Molina’s pro road from Johnson City to Cooperstown

Yadier Molina played for three Tennessee minor league teams, Johnson City, the Tennessee Smokies, and the Memphis Redbirds before a big-league career, now entering its 16th season. (photo by Mike Morrow)

He was 18 years old when he signed a contract with the Cardinals, a catcher out of high school in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico.

They had drafted him in the fourth round in June that year.

For the 2001 season, the Cardinals sent him to Johnson City, Tenn., to play for a rookie league team. He played 42 games as a catcher and recorded 81 assists. He didn’t hit much, a .249 batting average.

After spending a year in Class A Pretoria, the Cardinals sent him to their AA affiliate, the Tennessee Smokies. He caught 100 games there, hit .275 with 13 doubles and 51 RBIs. In 2004, he hit the trifecta, making his third Tennessee minor-league stop, playing for the Class AAA Memphis affiliate of the Cardinals, batting .302 in 37 games.

But Yadier Molina wouldn’t be long for the minor leagues. On June 3, 2004, he went to the parent club St. Louis Cardinals, a backup catcher to Mike Matheny. He played in 51 games that year, batting .267 with a couple of homers. It was a club that would go to the World Series, and it was the team that would lose four straight games to the Boston Red Sox, who ended the Curse of the Bambino that year.

Molina is now 36 years old. He has been to three more World Series, winning two of them. And he is offering some of the most thought-provoking circumstances entering his 16th year in the big leagues, sitting on a career anyone would be proud of, wearing only one big-league uniform in his life, owning the highest respect of Cardinal followers, and destined for enshrinement one day in baseball’s Hall of Fame.

It’s about respect

For those who follow numbers, you don’t find Molina in most of the places people look for greatness. He has only 146 home runs. Three thousand hits? Not a chance. Try 1,850. A lifetime batting average of .282.

The Cardinals will open the 2019 baseball season Thursday in Milwaukee. Molina is expected to start behind the plate. He will probably hit somewhere about fifth or sixth in the batting order. But Molina will commence handling a sterling staff of pitchers, some of whom are gaining notice for their youth, some for their age. But if ever there were a man with a touch for handling pitchers it will be the man behind the plate on Thursday. Molina, the youngest of three brothers who became big-league catchers, Bengie and Jose the others, will step again into a leadership role that has few equals in the game.

Molina impresses experts (photo by Mike Morrow)

Sparky Anderson, the Hall of Fame manager of the Big Red Machine Cincinnati Reds, was always adamant that if you want to talk about the greatest catcher ever, don’t even mention another name with Johnny Bench. And it was hard to argue with his point. But short of looking at offensive numbers, the best ways of assessing the performance of big league catchers is through two measurements. Defense and respect. When those two factors are taken into account, Bench still stands tall, probably tallest. But if anyone is asked to think about defense and respect when gauging the value of a catcher, Yadier Molina has to come into the conversation.

Molina has caught 15,388 innings. They have come in 1,836 games, which ranks Molina 12th all-time in games caught. He plays a position that people look at with signs of respect, when done right, an attribute for which Molina has few equals. He is associated with greatness, wisdom, passion for baseball and is quite simply one of the most admired baseball players to ever come along.

Defense can be viewed through the number of Gold Glove Awards. Molina has won the award nine times, including last season. Only two catchers have won more, Ivan Rodriguez with 13 and Bench with 10.

And respect? For judging that in Molina, it’s best just to pay attention to experts, people who have been through the grind, in position to know whereof they speak.

A few years ago, Bob Nightengale, writing for USA Today, got comments from former Cardinals catcher Ted Simmons about Molina. Simmons himself caught 1,771 games. Simmons was a special assistant for the Seattle Mariners at the time.

“I’ll put it to you this way,” Simmons told Nightengale. “Molina could be the manager of the team. He could be the pitching coach. He could be the hitting coach. And he could catch the game.

“I’m convinced he could do all four of those things at the same time. His awareness is unparalleled to anybody in today’s game.

“And if you go strictly by defense,” Simmons said, “he’s the best catcher I’ve ever seen in my life. Ever.”

OK. That’s worthwhile commentary. And Simmons was including Bench and Rodriguez in the discussion. Simmons, of course, spent much of his career as a Cardinal, so maybe there was a lot of St. Louis in his thought process. So then consider Nightengale’s questioning when put to David Ross, one of the most well-traveled catchers in baseball.

Ross’s take: “If you’re drawing up a catcher, if you want to make a robot and make him a really good catcher, you want him to be Yadier Molina.”

Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch did an extensive interview with Molina early this month. It provided valuable clues about how Molina views his talent, his meaning to the team and his place in Cardinals history.

Johnny Bench, the best ever? (photo by Mike Morrow)

Like is he as good as ever?

“I feel young,” he said. “I know I’m 36, but I feel I can play more years. Right now, the game is going younger and you’ve got to understand that. I’ve got to go out and prove to the people that I’m still at that same level.”

Does he think he can play another year after his current contract runs out after 2020?

“Yes. I feel I can do the job,” he told Hummel. “But I want to retire when I’m at a good level. I don’t want to retire when I hit .190 and I can’t throw anybody out at second. I don’t want to retire that way.”

Don’t mess with him

But then there’s the element of Molina that gets right down to the core of being in St. Louis, where Molina has been one of the icons of the game, like Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Ozzie Smith, Lou Brock. Molina stands up for the logo on the uniform, to the point he took exception to frivolous comments by Kris Bryant and the retired Ryan Dempster who joked in the off-season about St. Louis being a boring town. They even had to make a point to say they were just joking around, because they were. But their silly little exchange, to which Molina took offense, later spoke volumes about major league players’ view of Molina. You don’t mess with him, not even if you’re joking. He takes this stuff personally. Bryant and Dempster knew if Yadier Molina is upset with you, you need to work it out. And they did. Or at least they tried.

Hummel wanted to know if Molina wanted to manage in the major leagues.

“Not really,” Molina said. “Can I do the job? Yes, I know this game. But I don’t want it.”

Hummel’s interview was a terrific view of a great player. But if one aspect of their conversation stood out, it might have been when Molina talked about the position he plays.

“If I can’t catch, I’ll retire,” he said. “I don’t need the money. I don’t need the years. I don’t need anybody to tell me, ‘Wow, you played 20 years.’ If I play 12 years, I play them like a professional. It’s not like I played 12, but I only really played nine because my last three years were bad, bad, bad.

“I don’t want to be retiring catching 50 games. If they’re paying me $20 million, I don’t want to catch just 50 games.”

That’s a catcher. That’s a man who knows catching, whose passion is for catching, who is centered only if he is behind the plate in a Cardinal uniform.

St. Louis has seen the likes of some of the greatest players of all time. It will see the likes of many great players to come. But St. Louis may not ever see the likes of a catcher again like Molina. He has literally spent half his life being paid to catch a baseball, be a Cardinal, be a leader. A Hall of Famer.

Categories: Reds/Cards/Braves

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