Minnesota columnist: Paul Molitor will crack down on those wimpy players with piddly little concussions

74 Comments

source: Getty Images

One guy who is really happy to see Paul Molitor take over as Twins manager is Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan. Why? Because he’s gonna stop coddling those wimpy players who beg out of the lineup with piddling little ailments like hangnails. And brain injuries:

His first order of business should be introducing a new mentality to the clubhouse.

During their four consecutive losing seasons, the Twins tried to exercise caution with injured or bruised players. Anyone complaining of an ache was given an extra day or two off. There is logic in that approach. There is also danger. The Twins clubhouse became a place where you could collect a check without actually taking the field.

One of the early tests of Molitor’s tenure will be his handling of his best player, Joe Mauer.

Both grew up in St. Paul. Both played baseball at Cretin High. Both had the early years of their careers defined by constant injuries. The difference between them is important. Molitor’s desire to play was obvious. Mauer’s is not.

When the guy making $23 million a year begs out of the lineup because of a bruise, it’s difficult for the manager to push others to play through pain.

Joe Mauer has been on the disabled list for the following ailments (courtesy of Twins Daily): A torn meniscus (2004); thigh strain (2007); lower back sprain (2009); bilateral leg weakness (2011); pneumonia (2011); concussion (2013); and an oblique strain (2014).

Maybe he should have rubbed dirt on his lungs to fight through the pneumonia. Maybe he should’ve just strapped it on and played through that concussion. Oh, wait, he tried that and Justin Morneau tried that before him. People like Souhan mock the bilateral leg weakness thing but it was ultimately traced back to a rare viral infection and, clearly, affected Mauer’s ability to play. Legs are pretty damn important to a hitter and a catcher, I’m told.

The fact is that the Twins, if anything, have typically encouraged or allowed far too many players to play through pain or injuries, and it hasn’t helped them a bit. Mauer’s doing so has likely hindered his performance in the short term while doing nothing to get him back to playing shape more quickly.

But despite all of that — and one bit that is often left out of these little bash pieces — is that Mauer has been one of the best players in baseball over the course of his career. He had a bad 2014 to be sure, but he spent a solid decade as the game’s best catcher, and when you’re a top hitting and defending catcher — who has averaged a bit over 500 plate appearances a year despite those injuries — no one can question your contributions and no one can question your toughness.

Yet questioning those things about Mauer is practically the Minnesota state pastime. The list of media idiots and ill-informed fans who have decided that all that ails the Twins is their best player and that, dammit, he needs to grow a pair and play more is as long as the Mississippi. It’s gone from comical to annoying to practically sick. Souhan is among the sickest. Really, I think he has some sort of pathological problem with all of this. He is, after all, a guy who argued that the University of Minnesota football coach should be fired because he has epilepsy. His newspaper issued a public apology for that. The motivating force there is the same as here, however: “your injuries and illnesses are getting in the way of my sports, dammit, and you are less of a person and competitor because of them.” Souhan questions Mauer’s desire? I question Souhan’s basic human decency and mental health.

But maybe this all ends soon. No, not because the Star-Tribune reassigns Souhan to the obituary page where he can mock the dead for being soft (that would make too much sense), but because Paul Molitor is now on the case, and he’s the LAST DAMN GUY who is going to put up with wimpy injured players. Indeed, he’s gonna outlaw the friggin’ disabled list altogether! He’ll lead by example!

Molitor struggled with injuries for much of his early career, being placed on the disabled list six times between 1980 and 1986. In 1984, Molitor struggled with elbow problems, played in only 13 games and ultimately underwent surgery in an attempt to salvage his career. He played in 140 games in 1985, hitting .297 with 10 home runs and 48 RBI. He followed that with a .281 average, 9 home runs and 55 RBI in 1986. That year he suffered a hamstring injury, returned for a few days, then reinjured it. He played in 105 games that season.

Um, wait. Well, um. OK, sure, he was injured a ton, but “HIS DESIRE TO PLAY WAS OBVIOUS!” I mean, once he was moved to DH anyway. Where he played 1168 of his nearly 2683 major league games.

I’m sure some of you will dismiss this as Souhan being Souhan. Of him just doing his schtick. Of being edgy because being edgy like this is what causes ESPN to back up the money truck for sports writers who want to go on those dumb shout fests they air in the afternoon. And maybe that is what Souhan is doing.

