With Paul Molitor taking over as Twins manager, a long-forgotten memory of the Hall of Famer came to mind.
In 1995, I was pitching for the Tigers. It was my rookie year, and nothing short of disastrous. I was 22 years old, just 14 months removed from college, and desperately trying to find my way in the major leagues. The big-league Tigers were my fourth team of the season, which had started in Double-A Chattanoga before stops in Triple-A Indianapolis and Cincinnati, before I finally landed in Detroit via the David Wells trade at the July 31 deadline.
The great Sparky Anderson was my manager, in his final year at the helm. I often say that my horrific pitching — along with that of Jose Lima, Felipe Lira, and Clint Sodowsky — convinced Sparky, Lou Whitaker and Kirk Gibson all to retire that year. If this was what Tigers baseball had become, they wanted no part of it.
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My turn in the rotation came up on September 11 at Toronto’s then-named SkyDome. I was coming off my first American League win and second big-league victory. I had hoped the tide was turning on what was, to that point anyway, a rookie year worth forgetting.
In the bottom of the first inning, I retired the first two batters: Roberto Alomar on a fly ball to right field, and Alex Gonzalez on a swinging strikeout. Up next was Paul Molitor.
I was once told that in batting practice Paul Molitor would try to hit line drives off the L-screen, the protective net that keeps batting practice pitchers from getting hit. I had watched him do it. Molitor wasn’t really a power hitter, but rather a gap-to-gap line drive hitter who could get on base. It made perfect sense that he would practice hitting balls off the L-screen.
With two outs and no one on base, I threw Molitor a first-pitch fastball away. Which he drilled right back up the middle. I didn’t even have time to flinch. The next thing I knew, the ball was on the ground near me. I picked it up and threw out Molitor at first base. Inning over. A tough break for the Hall of Famer who hit .322 against lefties (like me) in his career.
I knew the ball hit me. I just didn’t know exactly where. After the play ended, though, my body started telling me exactly where I was hit: on my inner left thigh, about six inches away from hindering my ability to produce children. Assuming, of course, that I ever found a woman interested in having them with me.
I was not wearing a protective cup. I had never worn a protective cup.
I walked back to the dugout feeling fine, not really concerned about the line drive, because nothing really hurt. But our trainer, Russ Miller, wanted to see my leg, so I pulled my pants down to my knees. I already had a deep purple bruise the size of an extra-large pancake on my leg. It looked bad, but really wasn’t. I told Sparky I was fine and could still pitch. He took one look at the bruise and told me I was done.
I wasn’t happy, but knew I was in no position to argue with my Hall of Fame manager. I had done nothing to earn staying in that game, and he would have taken it as an ultimate sign of disrespect if I put up a fight. I knew better.
I walked from the visitor’s dugout to the clubhouse at SkyDome. While making my way to the training room, I passed a snack table. Never a beacon of nutrition in my early years, I grabbed a Tootsie Roll.
Three chews into my Tootsie Roll I felt a large crunch, and I knew that wasn’t supposed to happen. I put my hand in my mouth to investigate, realizing quickly that an acrylic crown, covering a root canal I had the year before, was falling to pieces in my hand. A perfect ending to a perfect night.
We went on to win the game 3-2. I made my next start five days later and turned in another dandy (two-plus innings against the Rangers). This time I wore a protective cup, and continued to do so every game for the next 17 seasons. My three children are grateful for that. Or should be.
Congrats on the new gig, Paul Molitor. And thank you for one of my few scoreless starts I put together. And the kids.