The job didn't open for another 13 years, but this time Molitor was ready. The challenge he accepted is to help turn around a team that lost 92 or more games in each of the last four seasons.
The Twins announced Monday they had agreed to a three-year contract for the Hall of Fame infielder and native of Minnesota, who will be introduced Tuesday as Ron Gardenhire's replacement during a news conference at Target Field.
"It's pretty exciting. I'm a huge Molitor fan," second baseman Brian Dozier said. "He's a bright individual, with a better IQ in the game of baseball than anyone I've ever been around. He's just an exceptional man."
This is the first managing job at any level for Molitor, who has the 10th-most hits in major league history. He spent 2014 as a coach on Gardenhire's staff. Prior to that, he served for 10 seasons as a minor league instructor in the organization, a noted influence on many young players.
Three finalists who had multiple interviews with general manager Terry Ryan were Molitor, Boston Red Sox bench coach Torey Luvollo and Twins minor league manager Doug Mientkiewicz, according to reports. Matching the organization's patient, deliberate style, Ryan took his time with the search before settling on the candidate widely believed to be the favourite all along, particularly given the franchise's penchant for promoting from within.
"I know he hasn't managed, but I don't think that should be a problem at all, just because his knowledge of the game. He's been around the game for so long now," Dozier said. "It's just taking all he's learned over his career and just going on the other side of it now."
Molitor, 58, will be the 13th manager of the Twins, who will begin their 55th season. He was an initial candidate in 2001 when Tom Kelly retired, after serving as bench coach during Kelly's last two years, but Gardenhire got the job then.
Gardenhire led the Twins to the AL Central title in his first year, the first of six on his watch, and a spot in the 2002 AL championship series. The last of those division titles was as late as 2010, but gaps in the organizational talent pool quickly caught up with a club that was revered throughout the previous decade playing in the dingy, low-revenue Metrodome as one of best-run in baseball.
These days, the fan base is filled with frustration. Ryan, long one of the most revered decision-makers in the game, has not been immune from the criticism, either, and he realized the importance of this hire.
Molitor's Hall of Fame and 3,000-hit club credentials were pluses, sure, but his reputation of valuable work with prospects in his role as a roving tutor specializing in baserunning and infield play were equal strengths for Ryan to assess. Molitor served the 2004 season as hitting coach with the Seattle Mariners but has otherwise spent the majority of his post-playing days tutoring throughout the Twins organization.
"I'll tell you this much, there won't be a team anywhere in the league with a better leader than (Molitor)," Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe tweeted. "Very excited to battle with him!"
Molitor made his reputation with the Milwaukee Brewers and won a World Series with the Toronto Blue Jays, but he finished a stellar 21-year career of flawless compact swings with the Twins from 1996-98.
The soft-spoken native of neighbouring St. Paul attended the same high school as Twins first baseman Joe Mauer. After a standout career at the University of Minnesota, the Brewers took Molitor with the third pick in the 1977 draft.
His time in the majors wasn't without tumult. Brewers fans were stung when he signed with the Blue Jays. He struggled with injuries. Then there was the drug problem that dogged the early stage of his career, use of cocaine and marijuana he later said was a reaction to pressure he felt by his image as the clean-cut, Midwest-raised star.
AP Sports Writer Jon Krawczynski contributed to this report.