Paul Molitor has hit balls harder, but none sweeter.

Molitor became the first major leaguer to reach the 3,000-hit plateau by tripling, and not even the Minnesota Twins' 6-5 loss to the Kansas City Royals tonight could take away from his big moment.

"I didn't hit the ball particularly well," Molitor said of his fifth-inning triple off rookie Jose Rosado (7-5). "It was a fastball up. Instincts take over when you smell a triple. It may not have been the crispest of hits in 19 years, but I hit it in the right place."

Molitor singled in the first inning, setting up the triple that made him the 21st player to reach 3,000. He added a single in the seventh, increasing his major league-leading total to 212.

Molitor came up again in the ninth with runners on first and third and one out, and hit a sacrifice fly. He also grounded out in the third.

His historic hit came exactly three years to the day that Dave Winfield made it to 3,000. Like Winfield, Molitor was born in St. Paul, Minn., and was playing for the Twins when he made it to the milestone.

The triple off Rosado was an opposite-field drive that fell beyond the reach of center fielder Rod Myers and right fielder Jon Nunnally. Royals Manager Bob Boone said the ball should have been caught, but that Myers backed off at the last minute for fear of colliding with Nunnally.

Molitor's teammates ran onto the field to congratulate him after the hit, as did Twins Manager Tom Kelly, who rarely leaves the dugout to join celebrations.

Said Molitor: "To be just engulfed by my teammates at third base, and seeing my family there, were very nice visual pictures I can hang on to." The game was delayed for several minutes for fireworks and a replay of Molitor's past five hits. The crowd on hand to see the hit was announced as 16,843, although it appeared much smaller.

Two other members of the 3,000-hit club -- Robin Yount, who played more than a decade with Molitor in Milwaukee, and former Royals star George Brett -- watched from an upstairs box at Kauffman Stadium. Also attending was American League President Gene Budig.

Molitor raised his average to .343 with his 3,000th hit. He is on his way to his 11th .300 season, and sixth in seven years.

Molitor has missed 592 games in his career because of injuries, and made 12 trips to the disabled list from 1980 to '90.

He got to 2,000 hits on July 30, 1991, with a single off Kansas City's Bret Saberhagen, but has been relatively healthy since then in his pursuit of 3,000. He has not missed a game this season.

Molitor played 15 seasons with the Brewers, collecting 2,281 hits, then played for Toronto from 1993 to 1995. Slowed by an idle offseason during the strike, Molitor slumped badly during the first half of 1995, even contemplating retirement at midseason before he came on in the second half. Toronto chose not to pick up a $4 million option on his contract, and Molitor went home to play for the Twins. 3,000-HIT CLUB X-ACTIVE PLAYERS

Player

No. 1. Pete Rose

4,256 2. Ty Cobb

4,191 3. Hank Aaron

3,771 4. Stan Musial

3,630 5. Tris Speaker

3,515 6. Honus Wagner

3,430 7. Carl Yastrzemski 3,419 8. Eddie Collins

3,309 9. Willie Mays

3,283 10. Nap Lajoie

3,252 11. x-Eddie Murray

3,209 12. George Brett

3,154 13. Paul Waner

3,152 14. Robin Yount

3,142 15. Dave Winfield

3,110 16. Cap Anson

3,081 17. Rod Carew

3,053 18. Lou Brock

3,023 19. Al Kaline

3,007 20. x-Paul Molitor

3,001 21. Roberto Clemente 3,000 CAPTION: Teammate Chuck Knoblauch greets Paul Molitor, center, after his 3,000th hit.