A Home-Schooled Hitter: Zimmer's Granddaughter Shines On UMass Diamond

Whitney Mollica

Whitney Mollica

May 10, 2006

A Home-Schooled Hitter: Zimmer's Granddaughter Shines On UMass Diamond By Marty Dobrow, Globe Correspondent | May 10, 2006

AMHERST -- Returning to the bench in the first inning of Sunday's softball game against Connecticut, University of Massachusetts third baseman Whitney Mollica was positively beaming. She took out her blue mouthguard, flashed a freckled grin, and accepted a festival of high-fives.

What had she done? Simply laid down a sacrifice bunt, moving two runners into scoring position.

Some No. 3 hitters might blanch at getting the bunt sign. Particularly a hotshot freshman, hitting well over .400, leading the team in average, home runs, triples, and doubles, a freshman whose RBI total (58) is the best in Atlantic 10 history.

But bunt was the call, bunt was the play, and after dropping down a beauty between the mound and first, Mollica looked as if she had just won Powerball.

''Whatever the best thing to do for the team, that's what you do," she said.

''It's always about the team with Whitney," said UMass coach Elaine Sortino. ''She's so unselfish. Of course, she grew up with that mentality from her grandfather."

Ah, yes, the grandfather, known variously as Popeye, the Gerbil, Zim. Mollica simply calls Don Zimmer ''Pops." Now a 75-year-old special adviser to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Zimmer taught Mollica to respect the game.

At Thanksgiving, Mollica and her parents would typically travel from their home in Windham, N.H., to Zimmer's house in Treasure Island, Fla., where the diamond was never far away. ''Pops" and ''Grams" (that would be Jean Zimmer, who married Don at home plate before a minor league game in Elmira, N.Y. in 1951) had decorated the house with a huge array of baseball memorabilia. After all, Zimmer is a baseball folk hero.

He has been in the game since signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949. As a minor leaguer, he was nearly killed when hit by a pitch, spending almost two weeks in a coma. In the big leagues, he played on some colorful teams, including the ''Boys of Summer," the Dodgers who finally beat the Yankees in 1955, and the woeful Mets of '62, who lost 120. He managed more than 1,500 big league games, including three 90-plus-win seasons with the Red Sox in the late '70s -- most notably the star-crossed year of 1978 when Bucky Dent carved his name into local infamy.

Baseball talk was common in the house, and Mollica soaked it up. She was determined to live out Zimmer's basic message: ''Play hard, have fun, be a good teammate."

Zimmer also emphasized the importance of being respectful. If she came in even a minute late for dinner, she would find Zimmer's watch sitting on her plate.

Mollica's first baseball memory with her grandfather came at Fenway Park in 1992, when she was 4 years old. Zimmer was in a one-year return engagement with the Sox as a coach for first-year manager Butch Hobson. She doesn't remember much from that day, other than throwing out the first pitch, and having her picture taken with Wade Boggs, then in his final season with the Sox.

''That was my favorite player growing up," Mollica said. ''I wanted to marry him. He'd say, 'You have tons of freckles, like me.' "

Mollica admits, though, that she is a diehard Yankees fan, owing to Zimmer's long run coaching under Joe Torre, starting in 1996. She remembers with special glee the day in seventh grade when her mother, Donna, picked her up from school with the car already packed. They went to New York and got to ride on a float during the parade celebrating the Yankees' last world championship.

For the American League Championship Series in 2003, Mollica was at Fenway during the melee in which Pedro Martínez played matador with Zimmer, sending the charging coach to the turf.

'' 'Oh my God, look at Pops,' " she remembers saying to her grandmother. ''I didn't know what to think."

Making an impression

With the Sox and Yankees resuming hostilities this week in the Bronx, Mollica will be rooting hard for the home team -- but her presence at UMass is the result of a Red Sox connection. Red Sox vice president and longtime public relations guru Dick Bresciani placed a call to Sortino, with whom he serves on the UMass Hall of Fame committee.

''I don't even know if this kid can play," Bresciani said. ''She's Don Zimmer's granddaughter, and she's supposed to be pretty good."

Mollica was a standout for Salem (N.H.) High School, the New Hampshire Player of the Year, but when it comes to breeding stars for the next level, the Granite State is not exactly softball's equivalent of San Pedro de Macoris. Still, some things she saw in Mollica's tape intrigued Sortino and when they met, the Hall of Fame coach (winner of 895 games over 26 years coming into this season) was sold.

''You can tell in a kid's eyes if they have it," Sortino said. ''She has it. She really won me over in a heartbeat."

Fall softball was a rude awakening for Mollica. She had to completely revamp her hitting style. At-bats had to become precious things, moments of mental toughness, as she looked to find the one good pitch to drive. The speed at that level didn't allow her the time to stride, so she had to go to a wide stance. She had to work relentlessly at keeping her hands inside the ball, driving her elbow through. The results were not pretty.

According to Sortino, ''She had days when she said out loud, 'I don't know what I'm doing. It feels like I've never played the game before.' "

In January, though, something clicked, as she went to batting cages in Salem every day with her father, David. She remembers telling him, ''Oh my God, I get it."

She came into the year with what she thought were lofty goals: hitting over .300 with 5 home runs and 30 RBIs. Going in to tomorrow's Atlantic 10 tournament in Philadelphia, she is hitting .419 with 10 homers and the 58 RBIs.

Mollica also has established herself as a live wire on a free-spirited UMass team that is 34-14. Fellow freshman Davina Hernandez says Mollica is ''very hyper," that ''you never see her in a bad mood," that she is constantly coaxing her teammates to take pictures.

Senior captain K.J. Kelley describes Mollica as ''kind of giggly" off the field, but says she has more than her earned her stripes between the lines.

''She follows the leaders and does whatever they ask her to do," says Kelley. ''She's definitely a team player."

That, of course, would please a certain large-jowled gentleman now in his 57th year of professional ball. This year, the cleat has been on the other foot, with Zimmer coming to watch his granddaughter in action. He was there for all eight games when UMass played in Clearwater, Fla., over spring break, watching Mollica launch her first collegiate home run. The Zimmers hosted the team for dinner, and nobody was more awed than Sortino, who refers to the house as a ''mini-Cooperstown."

A few weeks ago, Zimmer was in Chestnut Hill to watch Mollica play against Boston College, at the same time the Devil Rays were in town to play the Red Sox. He looked on with pride at the freckle-faced third baseman, the one with the long ponytail obscuring either the ''2" or the ''1" on her back, the freshman who was sweating and smiling, playing the game right.




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