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A Band of Misfits
Tales of the 2010 San Francisco Giants
By Andrew Baggarly
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2015 Andrew Baggarly
All rights reserved.
Adios, El Caballo
The Giants were descending from 35,000 feet, and word began to travel.
One player saw the news on his PDA. Another was surfing the Web on his laptop. The Fox Sports report had been linked on MLBtraderumors.com, which passes for wildfire in this information era.
Bengie Molina had been traded.
Teammates began to approach the proud veteran catcher, stretched out in his own row, listening to music on black, oversized headphones.
"Are you okay? I'm so sorry, man."
"Good luck. It's been an honor playing with you."
"Wow, what a shock."
The headphones came off, and Molina met the news with stunned silence. The Giants were on the verge of announcing a deal with the Texas Rangers. They were getting a right-handed middle reliever, Chris Ray, along with a minor leaguer — a seemingly small return for a former Gold Glove catcher who had been the heart of his team, a two-time winner of the Willie Mac Award as the most inspirational Giant, and a steady guide during both of Tim Lincecum's Cy Young–winning seasons.
Molina would be leaving a flawed, fourth-place team for a surprising Texas club that was leading the AL West. But he was not happy. He was confused, angry, and, most of all, hurt to receive the news from teammates as their charter flight from San Francisco — where the archrival Dodgers had just swept them — descended into Denver.
Molina had a hunch he might be traded at some point. He knew it was a matter of time before the Giants would clear his position for bright young catcher Buster Posey. But it was June 30. The non-waiver trade deadline was a month away.
"They're getting rid of me now?" he thought. "After all I've done?"
This was not the first time the Giants had stung his pride. Two years earlier, on the day the club drafted Posey with the fifth overall pick, general manager Brian Sabean made a reference to Molina's "clock winding down." The longtime GM was referring to the expiration of Molina's contract after the 2009 season, but his language was inelegant. Molina took it as a comment that his skills were eroding.
After the 2009 season, when a reporter asked Sabean about re-signing Molina to a one-year contract, the GM said, "That ship has sailed."
Molina didn't get the two-year contract he wanted — that he felt he deserved — from the New York Mets or any other team. So it came as a surprise to everyone, the Giants included, when he took slightly less money to return for one more year.
On his first day in spring camp, Molina pulled up his black socks in front of his locker and smiled.
"I guess that ship sailed back," he said wistfully.
The catcher is supposed to be the toughest soul on the diamond — constantly pelted by foul tips, mentally tested by the thousands of decisions he must make every game, and prone to full-frontal collisions by runners flying down the third-base line.
Molina handled all those burdens with quiet grace. But inside, he felt wounded. He was sensitive to every passing remark, glum over any perceived slight. He never trusted the baseball establishment, never forgot that scouts passed him over twice in the draft while at Arizona Western College. He returned home to Puerto Rico, and after playing a few games for a local semipro team, he quit the sport he loved with one symbolic act.
He kicked off his cleats, knotted the laces together, whipped them over his head like an Argentinean bolo, and flung them to the humid trade winds. The shoes stuck in the power lines, as tangled up as his emotions.
What next? Bengie didn't know. His father, Benjamin Sr., came home every day before dusk to play catch with his sons. He never waved a tired hand or begged off grabbing his worn mitt, even though he started his 12-hour shift at 4:00 am. Maybe there would be a job for Bengie at the Westinghouse factory, too.
There was something else Bengie didn't know: a scout from the Angels, Ray Poitevint, had happened to see him swing the bat during that last semipro game. Poitevint came to Vega Alta to work out Bengie's little brother, Jose, a catcher with a strong throwing arm. From across the street, he spied Bengie line a single to right field. He liked the swing. Then he saw Molina run to first base.
To call Bengie a below-average runner would be charitable. Even when he was younger and carrying around fewer pounds, scouts almost needed a sundial to clock him in the 60-yard dash. It's the reason he never received a shot at a pro contract.
But Poitevint had seen enough players overcome marginal tools. The old scout once signed a Hall of Famer, Eddie Murray, but he was much prouder of another signee, Enos Cabell, who made it to the big leagues through force of will and fashioned a respectable career.
"Scouts are trained to look for flaws, and when they see one, they'll just pass and go to the next guy," Poitevint said. "We're always looking for perfection."
Another scout would have turned away. But Poitevint kept an open mind and walked across the street to see another at-bat. It so happened that Bengie hit another line drive to right field. And as fate would have it, Poitevint took a seat next to Gladys Molina, matriarch of the family and an unflagging supporter of her three boys.
"Please," she implored, "you have to see my Bengie."
The next morning Poitevint asked Jose if his older brother could join them for a workout. Jose immediately rushed back to the family house, crashed through the door, and nudged his big brother awake.
