3 Weeks to Pitchers and Molinas
By JACK CURRY
The energetic, young children scampered along a bumpy dirt infield, chased baseballs around an outfield that was missing almost as much grass as it contained and sidestepped a leaning light tower that was a miniature Tower of Pisa. Still, to them, this tattered field in Vega Alta, P.R., is hallowed ground.
Actually, Jesus Rivera Park is sacred to little ones and not-so-little ones because it is a place where three neighborhood legends once played. It is a field where the Molina brothers — Bengie, José and Yadier, all catchers — rumbled through the divots as they developed into major leaguers.
From the time they sip their morning coffee until hours after they have eaten dinner, the people who hang around the park can boast that the Molinas stand apart from the 18 other families that have sent at least three brothers to the major leagues.
The three DiMaggio brothers had superb careers and featured one of the most famous Joes to ever hit or throw a ball. The three Alou brothers combined for strong careers during a collective 47 seasons. But only the three Molinas all ended up behind the plate and only they, of all those 18 other groups of brothers, can each claim a World Series championship. “To see your other two brothers in the major leagues with you, it’s an amazing feeling,” Bengie Molina said. “It’s unbelievable. It’s something you can’t put into words.”
As scruffy as Rivera Park is now, Bengie said it was a totally distressed piece of land before his family and other residents turned it into a relative haven. And for the kids who play there these days, the tale of the Molinas is inspirational.
“They’re out of this world,” said Roberto Sanchez, a 14-year-old pitcher and shortstop who was sweating after spearing grounders during a hectic day at the field earlier this month. “If they did it, it makes you think you can, too.”
Watching the hustle and bustle from across the street was Gladys Matta de Molina, the spirited mother of the Molinas. The Molina home and Rivera Park are so close that one of the Molina brothers could roll a ball from the white security gates outside the family’s yellow brick dwelling and, in a few seconds, it would touch the backstop.
When visitors enter the Molina home that Gladys shares with her husband, Benjamin Sr., the most prominent picture is of Jesus Christ. But to the left of that, there is a picture of Bengie and José while both were on the Los Angeles Angels. On the right is a picture of Yadier on the St. Louis Cardinals. Jesus has the prime spot on the wall, but it is a photo finish.
The home is a shrine to the brothers, with more than 60 pictures and three bats (one from each son, of course) attached to the fading white walls. Gladys’s eyes turned moist when she discussed how proud she was, how she and her husband often switched between three games on television and how she telephoned her sons every night to make sure they did not get hurt.
She phones Bengie, 32, a two-time Gold Glove Award winner, a .275 career hitter and the Molina who has had the most successful career. He signed a three-year, $16 million deal with the San Francisco Giants last month.
She calls José, 31, who is still with the Angels. He was a backup to his brother Bengie when the Angels won their first title in 2002. His defense made him a major leaguer, and he has never had more than 225 at-bats in one season.
And she calls Yadier, 24, whose two-run homer in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series helped conquer the Mets on the way to a World Series title. Yadier, who nailed 44 percent of would-be base stealers last season, could end up being the best Molina. But to get there, he needs to be closer to the player who hit .358 in the 2006 postseason than the one who hit .216 from April to September.
“Nobody thought we’d all make it,” Yadier said of himself and his brothers in a recent telephone interview. “Everybody said we were too fat, we couldn’t move fast enough and we couldn’t play this game. We shut them up.”
A total of 33 Puerto Ricans began the 2006 season in the majors, so the Molina family was responsible for nearly one-tenth of the island’s representation in a sport in which Hispanics are now a vital presence. And without prompting, Gladys answered the question that follows the Molinas wherever they go: How did three brothers from a town of fewer than 40,000 people climb to the big leagues while all playing the most demanding position in the game?
“I don’t know why they all became catchers,” she said.
José said, “It’s in the blood, I guess.” In a way, that is true. It was Benjamin Sr.’s dedication that helped transform his sons into polished players. The sons recalled how their father would rush home from a 10-hour shift at a factory, grab his glove and take them to the park. Benjamin played infield and outfield for 15 years in Puerto Rico’s Superior League and is in its Hall of Fame.
By the time Bengie was 9 years old, Gladys Molina said, her husband had retired from playing to concentrate on coaching his sons. She said her husband considered it his duty to make them better players, to make them major leaguers.
“When he was there with us, you don’t even count the hours,” José said. “At the time, you’re just happy that your dad is with you.”
Yadier said his father’s timing was precise.
“I remember every time he came home from work at 3:55,” Yadier said. “He would eat some dinner. By 4:05, he was ready to go.”
Because Benjamin felt the easiest way for José to make it to the majors was as a catcher, he consulted scouts and developed a training regimen for his middle son. Bengie, in contrast, was skinnier, and Benjamin thought his oldest son could succeed as a pitcher or an outfielder.
By 14, José was doing the same daily drills performed by professional catchers. He blocked balls, he fielded bunts, he threw to bases, he pursued towering pop-ups and he worked on thinking with the pitcher and ahead of the hitter.
Meanwhile, it was Gladys Molina’s persistence that helped Bengie. While José was working out for an Angels scout in 1993, Gladys showed up with a newspaper article that gushed about Bengie batting over .400 in a local league.
“She was being a mom,” José said.
Sitting on her living room couch, Gladys showed how she waved the paper in the scout’s face and insisted that Bengie deserved a tryout, too. She kept talking and waving and begging. Finally, the scout said he would give Bengie a chance if Bengie could catch. Immediately, a second Molina catcher was born.
On May 23, 1993, a short time after the tryout, Bengie became the first brother to turn professional, signing with the Angels as an amateur free agent. Two weeks later, the Chicago Cubs selected José in the 14th round of the amateur draft. Young Yadier, who now appeared destined to catch since he had two brothers already doing it, was drafted by the Cardinals in the fourth round in 2000.
“My Mom was crazy,” said Bengie, who spoke from Arizona in a recent telephone interview. “She just wanted to see me get a chance. It was probably my last chance. I got it. The rest is history.”
Bengie did not become a full-time starter for the Angels until 2000, the same season José was released by the Cubs. José signed with the Angels in 2001 and was Bengie’s teammate for five seasons. Yadier made his debut with St. Louis in 2004.
From the hopeful days at Rivera Park to the triumphant days at so many major league parks, José said the three brothers have remained close. José visited St. Louis last October to watch Yadier in the World Series and said he felt “like it was me who was playing.”
José and Yadier own handsome houses on the same street in a gated community in Dorado, P.R., about 15 minutes from their parents’ home. Bengie lives in Yuma, Ariz., in the off-season. José said Yadier frequently plays the role of the needy little brother, borrowing everything from batting gloves to food.
“We’re so close,” Yadier said, “it’s like we’re living together.”
In José’s home, above his television, there is a collage of 12 photographs of the brothers in action, arranged so it looks like the three are opposing one another. José said he liked peering at the arrangement because it showed the brothers “together, like we were when we were growing up.”
Still, there is one family picture that has yet to be taken. Once Yadier receives his World Series ring, José said the three would gather for a picture, one that would show their three ring-adorned hands. All close, all catchers, all brothers. The Molina brothers.