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Los Angeles Times

Molina Proves To Be Toughest On The Block For The Angels

By Ross Newhan

July 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved. 

It isn't a full-blown encounter between the irresistible force and immovable object.

It isn't what Manager Mike Scioscia compares to a "clash of cymbals" when a baserunner in full flight plows into a stationary catcher.

On the sound stage it would be a walk-through.

In spring training, the Angels are only trying to prepare Bengie Molina for the hard knocks ahead, with Scioscia and batting coach Mickey Hatcher playing roles of "stunt dummies" taking aim at the catcher.

"We just try to go over the mechanics of the situation," Scioscia said. "We just try to give him a feel for where the runner would come from.

"Mickey is real good at it. He has more of a crash mentality."

In reality, of course, it's Molina who has the crash mentality, but then didn't we know that already?

Isn't he the American League's Gold Glove catcher with the paid-up Blue Cross that is mandatory at his position?

Well, if the intangibles that are part of his assignment are often overlooked, Molina provided a full-blown reminder of his survival technique twice within a four-day span this week as he held his ground and the ball in withstanding teeth-rattling collisions with Jermaine Dye in Oakland on Sunday and Kansas City's Ken Harvey in Anaheim on Wednesday night.

It was a display of toughness that may have been honed in spring practice but required another trait that can't be taught.

"The first thing is intestinal fortitude, and Bengie has it," said Scioscia, a former catcher recognized as one of the best ever for absorbing licks and a pivotal influence in Molina's late-blooming development after that fortitude wouldn't allow him to quit on the game.

Not even when Molina couldn't help thinking he was done before he started and hung his spikes from a Puerto Rico light pole in disappointment when he wasn't drafted following his 1992 high school graduation after being led to believe he would be a top selection.

And not through seven injury-plagued seasons in the minors, until he was something of a last resort for the Angels in 1999 after they had gone through Todd Greene, Matt Walbeck, Steve Decker, Charlie O'Brien and Bret Hemphill.

"Now," said Jose Molina, the other half of the Angels' brotherhood of catchers, "he's completely healthy and completely on his game."

So completely, in fact, that he ranks second in the league in throwing out base stealers (at 40%), leads the Angels in hitting with runners in scoring position (.371), is batting .290 overall after a .329 June and, if he didn't get the All-Star accreditation he deserved, he has that Gold Glove, World Series ring and respect that comes to a guy "who has had to prove himself every step of the way," Scioscia said, "and is now one of the best catchers in baseball and the best in our league."

A rock at 5 feet 11 and 220 pounds, Molina also now has the bruises that are his valorous rewards for the backward, somersaulting collisions with the 6-5, 220-pound Dye (now sidelined for six weeks by the shoulder injury suffered in the run-in with Molina) and the lumbering, 6-2, 240-pound Harvey, whose only option was to try to dislodge the ball as he attempted to score on the back end of a double steal.

Molina wasn't talking about it Thursday and said he was through talking to the media. He said he had his words twisted by some reporters in Thursday's papers, being quoted as saying Harvey was out to hurt him and that he doesn't care if the other player gets hurt in the collision.

"It made me look bad," he said. "I think it better if I don't talk to the media anymore."

Said Jose Molina: "Bengie knows that Dye wasn't trying to hurt him and Harvey wasn't trying to hurt him. They had a job to do, he had a job to do. If we have to put our body in position to get hurt, it's part of the game, the consequences of catching."

Those consequences, of course, often include fielding a throw on the in-between hop and retaining it as the runner arrives at the same time.

"He's a sitting duck," said center fielder Darin Erstad. "It takes a unique talent. I'm impressed with anyone who plays the position."

Said Scioscia: "You can't separate the parts of the job you like from the parts you don't. I talked with Bengie this morning. He knows that Dye and Harvey were playing good old-fashioned hardball, making a legitimate attempt to score. Dye may have had one slot to try and slide, but Harvey had only the one shot [by trying to dislodge the ball]. Bengie was more upset about what he was quoted saying as by anything those guys did."

The earth shook in both instances, but Scioscia said it didn't generate memories of his own hardest hits because most of those wiped out his memory in the process.

He did recall the hardest, however.

"Chili Davis," he said. "I think it was 1986. The guy was built like Apollo Creed and could run like Carl Lewis."

Davis, then with the San Francisco Giants, ended up hurting his shoulder in the collision. The staggered Scioscia made no attempt to pick up his mask and helmet.

"All I could think about was rolling the ball back to the mound," he said. "I ended up rolling it to the third base coaching box. I was woozy for a week, and they told me I hit real well that week. Maybe I should have been hit more often."

If he were talking, Molina would probably say that twice in four days is plenty.

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