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It’s twenty-five years ago, it’s 1996. Kerri Strug is flipping through the air on a broken ankle. Will Smith is saving the world from aliens while he gets engaged to Vivica A. Fox, who is a pole dancing instructor that takes cash donations. Helen Hunt is chasing tornadoes, and Tom Cruise is making missions possible. George Clooney is saving patients in the ER. Uncoordinated people everywhere are becoming dancing experts because of the Macarena, and Tracy Chapman is still looking for one reason stay here. Bill Clinton is on his way to re-election, and the Nintendo 64 arrives. All of these pale in comparison, however, to the debut of hometown hero Paul Molitor for the Twins.
Molitor’s stamp on the Minnesota baseball scene started long before his MLB career, as he attended both Cretin-Derham Hall and the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities. He became the third overall pick of the 1977 draft by the Milwaukee Brewers, and his storied career began as a member of Harvey’s Wallbangers. His career with Milwaukee was full of significant success at the plate, but was also marred with a rash of injuries. An elbow injury saw Molitor play of number different positions with the Brewers, and would eventually lead to him getting Tommy John surgery. He began to see a lot of time at designated hitter as early as 1982, and by 1990, he was basically a full-time DH.
After parts of 15 seasons with the Brew Crew, Molitor took his talents north of the border to Toronto, where he replaced fellow Minnesota legend Dave Winfield in the middle of their juggernaut offense. He had a successful stint in Toronto, hitting a combined .315, posting an OPS+ 128, and collecting the World Series MVP in 1993. After the 1995 season, Molitor came home to roost in Minnesota, once again replacing Winfield as he signed a free agent contract with the Twins.
He came out of the gates firing, as he posted 14 hits in the first 8 games of the season, which equaled out to a .424 batting average. Molitor mostly wouldn’t slow down, as his lowest batting average at any point of the season was .318. His production largely flew under the radar, however, as the Twins stumbled to a 78-84 record. In an era largely defined by hulking sluggers and alleged steroid use, Molitor posted one of his finest seasons in his age-39 season. Here are some of the main numbers posted by Molitor:
Hits: 225 (career-high and league-leading)
Batting Average: .341
Doubles: 41 (tied for career-high)
RBI: 113 (career-high)
WAR: 3.7 (second among DHs behind Edgar Martinez)
Molitor’s 1996 is a season that any player would be proud of, but especially a player in what should be the twilight of his career. For players aged 39 and older, Molitor’s 225 hits rank as the most in the history of the MLB. His 18 stolen bases also jump off the page, as the designated hitter position is not often associated with speed. Among players that were designated hitters more than 50% of the time, Molitor has 5 of the top 18 stolen base seasons, including tying for the top mark with 31 stolen bases in 1992. Another unusual part of his season was his RBI total, as his 113 RBI were the most by a player who hit fewer that 10 homers since 1946.
One moment from 1996 stands out in particular was Molitor reaching 3,000 hits, as he became the first player to do it with a triple. While this is the most famous moment of the Twins’ 1996 season, and his most iconic moment with the Twins, the rest of Molitor’s 1996 season should also live on because of his brilliance that year. He would of course go on to become the manager of Twins, including winning the AL Manager of the Year. Molitor will forever be linked with Minnesota and the Twins, and also is probably somewhere trying to take Dave Winfield’s job as we speak.