Bengie Molina stood near the door of a quiet clubhouse on Thursday night, packed suitcase at his feet. A little more than 24 hours before, his Texas Rangers were considered strong favorites to win the World Series. Suddenly, they trailed two games to none. For the second straight night, Molina was left to tell how a pitcher he groomed – Matt Cain – had humbled his team.
“He’s a horse, a guy who has a big heart,” Molina explained. “Those guys, all of them are the same way.”
Molina spent 3 1/2 seasons in San Francisco, guiding Cain’s development into an ace capable of firing 21 1/3 scoreless innings in this postseason. Molina has been a trusted confidant to Tim Lincecum, who started and won the Series opener for San Francisco. He mentored Buster Posey, the Giants’ rookie catcher and rising star.
While his pupils are thriving, Molina may be near the end. The 36-year-old is talking about retirement. Unless the Rangers take two of the next three games in Texas, the late-night charter after Game 2 could have been the final business trip of his 18-year playing career.
But there was no angst about Molina as he went through the travel routine for perhaps the final time. This was not his most trying journey of the season. Not even close.
On the afternoon of June 30, he left AT&T Park for his first road trip since receiving some alarming news: His wife, Jamie, had abnormal cell growth in her esophagus. Doctors feared that it was cancer.
And after the team charter landed in Denver that day, Molina learned that the Giants had traded him to the Rangers.
“It was a very tough time,” he recalled Thursday. “I didn’t know what to expect. It was difficult for us to deal with.”
The trade meant that Jamie had to find a new doctor in Dallas. The uncertainty surrounding her diagnosis did not end until Oct. 14, when a biopsy of Jamie’s esophagus showed that she is cancer-free. Also, a tumor on her liver was recently found to be benign.
After four worrisome months, the Molinas received the happy news one day before Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.
“That’s why Bengie has been so loose in the playoffs – this is like a bonus to him,” Jamie said Thursday night, while watching Game 2 from the right-field grandstand. “His whole mindset was, ‘I want to go home and take care of you.’ But I told him, ‘This is it. This could be the end of your career. Go play like a little kid.’
“He’s enjoying every minute of the playoffs. Now he knows I don’t have cancer – that has been a big weight on him all season. He didn’t want to leave on road trips. I haven’t been able to go with him, because I’ve had too many doctors’ appointments. It’s been an incredibly rough season, but now we both feel blessed.”
Molina said only “a few guys” in the Texas clubhouse were fully aware of his wife’s ordeal. He acknowledged that Jamie’s health is one of the reasons he has given such strong consideration to retiring. (The couple had their first child, Jayda, last year.)
“When you’re done with the baseball game, you go to your family,” said Molina, who has two daughters from a previous marriage. “To hear she almost had cancer, it was devastating for me. Just to know she’s OK, it’s an amazing feeling.”
While Molina said he was able to block out his concerns about Jamie while he was on the field, her health scare may partially explain his below-average production this year. Molina batted .249 with five home runs and 36 RBIs – his worst overall offensive season since 2002.
He was dealing with physical hardships, too.
“Poor Bengie,” Jamie said with a sigh. “He got hit on his elbow in April, and he didn’t want to tell anybody. I told him, ‘You should just go on the DL.’ But he’s a little proud. He hasn’t been on the DL since 2004. He’s like, ‘I’m not going. I’ll be fine.’ They gave him a cortisone shot, and it didn’t help.
“So he struggled this whole year with his batting. He could never extend his arm. It’s still hurting him. Not being able to contribute to the Giants or the Rangers in the way he used to has been really difficult for him.”
But at least he’s had October.
The three rounds have provided enough warm memories to sustain Molina well into his baseball dotage – if it will begin in 2011.
In 10 postseason games, he is batting .353 with eight RBIs. He has hit two home runs, both of them memorable: a solo shot off David Price in the playoff opener at Tampa Bay, and a series-changing blast against A.J. Burnett that Yankees fans won’t forget for months.
Oh, and he stole a base in the decisive Game 5 victory over the Rays in the AL Division Series.
“The experience,” he said, “is amazing.”
Much has been made of the fact that Molina will receive a World Series ring regardless of the victor, given his contributions to the Giants. And while it’s rare to be dealt from one eventual league champion to the other – Lonnie Smith (Cardinals to Royals) did it in 1985 – Molina isn’t relishing in the promise of diamond jewels.
He already has a ring, earned with the Angels in 2002. And while he certainly wants another one, this World Series is special to Molina for a different reason: Both teams have a deep, heartfelt appreciation for who he is, as a player and person.
This series could go seven games without fans mocking Molina for his waistline – a common source of derision throughout his career. In San Francisco, where all shapes and sizes are welcome, he is respected for the work he did with Posey and the Giants’ pitching staff. In Texas, he is known for the postseason heroics that delivered the Rangers’ first pennant.
During perhaps the last weeks of Molina’s career, he is being celebrated for what he can do, instead of what he can’t. Giants players made the effort to welcome and embrace Molina at Tuesday’s pre-Series workout, which made him feel “like a family member.”
Wednesday’s outpouring was even more unexpected: During pregame introductions, San Francisco fans gave him an ovation so sincere that he paused in the bullpen to tap his heart and gesture to the sellout crowd.
“When they started cheering, he said he went numb,” Jamie said. “He actually had to pull his mask down, because he had to cry a little bit. It was so emotional. We felt so at home here, so comfortable, so loved.
“If this is the end of his career, then he gets to go out in such a wonderful way, with all of his friends in the World Series. It’s like we could take everybody we love to the World Series. It’s great. It’s perfect.”
By the standards of professional sports – a retire-or-be-retired business – the sendoff would be uncommonly sweet. Jamie, a former television sports producer, has already warned her husband, “I’m not going to let you be stupid and embarrass yourself like Brett Favre.” In other words: Do not retire immediately after the season and change your mind when pitchers and catchers report.
“Personally,” Jamie said, “I think the World Series has made him feel young again. He doesn’t feel like the ‘old, slow, fat, lazy guy’ that everybody tries to make him out to be. He’s got his fire back.”
For his part, Molina said Thursday that he doesn’t know what he’s going to do. That decision can wait.
But there was a moment when it appeared he would tip his hand.
He said: “Today was the first time … ”
Then his voice trailed off. Pardon? Excuse me? What’s that you were saying? No. Sorry. He offered nothing more on the subject. Just a grin. Bengie Molina is playing in the World Series. And now, more than ever, he knows that he’s supposed to be having fun.