Molitor, Downing: unsung cogs in baseball playoffs
Everybody knows who the glamour guys are in this year's American League playoffs - Reggie Jackson, Gorman Thomas, Fred Lynn, Robin Yount (who is probably going to be the League's MVP), Rod Carew, Don Baylor, Cecil Cooper, etc.
But the chances are that neither the California Angels nor the Milwaukee Brewers would have gotten there in the first place if it hadn't been for pick-and-shovel players like Brian Downing and Paul Molitor. Downing is the Angels' leadoff hitter and leftfielder; Molitor the Brewers' leadoff hitter and third baseman.
So that nobody gets the idea that Downing and Molitor just happen to be in the right place at the right time, let's establish the fact right away that these are both quality players. They seem to be able to do whatever it takes to make the big play in the field or get the key run home from second base.
However, fans who have aleady started for the concession stands don't usually return to their seats when they hear Downing or Molitor announced as the next hitter the way they would if it were Jackson or Thomas. It is even possible that Dave Kingman would have more commercial appeal for Madison Avenue than these two. But if you're looking for a couple of guys who don't mind getting their uniforms dirty, Brian and Paul can be as aggressive as Pete Rose.
Downing's story is almost a soap opera, considering he went to spring training this year with no job security as one of four candidates for the Angels' leftfield position. Since Brian had spent most of his big-league career as a catcher (although he did play parts of 56 games last year in the outfield), his chances against Tom Brunansky, Bobby Clark, and Juan Beniquez didn't look good.
Molitor's situation was different, but still demanding. While Paul had been assured of the Brewers' third base job, it would still be his fourth different position in the past five years. Actually he had done well in all of his previous assignments - shortstop, second base, and centerfield - and was being moved only to make a place elsewhere for less flexible talent on the Brewers' roster. Once again Molitor responded with a fine season, hitting .302 (including 19 home runs), stealing 41 bases, and driving in more than 70 runs, unusually high figures for a leadoff man.
''Molitor is one of those rare individuals who can be moved from position to position without having it affect his hitting,'' explained Brewers' Manager Harvey Kuenn. ''Because of the power I have on this team, and because Paul gets on base so much, I prefer to lead off with him. But he could hit sixth or even third for a lot of teams in this league, and don't think we haven't had offers to trade him.''
Downing, whose first eight big-league seasons were spent as a catcher, became an outfielder this winter when California purchased catcher Bob Boone from the Philadelphia Phillies.
''To me the situation was clear, if I wanted to play regularly it was going to have to be in the outfield, and it also meant that even if I won the job in spring training, I'd probably have to hit well right away to keep it,'' Brian said.
Although Downing hit .326 for the Angels in 1979, by the end of 1981 he was down to .249, with just nine home runs. Worse yet, Brian had adopted a batting stance that is so awkward-looking that even Salvador Dali might refuse to paint it.
Downing's left foot is planted so far in the direction of the third base dugout while waiting for the pitch that he looks like a guy who is steadying a ladder with his left foot while threatening the first baseman with the end of his bat.
Brian gets away with this by quickly closing up his stance when the pitcher releases the ball; wearing out the inside of the rightfield foul line even though he's right-handed; and hitting home runs with custom-made shoulders he built himself.
Approximately three years ago Downing erected a batting cage in his backyard, bought himself a pitching machine, and began lifting weights in his garage. Laugh if you will, but Brian's 1982 figures include 28 home runs, 109 runs scored, 84 runs batted in (sensational for a leadoff man), plus a .281 batting average.
Although Downing's heavily muscled upper body and legs make him all wrong for a leadoff hitter, his on-base percentage this year has been outstanding, making Angel Manager Gene Mauch's gamble look like anything but.
Downing in the field is a study in determination. He doesn't make errors; he gets to everything in the field even though he often looks like he isn't going to; and there isn't a fence in the league that doesn't cringe when his body comes hurtling toward it.
Downing and Molitor - a couple of pick-and-shovel guys who so far haven't gotten the headlines they deserve!