Molina family has three catchers in playoffs
Share with others:
VEGA ALTA, Puerto Rico -- Gladys Matta wears three different necklaces at all times, one from each of her sons. Her eldest, Bengie Molina, gave her the first, which has a cross on it, for her birthday four years ago. When her other two sons, Jose and Yadier Molina, saw it, they rushed out and bought her necklaces imprinted with her name.
"If I take one of these off, I'm in trouble," says Mrs. Matta, who goes by her maiden name, a common practice in Puerto Rico.
All parents struggle to spread their affections evenly among their children, but Mrs. Matta and her husband, Benjamin Molina Sr., face an unusual challenge. They are the parents of three boys, all of whom play in the Major Leagues, all of whom are catchers and all of whom vie aggressively for their mother's attention. Upping the ante for Mrs. Matta, all three are in contention for a World Series ring this year.
Bengie Molina, 31 years old, is the starting catcher for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who are vying with the Chicago White Sox in the American League Championship Series. The middle son, Jose Molina, 30, is one of Bengie's two backups on the Angels. Yadier Molina, 23, starts for the St. Louis Cardinals, who were battling the Houston Astros in the National League finals.
Here in this rural town of 40,000 in north-central Puerto Rico, Mrs. Matta and Mr. Molina have earned a place in the baseball record books. Mrs. Matta is one of 19 women to have given birth to three sons playing in the Major Leagues at the same time, according to "The Baseball Almanac." Others on that list include Virginia Alou, whose ball-playing kids are Felipe (1958-'74), Matty (1960-'74) and Jesus (1963-'79) Alou; and Rosalie DiMaggio, mother of Vincent (1937-'46), Joe (1936-'51) and Dom (1940-'53) DiMaggio.
But Mrs. Matta is the only woman ever to be a mom to a trio of professional catchers. She alone accounts for a third of the catchers and backup catchers left in the playoffs this year. Catchers are an idiosyncratic breed to show up three times in one family. The position requires a rare combination of physical toughness and the tactical ability to effectively direct every pitch of every game.
All three of the Molina boys have had shining moments in the playoffs thus far. Bengie belted three home runs in a five-game American League series against the New York Yankees. When Bengie was hit by a pitch and had to leave Game 3, Jose took his place and delivered a run-scoring single. In the first round of the National League playoffs, Yadier had three hits and batted in three runs in the Cardinals' sweep of the San Diego Padres.
Mrs. Matta and Mr. Molina have watched every inning from the edge of their seats on the couch at the family's simple home on Calle Libertad in Vega Alta. A satellite dish beams the boys' games into their tiny yellow house in a neighborhood where many of the homes are painted bright colors and dogs and roosters roam the streets.
As the broadcasts unfold, Mr. Molina, who coached the boys when they were young, watches the game intently, picking apart each play with the quiet detachment of a former player. Mrs. Matta yells at Angels pitchers for making her sons dig balls out of the dirt, criticizes outfielders for delivering weak throws to the plate and covers her eyes and prays when one of her boys comes to bat. "It's not easy," she said through a translator between innings of a particularly tense Game 4 of the Angels-Yankees series.
Mrs. Matta was wearing a bright-red Angels T-shirt bearing Bengie's name and number on the back. She has had to start putting on more Angels memorabilia, she explains, because Bengie and Jose began accusing her of favoring Yadier.
The brothers say the competition among them is far more intense at home than it is on the field, where they frequently help each other through hitting slumps. "We always keep in communication," says Jose.
This summer, Bengie called up his mom and invited her to come visit him and Jose in Anaheim for two weeks each, which she did. When Yadier found out, he immediately made his own demand: Next summer, she had to come stay with him in St. Louis. Mrs. Matta may soon have to spread herself even thinner. Bengie is a free agent after the season and Jose is eligible for salary arbitration, so there is a chance one of them will end up with another team -- and Mrs. Matta will have yet another city to visit.
A short woman with long black hair, Mrs. Matta, 57, takes pains to avoid even a hint of favoritism toward any of the three sons. Inside their house, past the ceramic busts of Jesus and Mary and a wooden crucifix, the walls in the kitchen and family room are blanketed with photos and clippings of the three boys. A photo of Bengie and Jose together is partially obscured by a newspaper clipping of Yadier. Mrs. Matta says the last time Yadier visited he commented that Jose was too heavily represented. Jose and Bengie often make the same complaint within minutes of their arrival.
"They are so jealous of each other," she says. If all the Molinas make the World Series, she plans to root for St. Louis because Yadier is the only child without a ring. (The Angels won the title in 2002.)
A three-catcher family was never part of the master plan for the Molinas. Because Bengie was skinnier and weaker than his peers growing up, his father thought he was best-suited for the infield. And that is where he played up until he entered the Angels minor-league system, when a scout looked at his by-then stocky frame and decided to convert him into a catcher.
Jose was a catcher from the time he first started organized baseball, when he was about 10. His father, an ex-infielder in the Puerto Rican minor leagues, honed Jose's defensive skills by placing him at home plate and then hitting him balls from the outfield to recreate the speed and chaos of a ball and runner bearing down on the catcher.
As the youngest Molina, Yadier started out as the unofficial mascot of his brothers' team. When games ended and the street outside the park filled with people and the smell of fried dough and beer, he would don Jose's chest protector and circle the bases, sliding into each one along the way. By the time he finally grew into the gear, his brothers were progressing through the minor leagues and Yadier himself was dominating many of the kids in his baseball age group.
Yadier says that from an early age, all three brothers were intrigued by the mental side of catching, the challenge of trying to figure out what gets a certain batter to swing at a bad pitch.
Bengie, a six-year starter and winner of two Gold Glove awards for fielding, has by far the most impressive stats of the three brothers. But the common wisdom around the league is that Yadier could be an even bigger star.
Vega Alta is nicknamed "El Pueblo de los Nangotaos," or "Town of the Squatters," after, according to one account, the posture assumed by sugar-cane cutters as they waited for the train -- not its history of producing big-league catchers. The town is lower-to-middle income, with paved roads but mostly dilapidated homes. Baseball is hugely popular, and the town is dotted with playing fields with shin-deep grass in the outfield and uneven mud on the infield.
In recent years, the people of Vega Alta have reserved their adulation for Edgar Martinez, the former Seattle Mariners designated hitter, and Bernie Williams, the longtime Yankees center fielder, both of whom also grew up in the area. But these days, "the Molina family is the owner of this town," says Felix Cardona, treasurer of the Puerto Rico Baseball Federation and a longtime friend of the family. Neighbors file in and out of the house while games are on, and the phone starts ringing every time one of the sons gets a big hit. It's common to see people around town sporting one of the Cardinals or Angels hats or shirts that the Molina parents bring back from their trips to the U.S.
The Molina brothers collectively earned more than $4 million this season. But at the family house on Calle Libertad, the paint is peeling on the ceilings and windows are held to their frames with masking tape. Melvin Roman, a childhood friend of Bengie's and now his agent, says several years ago Bengie tried unsuccessfully to move his parents into a bigger house. "It's hard for them to leave that little house that maybe has given them so much," says Mr. Roman. Benjamin Sr. still works as a technician in the Westinghouse factory in town and says he doesn't plan to retire for another five years.
First Published October 14, 2005 12:00 am