For Molinas, no greater influence than father
ST. LOUIS -- The field is distinguishable now, thanks to the sizeable donation Yadier Molina made in 2012 to transform the tired plot of land back into a place where young Puerto Rican ballplayers flocked. It needed a new caretaker.
Benjamin Molina Sr. had long watched over the field at Jesús Mambe Kuilan Park, that diamond basically existing as an extension of his home, which sat just across the street within their barrio of Espinosa. It was where he raised three sons -- Bengie, Jose and Yadier -- who went on to become three Major League catchers, each of whom has multiple World Series rings.
But the accolades were mostly asterisks to the senior Molina -- or Pai, as he was affectionately called by his family. He never intended to measure success by wins or rings or notoriety. It's why he'd probably first cringe if he saw the neighborhood field in such pristine condition these days. But he'd soon be overcome with joy in realizing how many ballplayers would grow up on that spot.
For Pai's legacy wasn't in raising three Major League players. It was in developing generations of wholesome young men.
"I want people to know how much he valued respect and wanted to raise good human beings and wanted kids to behave," said his oldest, Bengie, who retired after the 2010 season -- his 13th in the Major Leagues -- and recently published a book titled "Molina," in which he writes extensively about the impact his father had on his life.
"Remember, when we left to play pro baseball, Yadi was the last one in 2000. [Pai] still coached for eight more years. It wasn't because of us. It was for him. He loved it. He loved doing what he did for the kids."
Pai would still be coaching in Puerto Rico had it not been for his sudden death from a heart attack in 2008. He was 58 when he died, collapsing before the start of another youth game on his beloved field.
So much of his life before that, though, had been as a father to a community. He was a superstar player in Puerto Rico for many years but never bragged about it. In fact, it wasn't until Pai died that his sons learned their father had once sat in a dugout with Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, whose photo has long adorned a wall at the Molina household.
Pai never told his sons, either, that he had given up his own Major League dream for them. He didn't care to dwell on the sacrifice. He preferred to appreciate the gain.
Offered the chance to try out in front of a Major League scout, Pai, who would later be inducted into the Puerto Rican Baseball Hall of Fame, never showed up. He had just found out his wife was expecting their first child, and decided their growing family needed a steady income.
Pai went on to spend decades working at a Westinghouse factory during the day before assuming the role of coach in the evening.
"I knew something had to happen, because he kept winning trophies as a batting champ or for stealing bases," Bengie said of his curiosity over his father's playing career. "I'm like, 'Wow, why didn't you get a chance?' It was kind of hard for me to find out that it was my fault that he never went pro."
Pai would never have wanted that guilt. He was unashamed to put his family first, and craved to simply share his love of baseball with them. He taught the boys the game by going basic, showing them fundamentals one at a time. They would play catch, master that, then learn how to properly stand in the box. Slowly, other exercises would be added: bunting, swinging, running the bases, pitching and fielding.
Pai would pitch them beans, corn kernels and bottle caps to improve hand-eye coordination. He started coaching a team he named Los Pobres -- The Poor -- when Bengie was 6 years old.
Pai's objective as a coach was to do more than improve the boys' baseball IQ and skill set. He wanted to raise them to be humble and respectful men.
"He would say, 'You guys need to make sure you respect the umpire, respect your mother and father, respect the teacher, respect the game and play the game the right way,'" Bengie recalled. "'You don't show up anybody. You run the bases when you hit a ground ball.' That's what he taught us. I think that goes with life.
"That's why the community embraced him, because he was so good with kids and teaching them the right messages. It was about staying in school. If you didn't have good grades, you didn't play. If you don't dress the right way, you won't play for him. He was about teaching the kids in the community."
Pai's mark was left on many future Major Leaguers, among them Ivan Rodriguez, Bernie Williams and Jose Hernandez. Pai once kicked Rodriguez off an All-Star team for throwing his helmet. Rodriguez rejoined the club a week later, but only after an apology and a promise that he'd play the game with more respect.
The matriarch of the family, Gladys, was much more affectionate than her husband, though Pai had his moments. Bengie's favorite story to share about his dad is the one when Pai interrupted dinner one night and ushered his eldest son across the street to the field. Bengie, feeling he had disappointed his father for not being a better player, had been downcast all night.
They stepped over the white lines and Pai put his arm around Bengie.
"He told me that he loved me," Bengie said. "For me, that was very special. He said, 'You see, right here, you're going to be fine.' He tried to explain to me that it was going to be OK. It was one of the few times he said I love you to me."
Though he may not have always shown it, Pai's love for his sons and happiness for their success was never in question. He set up a TV in his driveway and gathered the neighborhood to watch Jose and Bengie, both with the Angels, play in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series. He would later watched his youngest son, Yadier, play in person in October. He refused to take a penny of his boys' fortunes, but was thrilled they could live with such financial certainty.
As for Pai, he was content to keep his job with Westinghouse and teach the next wave of young baseball players when he wasn't at the factory or relaxing at the local bar with the neighborhood men. His was a life centered around relationships, none more important than the boys he molded into a catching dynasty.
"I think he realized what we had done," Bengie said. "He saw us winning World Series, going to World Series. He saw his success. He was very proud of us. He may not have said it too many times, but we knew he had to be."