"Quick! Grab your hat. Get your bats. A scout wants to see you," Jose said. "Put on your shoes!"
Bengie was wide awake now. He jolted out of bed.
Years later, Bengie couldn't remember if he wore sneakers to the workout or borrowed his brother's cleats. He was sure of one thing, though: he didn't try to shimmy up into those power lines.
He put on a tremendous round of batting practice for Poitevint, spraying line drives as his father pitched to him. Then Poitevint asked him to crouch down, receive the ball at home plate, and make a few throws to second base. Bengie hadn't caught before. He pitched, played a little outfield and even some shortstop in junior college. Jose was the catcher in the family. But Bengie was willing to do anything, and the Molina brothers had the same strong arm and quick release.
Poitevint signed Bengie on the spot. He received the grand sum of $500.
"I would have signed for nothing," Bengie would say, much later. "I would have signed for nothing."
Now holding a professional contract, Bengie almost killed himself to get into the best shape of his life. He ran hills with a truck tire around his waist and had deep cuts from where the steel belting poked through the rubber. He chopped wood for hours. His family called him "El Caballo Loco" — the Crazy Horse.
When he arrived in the Angels minor league camp, a coach told him there wouldn't be time for extra hitting. He was an organizational player — a non-prospect. He was here to catch in the bullpen. And when he went to Cedar Rapids, Iowa — another planet to a kid from the Caribbean — he was a backup who played in 48 games.
Bengie knew he needed to improve his catching skills, so he accepted an invitation to play winter ball for Mayaguez. But it came with a catch: he would have to catch all the bullpens they wanted.
He once caught seven bullpens before a game, then three more during it. If he was lucky, he'd get an at-bat and maybe a few innings behind the plate. El Caballo was being whipped.
That wasn't the worst part. Mayaguez was on the east coast of the island, a two-hour drive at top speed in clear weather. Bengie couldn't go at top speed. He didn't drive his father's old Chevy Nova through the commute so much as he coaxed it through. The entire chassis shook if he went faster than 55 mph. The tires were bald, slick, and the wrong size. When he made a right turn, they scraped the frame and made a terrible screeching noise. Driving in the rain was the worst. The wipers didn't work, so he had to roll down the window and crank them by hand.
All while the car slid across the wet road.
One time he had his baby daughter in the back seat and was so scared that he began to cry.
"I didn't know if I could keep doing this," he said.
But in those moments, he would think of his father, his back aching after those 12-hour shifts but always returning home early enough to take his sons to the practice field. With the light fading, they would hit and run and throw together. Baseball wasn't just Bengie's career. It was his father's, too.
Over the years Bengie made believers in the Angels minor league system. He caught the eye of Mike Scioscia, who skippered the Dodgers' Triple A affiliate before the Angels hired him to manage in 2000. One of Scioscia's first and boldest moves was to hand the big-league catching job to an unproven non-prospect. Bengie rewarded Scioscia's trust, and in his third season, he was the starting catcher on a World Series winner. The Angels, with their collection of tough outs, wrested the title from Barry Bonds' Giants in seven games.
Poitevint would have another Enos Cabell to think about and smile during lonelier moments on the road.
Not only did Benjamin Molina Sr. see all three of his sons reach the major leagues, but he would boast something that no other father has ever boasted in the history of baseball. He saw all three sons — Bengie, Jose, and his youngest, Yadier — win World Series rings.
In October of 2008 Benjamin Sr. was returning to the baseball field across the street from his house — the field he had built, that he mowed and groomed and maintained for the community — carrying more baseballs for an afternoon game. He grabbed his chest and collapsed. He was 58.
The sudden loss affected Bengie deeply. He carried a photo collage of his father in his locker, home and away during the 2009 season, his third with the Giants. His mood darkened. And he knew free agency was coming up after the season. All the old thoughts flooded back, and he felt wounded again.
But the ship turned back around, and Molina was happy to return to a city that his daughters and wife, Jamie, loved. He exchanged text messages with Posey, the young catcher that he admired and supported. He pledged that spring to be a good teammate, always, and accept whatever happened. He finally found peace with his father's passing, and after a cold winter as a free agent in which nobody showed him the respect he felt he deserved, he entered 2010 assuming it would be the last season of his career. There was a peace in that, too.
He would be able to spend all his time with Jamie and the girls. After a while, he might even look for a job in baseball. But not as a scout.
"Because I'd sign all the guys who are 5'8"," he said, "and have a heart the size of a building."
Then came that ink-black night in Denver. The Giants' jet touched down with a jarring thud.
Molina took a few minutes to collect his thoughts, and a text message from Jamie confirmed the news. He had been traded.
What was he supposed to do now? Check into the Giants' hotel or catch a flight to Anaheim, where the Rangers were playing?
