Flip a set of car keys to Anthony Molina from across the room, and they’re liable to hit him in the chest and fall to the floor.
He has a blind spot in his left eye, poor peripheral vision and almost no depth perception. He has had surgery on the eye three times and figures to undergo more procedures periodically throughout the rest of his life.
But his view of what happened to him 10 years ago today remains crystal clear.
So does his view of the future.
“Life is not going to wait around for me to sulk and sit in sorrow,’’ said Molina, who was once among the most promising athletes to come out of Moline High School. “Even if people feel sorry for you, there’s no money in that. I need to make a living somehow.’’
Molina, 31, now works as a senior credit manager for Wells Fargo Financial in Bettendorf while also giving baseball lessons on the side.
But his lifelong dream was to play major league baseball and perhaps coach the sport at a high level.
All of that was wrenched away from him on April 23, 1999, when he was the victim of one of the most heinous acts ever perpetrated on a baseball field, a deed imbedded in the memories of all who were there.
“It was a horrible day for college baseball,’’ said Wes Carroll, who was then one of Molina’s University of Evansville teammates and who now is Evansville’s head coach.
“I’d never seen anything so vicious on a baseball field before. To witness that and to see one of your friends go through that was something I’ll never forget.’’
Molina was the leadoff man and star third baseman for Evansville, one of those tough, scrappy, grab-every-edge-you-can players who often rubbed opponents the wrong way.
Warming up on the mound for the home team that day was Wichita State’s Ben Christensen, widely regarded as the best pitcher in college baseball. Christensen was 21-1 in his college career and seemed destined to be one of the first players selected in the June amateur draft.
He thought Molina was trying to time his pitches, so he directed a 92-mph warm-up throw at Molina, who was standing 24 feet from home plate. Molina looked up just as the ball arrived, crushing his left eye, destroying his vision, breaking three bones and opening a cut that required 23 stitches.
That set off a string of events that made national headlines.
Christensen was suspended for the remainder of the season along with Wichita State pitching coach Brent Kemnitz, who allegedly instructed his pitchers to throw at batters who stood too near the plate and tried to time their warm-up pitches. (Kemnitz was reinstated the following season and remains a member of the Wichita State staff today.)
Christensen was lambasted from coast to coast, although that didn’t keep the Chicago Cubs from making him the 26th selection in the June draft.
It was the start of legal wrangling that went on for 3 1/2 years and culminated with Christensen paying a cash settlement to Molina. The amount was supposed to be confidential but was widely reported as being $400,000.
For Molina, it was the start of a long and painful recovery.
And the end of a dream.
Although he was not as highly regarded a prospect as Christensen, he almost certainly was going to be drafted and get a chance to pursue his goal of making the major leagues.
Instead, the vision in his left eye went from 20/10 to 20/400. His chances of a pro career went from decent to nonexistent.
He endured three surgeries, one to relieve the pressure in the eye, one to insert a new lens and one to repair his retina. He was told he would require surgery every 8 to 10 years to relieve the pressure in the eye, although he said he hasn’t needed that yet.
He attempted to come back and play for Evansville in the 2000 season and was able to hit reasonably well. Although he lacks depth perception, he somehow can gauge fastballs and curveballs well enough to make contact. But he could not judge balls hit on the ground and was relegated to being a catcher or designated hitter. He played less and less as the season went on, and reality finally set in.
“When I knew I was not going to be able to play baseball anymore, I realized I had to do something with my life,’’ he said.
He said his grade-point average actually went up after that because the time he formerly spent on baseball he invested in study. He received his marketing degree from Evansville and set out into the working world.
He has had a string of different jobs, including brief coaching stints at Wabash Valley Community College and Sherrard High School (in the spring of 2007). He delivered furniture for awhile, worked for a rental car agency outside Evansville and more recently wrote service agreements for Lujack’s Northpark Auto Plaza before finally landing a job he really likes with Wells Fargo.
“He’s come a long way,’’ said Augie Molina, his father. “It hasn’t been easy. The last year or so, he’s bounced back OK, but it wasn’t easy for him to get over that.’’
Augie thinks his son’s insatiable competitive drive helped him ultimately conquer the deep-seated dismay over what happened 10 years ago.
“I don’t care what it is, you put him out there and he’s going to try to win,’’ Augie said. “He’s going to find a way to win. He’s always been that way. That’s why he did what he did in sports all those years.’’
Rand Wonio, the Davenport attorney who handled all of Molina’s legal matters following the incident, isn’t surprised that his former client found a career in which he can prosper.
“He was extremely poised and well-spoken back in the day when he was dealing with the national sports press,’’ Wonio said. “He really carried himself very maturely, I thought.
“I think he has all the talent in the world to be a success in life.’’
Molina admits the time he spends giving baseball lessons to aspiring players of all ages at Legends Baseball Academy gives him more joy than his day job. He works with players on hitting, pitching, baserunning, fielding. Molina did it all as a player, and he now teaches it all.
He has three children — Taylor, Anna Lee and Anthony Jr., all under the age of 4 — although he is recently divorced.
“I have three kids that are awesome, and I’m divorced, which is also awesome,’’ he said.
His outlook is positive, his future bright. He seemingly has bounced back from something that might have ruined some lives.
“I don’t know how you measure ‘bouncing back,’’’ Carroll said. “When you take baseball away from a person, it’s always going to hurt. He’s always going to have two blind spots in one eye. That’s a physical situation that won’t ever go away.’’
Carroll, who was standing in the on-deck circle 10 years ago when Molina was hit, said he thinks his friend had the talent to reach the majors.
“That’s the million-dollar question,’’ he said. “We’ll never know the answer.’’
Molina admits he still thinks about what he missed out on, especially when he sees athletes he played with or against doing their thing on television.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t wish I could play baseball for a living,’’ he said. “Even if you’re just making the major league minimum, that’s a lot of money and you’re playing a game for a living. The guys who are blessed enough to be able to do that appreciate it and know how lucky they are.’’
He knows, too, that a pro career, even if he hadn’t gotten out of the minors, would have opened doors for him in the coaching profession. His friend Carroll fell short of the majors but is now the head coach at their alma mater.
“I felt if I had been able to go farther in my career, which I felt I could have done if I’d had the opportunity, I could have done more with coaching,’’ he said. “But giving lessons and helping kids isn’t all bad.’’
Still, it doesn’t stir his competitive juices as much as he would like. He still seeks an outlet for that. He played for the Quad-City 76ers semi-pro team in 2004, and the former All-Western Big Six quarterback also has played some flag football.
“He still misses sports,’’ Augie Molina said. “He’s around it a lot when he works with kids, but he’s still crazy about it.’’
“I don’t know … is there a summer league out there where I can compete?’’ Anthony asked. “The competition is what I really miss.’’