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The Amazing Molina Family

I'm sure your siblings are nice. But do you all have World Series rings? I didn't think so.

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Bengie's debut was in Arlington. He thought the stadium looked "like a fortress." He's right. But this photo isn't from that game.
Bengie's debut was in Arlington. He thought the stadium looked "like a fortress." He's right. But this photo isn't from that game.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

(Note: This post is about the memoir Molina, and contains "spoilers" of the ending.)

When Bengie Molina's paternal grandmother, Luz Maria, was recently divorced, she and her children lived at her mother's house. The ex-husband came. Maria's mother hid with the children under her bed. The ex-husband dragged all three screaming children away, fighting off Maria and her mother. Luz Maria never saw those children again.

On October 1, 1954, Rubén Gómez became the first Puerto Rican-born pitcher to start a World Series game. Schools throughout Puerto Rico closed. He won that game, the Giants swept Cleveland, and Gómez was mobbed at the airport by fans. Governor Luis Marín declared an official holiday in his honor.

At one point, Bengie asks his father's aunt why their family rarely attended church. The aunt responds that family and friends were all the church she needed. Molina observes, "family was my father's religion. And baseball was its sacrament."

There have been many family tandems in baseball, but never three brothers who all made the majors, all played the most physically demanding position, and ended up on World Series championship teams. (Youngest brother Yadier beat Bengie's old team, the Rangers, a year after Bengie retired.)

You'd think brothers like that share some amazing baseball genes, and you'd be half-right. None is particularly powerful or fleet of foot. But they all learned from a brilliant teacher, Benjamín Molina.

Molina Sr. was also unimposing, but much faster than his sons and a slick fielder. He never made it to MLB (for reasons Bengie only discovered after his father's death.) Yet despite working his whole life in a factory, Molina Sr. never stopped loving baseball. He coached youngsters until he died (at the practice field), including several future MLB stars. Once, he threw Pudge Rodriguez off a youth All-Star team for slamming his helmet to the ground.

Molina is a different sort of baseball book, mostly about Bengie's relationship with his stern, proud, loving father. I'm sure much credit belongs to co-author Joan Ryan, who has written acclaimed books on such subjects as the pressures coaches place on teenage gynmasts/skaters, and her own child's struggles with brain injury. Bengie himself is a fine writer, evident from this blog post about his father's funeral. In Molina, Ryan merely helps him open up even more.

There's the usual tales of wacky teammates and early struggles. In the teammate department, one time players brought an ostrich into the Angels' locker room. Future (brief) Twin Ramon Ortiz, terrified, dived into his locker, screaming "el pollo grande!" (He thought the ostrich was a giant chicken.)

The early struggles Molina attributes to closed-minded scouts, who "liked the six-foot-five guys who looked great on paper ... They didn't like five-foot-nine guys with big hearts and smart baseball minds." Molina literally hung up his spikes (over a telephone wire) and was planning to quit when brother Jose came to tell him their mother had gotten Bengie a tryout with a new scout (through sheer persistence.) Bengie told Jose to go instead.

"You tell Mai," Jose replied. Bengie went. The Angels scout had Bengie try throwing from a catcher's crouch, the one defensive position he hadn't played. He was too small and too slow for any other position, and the scout noted his strong arm. Bengie reported to his rookie league team without any spikes.

Molina's communication with his father, never one to over-share, was strained with Bengie in America. Meanwhile, Bengie was having trouble at home. After a young marriage, years of hardship, and two children to raise, "my wife and I were combatants in a war we couldn't remember starting and had no clue how to end." (Put your hand up if you're never been there. Now put your hand down, LIAR.)

As his career blossoms (it's when Mike Scioscia, a former catcher, takes over that Molina's role on the Angels becomes full-time), Bengie's father grows more distant. Was he upset Bengie had a chance he'd never gotten? When Molina and his wife divorce, Bengie's father refuses to speak to him at all. The silence continues for years, until they reconnect in celebrating Yadier's contract with Saint Louis. Molina Sr. meets Bengie's new wife, visits his granddaughters. Tension is finally easing.

And then Molina's father dies.

Bengie's description of the funeral is like something from a movie. A factory worker, who never became a pro athlete, was so beloved in his hometown, the police had to block off huge sections of streets for what almost sounds like a parade. Thousands gather to watch the procession. People yell their goodbyes from upstairs windows. Former players Molina Sr. coached, from the rich & famous to those who never played baseball again, visit the Molina home -- they have to rent a party tent for all the guests.

And it's there Molina finds out what happened to his father's baseball career. When he'd ask his father about old baseball trophies, the responses were elusive. Did he ever play before big-league scouts? "They were around," his father would say. End of discussion.

His father's old friends at the funeral fill in the story. Molina Sr. was in amateur AA, then took two years off (devastating for a prospect) to work in an American factory. He'd fallen in love, and needed money to get married. He returned to Puerto Rico, resumed playing, and a scout from the Brewers scheduled a tryout. Benjamín Molina missed that tryout, and scouts gave up on him.

Why on earth didn't he go to the tryout? Because that was the day he discovered Bengie's mother was pregnant. With Bengie.

Bengie is crushed by the revelation.  "I was sick to my stomach. It was easier thinking Pai had failed then to think he threw away his dream for us." He tells one of his father's old friends so.

The friend responds "that man did exactly what he wanted. Don't you feel sorry for him." When Molina persists, the friend says "you have it all wrong, Bengie," gets up, and walks away.

Months later, when Molina's wife is pregnant with their first child together, he realizes what the friend meant. His father "never craved conventional success. He measured his worth in his own way ... Baseball delivered to this quiet and introspective man a means of connecting to his sons and to other people's sons ... creating for himself an extended family of sons that had nothing to do with blood."

That's why his father became distant as Molina's career developed. He knew his son's marriage was ailing. The prospect of divorce enraged him. You don't break up a family. Divorce stole from his mother the siblings he'd never met. Once he was able to see how Bengie's daughters were so happy and loved in their new home, he relented.

Molina took the framed portrait of his father surrounded by players and family members back home from the funeral. He'd carry it with him to every game the rest of his playing career. He began working extensively with players in a youth league, and partnered with Joan Ryan to write a book about his dad.

"In retrospect it seems obvious and inevitable that all three of Benjamín Molina Santana's sons would become catchers ... Of all the jobs on a baseball field, we found the one that positioned us at a spot called home. Our job was to protect it."