Giants Manager Bruce Bochy told him to stay with the team and be prepared in case he had to report to Coors Field the next afternoon. No trade had been finalized. It turned out that Major League Baseball had to approve the financials of the deal because the Rangers ownership was emerging from bankruptcy. The Giants would be sending roughly $2 million to Texas to offset the salary difference between Molina and Ray. When Molina heard that, it only stung him further. They were paying the Rangers to take him.
Molina exchanged hugs with teammates on the tarmac, then boarded the players' bus. He did not go quietly. He had something he needed to say.
He rose and walked to the front of the bus, stood in the center aisle and poured out his heart. He thanked his teammates and said he would miss them. He reminded them that they had his cell phone number and to call or send him a message whenever they wanted, not only during their baseball career, but in whatever life held for them beyond that. He said he would always be their friend.
And he said something else.
"You have what it takes to win this thing, and I'm going to be watching as much as I can."
The players began to applaud, then rose and gave him a standing ovation.
But the Giants were a fourth-place team, just three games over .500. They had a five-game losing streak. Their Opening Day lineup of old, injury-prone players already had broken down in a couple of key areas.
In a few days they would play the longest game in Coors Field history — a torturous statement if one ever existed in baseball — and lose.
Molina was going to a first-place team in Texas. The Giants were going nowhere.CHAPTER 2
Hail to the Buster
Demp Posey heard another commotion from inside the house. This time he didn't even bother to investigate. He kept right on flipping his special-recipe jalapeño cheeseburgers on the barbecue, the smoke rising into the Georgia night.
"Would you believe it?" he thought to himself, shaking his head. "He's done it again."
It was May 29 and his eldest son, Buster, had been called up by the San Francisco Giants that morning. In his season debut the much-hyped prospect hit an RBI single. Then he hit another. And another.
"Naw, he cannot have another hit already," Demp Posey thought as he heard another round of muffled hoops and hollers from his wife and in-laws, glued to the TV. "This has got to stop."
There was no stopping Gerald Dempsey "Buster" Posey III. Not in high school, where he was a strong-armed pitcher, pure-hitting shortstop, and the talk of tiny Leesburg, Georgia, population 2,900. Not at Florida State, where he volunteered to catch his sophomore year even though he didn't know how to buckle up a shin guard. And not in the minor leagues, where he matriculated faster than Doogie Howser.
Posey awakened the morning of May 29 in Salt Lake City, where the Triple A Fresno Grizzlies were finishing up a road series. He owned a .349 average in the Pacific Coast League, an unreal .442 on-base percentage, and 21 of his 60 hits had gone for extra bases.
It was time.
The Giants were coming off an embarrassing sweep at the hands of the crosstown A's in Oakland the previous weekend, scoring a total of one run in three losses, but they had rallied to take three of four after that. The situation wasn't good — the Giants were treading water, just three games over .500 — but it had stabilized a bit. The weight of the world wouldn't be on Posey's shoulders.
He caught a flight at dawn to San Francisco and batted sixth in the lineup that night. And to a series of standing ovations in a 12–1 rout of the Arizona Diamondbacks, he lined a run-scoring single in the first inning. He shot another RBI single up the middle in the fifth. And he grounded a single through the left side with the bases loaded in the seventh.
Then the stoic 23-year-old with the Eagle Scout's demeanor stood on first base and finally cracked a smile.
"It was great. It was fun. It's humbling," he said. "I have to slow myself down because it can get you going a little bit."
In spite of his memorable season debut, Giants officials took plenty of criticism over the timing of the promotion. To many, Posey clearly was the best hitter in Sabean's organization — including the major leagues — and it was borderline criminal to keep him in the minors while the Giants' meager offense struggled in April and May.
Others railed at Sabean for calling up Posey too soon. Another three weeks or so in the minor leagues and he wouldn't have accrued enough service time to be eligible for arbitration until 2013. Now he was likely to qualify a year earlier. The team had just experienced the downside of making a similar move with ace pitcher Tim Lincecum, who had been called up in May 2007 and made a multimillion dent in the Giants' 2010 payroll as a result.
"Let me dispel all that, all right?" said Sabean, when asked about the service-time issue on May 9. "When we think Posey's ready, just like when we thought Lincecum was ready — and this starts from ownership — he'll be in the big leagues.
"We can't be on a strict clock. Shoot, we're trying to get back to winning ways and get to the playoffs, and everybody understands it."
Sabean insisted he kept Posey at Triple A because the front office wasn't convinced the rookie could excel behind the plate in the big leagues. Yet when Posey came up, he played mostly first base. So on the surface, Sabean's rationale didn't make much sense.
Excerpted from A Band of Misfits by Andrew Baggarly. Copyright © 2015 Andrew Baggarly. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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