—New York, Chicago, Los Angeles—he would be the highest-paid player in baseball. There's nothing he can't do. And he's a good guy. He's the kind of guy you want to pay the money to."
Molitor has long understood that playing in Milwaukee has denied him the attention and money that, say, Don Mattingly got in New York. But he appreciates the trade-off. "I like the slower pace of Milwaukee,*' he says. "A guy plays here awhile, he's not going to get booed during a slump as long as he runs balls out. There may be a downside to playing in Milwaukee, but, to me. it's been a very comfortable place to play and live."