Back in spring training, very few would have predicted the Yankees and Twins meeting in the American League Wild Card game.
Both teams surpassed expectations while being led by longtime major league players. But the two managers took different paths to filling out lineup cards.
Joe Girardi had a 15-year career in the majors, and was named to the 2000 NL All-Star team as a member of the Cubs. He made his debut for the Don Zimmer’s 1989 Cubs team that won the NL East. He was on the 1995 Rockies that won the first National League Wild Card. And Girardi would win three World Series titles as a Yankee, memorably tripling off Greg Maddux in the clinching game of the 1996 World Series. It was his only career playoff RBI in 114 postseason at-bats.
He doesn’t take losing easily, even if some feel that losing in the postseason isn’t bad. “For me when we — like last year when we didn’t advance to the playoffs, it was very difficult for me,” Girardi said. “When you lose in a playoff game and you don’t advance to the next round, it’s very difficult for me. So my opinion might be different than someone else’s. I put the uniform on to win the World Series. That’s why I put the uniform on, and that’s my goal.”
Paul Molitor was a hitting machine. He was runner-up for Rookie of the Year in 1978, made his first All-Star team in 1980 and helped the Brewers win the AL pennant in 1982.
He can also talk to his Minnesota club about a win-or-go-home game in the Bronx. The Yankees knocked out his Brewers in Game 5 of the 1981 ALDS.
“What I remember about that was that we checked into the hotel, checked out, won, checked back in, checked out, won, checked back in, checked out, and then we lost the last game,” Molitor said. “But I think that being a younger player, whatever I was, 24, 25, that you didn’t really think about a lot. You just kind of went out and played even though your back was against the wall, trusting the veterans are going to kind of lead the way, and I think our young guys kind of feel that, too.”
Molitor was a five-time All-Star with Milwaukee from 1978-92 before going to the Blue Jays. He made an immediate impact in 1993, as he finished second in the MVP voting and led the league in hits. He was on base when Joe Carter won the World Series with a home run. It was Molitor who was named Series MVP.
The St. Paul, Minnesota native joined the Twins for the 1996 season. Molitor led the league in hits despite turning 40 in August. When he retired after the 1998 season, he had amassed 3,319 hits. He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2004.
Girardi retired after 2003, and served as Yankees bench coach in 2005. He won 2006 NL Manager of the Year for leading the Marlins to a 78-84 record. After working for the YES Network in 2007, Girardi replaced Joe Torre as manager. Now he’s in his 10th season as manager.
Molitor was the Twins bench coach from 1999-2001 under two-time World Series champion Tom Kelly. Molitor was the top choice to replace Kelly after retirement, but the uncertain future of the team caused Molitor to decline. However, Molitor was a coach in the Twins organization from 2005-13, and then joined Ron Gardenhire’s staff in 2014. Molitor was promoted after Gardenhire was fired.
The two teams have been consistent with keeping managers. Girardi is the second Yankee manager since 1996. Molitor is only the third Twins manager in the last 30 years.
Girardi led the 2009 Yankees to 103 regular season wins and a World Series title. It’s not uncommon for a former catcher who was so into each pitch as a player to be a good manager. Bruce Bochy would be an obvious example.
But how about Molitor? The thought is that a great player might not have the patience to teach young players, and might not be able to communicate as well. Not many Hall of Fame players become skippers. A Twins-Phillies spring training game in 2015 marked the first time that two already enshrined members of the Hall managed against each other when Molitor met Ryne Sandberg.
After losing to the Yankees in the 2010 playoffs, the Twins lost at least 90 games each season from 2011-14. Then Molitor led the Twins to an 83-79 record in 2015 and finished third in the Manager of the Year voting. The Twins fell back to earth and lost 103 games in 2016. But now they’re the first team to make the playoffs one season after losing 100 games.
Molitor might very well be rewarded by being named Manager of the Year. And Girardi could receive a few votes as well. But only one will be managing in the ALDS.