The idea was to spend at least one more season away from the game, to plunge another year into retirement, and Bengie Molina had the travel plans to prove it.
He had a fishing trip to Alaska, a journey to Europe to “check out some soccer games” and an interest in maybe visiting the Little League World Series in Pennsylvania. He wanted to take his wife, a tennis fan, to one of the summer Grand Slam events.
But Wimbledon will have to wait.
There are other sites, all similar and only remotely scenic, that Molina will tour in 2013 — the batting cages of the National League.
“We had so many plans for next year,” Molina said. “The coaching part was always in my brain. I wanted to go back, but not too quick. Three years, maybe five, and then. … But this could be a great opportunity. And who knows when another chance like it will be there?”
Molina and the Cardinals are in the process of finalizing a contract that will make him the team’s new assistant hitting coach. A formal announcement is expected after the holidays. Yadier Molina’s older brother will replace John Mabry, who was promoted to hitting coach after Mark McGwire relocated to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ dugout.
Molina, a two-time Gold Glove Award winner during his 11 years as a starting catcher, last donned his pads for the Texas Rangers in Game 5 of the 2010 World Series. He did not expect that to be his last game and he thought it would take a couple years to get over the suddenness of retirement. That was when his little brother called with a question.
While manager Mike Matheny discussed candidates for the vacant spot on the coaching staff with him, Yadier mentioned Bengie might be open to a return.
“Are you interested?” the youngest of the three Molina brothers called to ask.
“Never ever did I think of being an assistant hitting coach, never in my life,” Bengie Molina said while driving from Arizona to Seattle for Christmas. “I thought maybe it would be as a catching instructor, maybe in the minors, or a bench coach, a bullpen coach, something like that. Being an assistant hitting coach wasn’t in my plans. But it makes sense.”
The role is a relatively new one to the big leagues, and it has its modern genesis at Busch Stadium with the Cardinals. Manager Tony La Russa approached general manager John Mozeliak before the 2008 season about adding someone to the staff, an experienced voice who could help then-coach Hal McRae.
Mike Aldrete, a former hitting coach with Arizona, was the club’s first assistant hitting coach, and he served in the role until moving to bench coach for Matheny’s first season as manager. Mabry took over as his first step into big-league coaching. Molina will be the Cardinals’ third assistant in the six seasons of having the position.
In the past year, La Russa’s idea has proliferated through baseball. As many as four other teams had two hitting coaches last summer and already this winter 11 teams have hired assistant hitting coaches with several others considering the move.
By the start of spring training, more than half of the big-league clubs will have an assistant hitting coach, or a similar position.
Already this offseason, the Cubs hired slugger Rob Deer to serve in the role. The Phillies added former All-Star Wally Joyner as assistant hitting coach. And the Chicago White Sox moved Harold Baines, the best designated hitter of his era, into the job.
Molina was a .274 hitter in his career with five seasons of at least 15 homers and three of at least 80 RBIs. From 2000 to 2010, only Jorge Posada had more RBIs as a catcher than Molina, 876 to 701. He doesn’t exactly match the résumé of the Cardinals’ previous hires — both of whom had experience as hitting coaches or instructors — or the name recognition of some other club’s additions.
He brings a different view to the role — quite literally.
“Obviously, if you’ve caught before it’s going make you better aware of how they’re going to pitch to you,” Molina explained. “You’re going to have that advantage. But just because you know it, doesn’t mean you’re going to hit. That’s the ability part. It means you’re going to have a better feel for what that pitcher is going to do to you, not that you will actually hit it. But you can pass that on to hitters who can. …
“The pitchers change. The catcher is the only guy who faces everybody,” he added. “He’s the only one who is watching everything.”
For the most part, assistant hitting coaches do not dress in uniform during games, spending that time instead back in the underground batting cages or video room. The role, as envisioned by La Russa, allows the hitting coach to be with a group on the field during batting practice while the assistant works with hitters in the cages, for example.
It also means the assistant can be ready to help a hitter or scout a pitcher during a game. With his recent experience as a catcher and hitter in the league, Molina’s responsibilities will emphasize the latter — decoding pitchers.
The Cardinals approached Matheny about the role several years ago, pitching the part of the job that is advance scouting. As he and Mabry interviewed and evaluated candidates, they were drawn to what the new hire could offer in scouting.
“Overall, first we wanted somebody who was a good fit for our club,” Matheny said Sunday. “And then this role is going to have a lot to do with scouting. This was the job offered to me a long time ago. It wasn’t for my hitting ability, but for my ability to break down pitchers and read their plans, read what they’re schemes are — how they’re trying to get people out. You understand that and you also pick up little things hitters are doing.
“And there is the work ethic. This is a working man’s position.”
In 2010, his final season behind the plate, Molina hit .249 with five homers in 118 games during 2010, but was traded from San Francisco to Texas in the middle. He was limited at the plate by bone chips in his left elbow, he said, and disenchanted by the trade. Disappointment came later when the only interest he received as a free agent was four offers for the 2011 season — all minor-league contracts.
The Cardinals were one of the teams that approached Molina about becoming their backup. It was his first chance to be on the same team as his youngest brother, Yadier.
The deal didn’t happen. None did. A minor-league offer was unappealing.
“I was upset about the whole situation,” Bengie said.
He needed time away from baseball and “didn’t miss it.”
He filled his time with fishing trips and more time with his three daughters, ages 18, 14, and 3. This winter he’s jetted from Puerto Rico to Arizona. Now it’s off to Seattle and then to Florida for New Year’s with Yadier and later back to Jupiter, Fla., for spring training.
A second chance to join the Cards and his younger brother was too hard to dismiss. He’ll still travel in 2013, just not the places he once thought.
“We’ll do that later,” Molina said. “I don’t want to miss this opportunity.”