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Twins Don’t Need a Billy Martin Fiasco

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October 1, 2017

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Paul Molitor will soon know if the Twins want him back as manager. If the decision is no, the news will be received with a lot of criticism and cussing from fans and media—creating the most negative response about a Twins manager change since Billy Martin was fired following the 1969 season.

Molitor is among the favorites to win the American League Manager of the Year award because he has helped his team to the postseason after the 2016 Twins were among baseball’s worst clubs with a 59-103 record. He and his staff showed their collective baseball IQ’s in guiding a group most baseball experts didn’t think had any chance of making the postseason and couldn’t even finish with a near .500 record.

Molitor and staff almost constantly, out of necessity, shuffled the pitching staff while showing patience with starters, relievers and also position players. Their leadership contributed to a team characterized by its will and perseverance. The Twins go into the final day of the regular season today with an 84-77 record and a Wild Card position entitling them to a one-game playoff on Tuesday night against the Yankees in New York.

Yet Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, the organization’s top baseball decision makers who joined the organization last fall, are choosing to wait until later this month to decide Molitor’s fate. The 61-year-old Molitor, who also led the Twins to surprising success in 2015 with an 83-79 record, has likely been bothered by the situation regarding his future, but publicly he has not complained.

Falvey & Levine

The prevailing attitude among fans and media is Molitor has accomplished too much for Falvey and Levine to not renew the Minnesota native, who is the only active MLB manager who made the Hall of Fame as a player. It may be that Falvey and Levine needed to see this kind of work by Molitor in 2017 to retain him. Also, new leadership often wants “their own guy.”

Falvey and Levine have already made changes in the organization, letting go scouts and minor league manager Doug Mientkiewicz, a popular former Twins player and leader. Such moves have contributed to the anxiety of whether Molitor, a long time local hero dating back to his days at Cretin-Derham Hall and with the Gophers, returns as manager in 2018.

Dave Mona has followed the Twins since the franchise moved to Minneapolis-St. Paul from Washington D.C. in 1961. The WCCO Radio talk show host has, of course, wondered about Molitor’s future.

“At one time I was 50-50 but I am more like 90-10 right now that I think he will be back,” Mona told Sports Headliners. “There remains the chance that he won’t. It’s not a popularity contest. Obviously there was something about Doug Mientkiewicz that the new management didn’t see was consistent with the way they want to go.

“Then there have been other changes in the organization, (and) there is more rumored. These guys (Falvey and Levine) certainly have the option, without management interference, to go whatever direction they think is best for the long-term interest for the Twins.”

A decision not to retain Molitor will stir up controversy this fall and next winter. Such an announcement will not only create bad feelings among fans and media, but could cost the organization ticket sales, and impact business-to-business relationships and revenues.

The negativity, though, would diminish with time as spring training approached. If the Twins qualify for the postseason again next year, the anger and hurt over a Molitor dismissal could be all but forgotten.

Certainly the decision to not renew Molitor wouldn’t create the toxic results of the Martin termination. Martin, who had a fiery and highly publicized career as a player with the Yankees, quickly became a Minnesota fan favorite when he joined the Twins as a coach on the 1965 team that won the American League pennant.

Martin got his first MLB managing job in 1969 when the Twins hired him, and it was a move applauded by Minnesota fans. He took over a club that was 79-83 the previous season but the cocky and bold Martin was going to will and strategize the Twins to better results.

Martin led the Twins to a 97-65 record and his team won the newly formed American League West Division. Along the way he delighted fans but also alienated people including front office executive Howard Fox, a close confidant of owner Calvin Griffith.

Mona had a closer look at the Twins soap opera than most because he was the Twins beat writer for the Minneapolis Tribune. “Billy and Howard just got to the point they couldn’t even be in the same bus together,” Mona said. “The hostility between the two of them was just palpable.”

The Twins were swept in a five-game American League championship series by the Orioles. Mona recalled Griffith being irritated with Martin’s choice of a Twins starter in the series. It was probably part of a long list of grievances held by the Twins owner, who could be cranky just like Martin. The postseason decision was made to fire Martin.

Griffith didn’t anticipate the firestorm of criticism from the move. “They totally misjudged the affection that the fans had for Martin,” Mona said. “There was something in him that resonated with fans and I think he cultivated that. When they (ownership) ignored that I think fans took it personally, and felt it was a shot at them because they had made it known that they supported Billy.”

New Twins manager Bill Rigney led the Twins to a 98-64 record and another division title in 1970. The Orioles again took care of the Twins in the playoffs, winning 3-0. Twins home attendance fell by almost 90,000 to 1,261,887 in 1970, and only two more times before 1984 did annual totals exceed 1 million fans.

The Twins players who won those division titles in 1969 and 1970 deteriorated and the farm system was failing. Griffith’s teams of the 1970s were mediocre. A lot of fans remained bitter for years over the firing of Martin who ranks with the franchise’s best managers ever, a list that begins with two-time World Series winner Tom Kelly.

Molitor may not belong in that company yet, but the Twins don’t need to cut his career short in 2017. If they do, it will be the most controversial manager termination since 1969.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

(1) Reader Comment

  1. avatar
    Dennis McGrath
    October 1, 2017 at 12:53 pm

    How could anyone with even a passing familiarity with what Paul Molitor has achieved even consider not extending his contract? My friend and former partner Dave Mona knows infinitely more about the Twins and baseball than I ever will, but I would guess he would agree with me. This ain't Billy Martin we're talking about here, this is a class act and a top baseball mind who knows how to manage.

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