But one of my personal beliefs, learned by way of life experience, Vonnegut books and Batman — is that we are what we pretend to be, not what we claim we really are. And whether Souhan really is a dense, empathy-free person who chooses to eschew human decency in order to elevate sportsball over a person’s health and well being or if that’s just an act he puts on, that is, essentially, what he is.

Keone Kela’s return gives beleaguered Pirates a boost

Getty Images
Leave a comment

PITTSBURGH — A surprising positive COVID-19 test when he arrived at summer camp forced Pittsburgh Pirates closer Keone Kela to find creative ways to say in shape. Really creative.

With PNC Park off limits while he followed Major League Baseball’s health protocols, Kela started riding around the city with a stash of balls, a net and time to kill. He long tossed into a net in the parking lot at the Pittsburgh Zoo. He played “Wall Ball” off the pillars of the Fort Duquesne Bridge. He rolled through the South Side bar district in search of open space to let it rip.

“I’ve seen Pittsburgh now during this quarantine,” Kela said with a laugh on Wednesday.

The view will change considerably on Thursday for Kela when he joins the injury-ravaged Pirates for a four-game series in Cincinnati. Six Pittsburgh pitchers currently find themselves on the injured list, including relievers Kyle Crick, Clay Holmes and Nick Burdi. The strain on those left has been obvious.

The last-place Pirates are 27th in the majors in ERA (5.32) and the turnover in the bullpen has been particularly jarring. Nearly two dozen pitchers have taken the hill for Pittsburgh through 16 games, including catcher John Ryan Murphy, who actually tossed a scoreless ninth in a loss to Detroit last Saturday.

The fiery Kela’s arrival provides some semblance of a return to normalcy. Or at least whatever passes for normalcy in 2020.

“Getting him back in our clubhouse and his leadership and the person he is, I’m excited about that,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “Secondly, the guy that we talked about being our closer the second day of spring training is now back in the fold, so it kind of lets guys go into regular roles moving forward, as much as availability allows.”

Kela isn’t worried about being bit by the injury bug that’s made throwing a baseball this season a dicey proposition. He is confident in the path set out by pitching coach Oscar Marin and is confident the form that helped his record 25 saves for Texas in 2018 before moving into primarily a set-up role after being traded to Pittsburgh at the deadline is not far off.

“I don’t really feel like I’ve lost much of the pep in my step,” the 27-year-old said. “The ball’s coming out hot. Curveball is sharp. I feel like I have my command. I’m convicted when I’m up there. I have confidence. I don’t feel like the quarantine necessarily knocked me off my game.”

Kela returns to a team that is a major-league worst 3-13. He’s aware that opportunities to be a difference-maker in the ninth might not come along that often. He’s told Shelton to feel free to use him in whatever high-leverage situation works best and if that’s not the final frame, so be it.

“With the way that we’ve been playing ball, I just want to be able to get out there to secure the innings that are most important for us to move forward and put a (win) on the board at the end of the night,” Kela said. “If I have to face 3-4-5 in the eighth inning because that’s the most pivotal inning, that’s what I’m here for.”

Though Kela is careful to talk only in the present tense, he’s in an unusual spot in his career. The Pirates are in the beginning stages of a reboot, and Kela is one of the few tradeable assets they have. He’s also on the brink of free agency and it’s unlikely Pittsburgh would spend big on a closer for a team whose return to contention might still be a few years down the road.

Not that Kela is in the mood to think about the future. It’s been enough of a journey just to get to the present. He endured a chaotic 2019 that included getting suspended for igniting a brawl in Cincinnati with a couple of wayward pitches and being hit with a two-game ban from the Pirates for an altercation with a member of the team’s support staff.

He talked extensively in the spring about his eagerness to turn the page. Six months later, it’s finally time to do just that.

“This is a game of a lot of failure,” Kela said. “You have to go through the ups and downs and to stay even-keeled through it to find success.”

NOTES: Burdi (right forearm strain) will receive what director of sports medicine Todd Tomczyk called a “biological injection” and at the moment will not require surgery. He will be re-evaluated in 10-12 weeks. … Starting pitcher Mitch Keller (right lat strain) has yet to play catch but could return at some point this season. … Crick (forearm sprain) will attempt to throw to live hitters next week.