MINNEAPOLIS—Joe Mauer is more than the heartbeat of the Twins, the frontrunner for the American League Most Valuable Player award and Baseball America’s 2009 Major League Player of the Year. In this most impressive and illustrious of seasons, he’s the poster boy for the phrase, “All’s well that ends well.”
Flash back to spring training, and Mauer didn’t have the luxury of thinking about another trip to the All-Star Game or a run at a third batting title. He began the season on the disabled list, and his main objective was to get his aching back healthy and return by May. The hope was that the Twins could overcome his absence, stick around in the AL Central and contend for a fifth postseason appearance this decade.
Naturally, each setback was cause for concern. Back problems can be debilitating for any professional athlete. When the person in question is a 6-foot-5 franchise catcher, every development is potentially angst-producing.
Mauer, true to form, approached his extended stay at Minnesota’s spring training site in Fort Myers, Fla., with an upbeat mindset and maximum dedication. He worked with minor league rehab coordinator Lanny Tucker on core exercises that would benefit him over the long run. In the meantime, he hung out with his older brother Jake, manager of the Twins’ Rookie-level Gulf Coast League club, and felt energized by the company of all those Minnesota farmhands.
“It was kind of neat,” Mauer says. “I was able to stay with my brother and get back to enjoying the game. Sometimes you get up here and it gets so serious and businesslike. Being around those younger guys and seeing how much enthusiasm they had was a really good thing for me.”
By the time Mauer returned from the DL in early May, you could color him invigorated and opposing pitchers challenged. Mauer went 7-for-10 in his opening series against the Royals, and that was the harbinger for a big season. Before it was through:
• Mauer hit .365 to outlast Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and win his third career batting title. National Leaguers Bubbles Hargrave (1926) and Ernie Lombardi (1938 and ’42) are the only other catchers to collect even one batting championship.
• Mauer joined Nap Lajoie, Ty Cobb, Harry Heilmann, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Tony Oliva, Rod Carew, George Brett and Wade Boggs as the 10th player to win at least three AL batting titles.
• He became the first big leaguer to win consecutive batting crowns since Boston’s Nomar Garciaparra achieved the feat in 1999 and 2000. And he was the first player to lead the AL in batting, slugging and on-base percentage since Brett did it for the Royals in 1980.
• Mauer led the AL with a .388 average at home and a .345 mark on the road. He was the first AL player to pull off that double since Carew hit .401 at home and .374 on the road for the 1977 Twins.
• Remember when Minnesota had trouble producing power hitters on the farm? Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel—homegrown products all—became the first Twins foursome to surpass 25 homers each since Kirby Puckett, Tom Brunansky, Gary Gaetti and Kent Hrbek did it in 1985.
Mauer’s 28 homers more than doubled his previous career high of 13. His power numbers spiked even as he remained true to his core philosophy, with a focus on plate discipline and hitting the ball where it’s pitched. He’s so naturally gifted, his fellow Twins have to step back on occasion and remind themselves that they’re watching something historic unfold.
“To tell you the truth, I do it all the time,” says manager Ron Gardenhire. “I sit in the dugout, and say, ‘Nothing he does can amaze me now.’ It’s a constant. You step back and watch him at-bat after at-bat hit a rocket somewhere and you’re like, ‘Nobody can do that.’ Tough pitchers, guys throwing filthy, and he just steps up like it’s nothing.”
Although there’s no such thing as a signature Mauer plate appearance, a confrontation with the Tigers’ Justin Verlander in late September would certainly suffice. Verlander, clinging to a late lead in a pennant race game at Comerica Park, threw a 98 mph fastball up and in at Mauer’s letters.
While making contact was a challenge, the act of hitting the ball with authority seemed to border on impossible. At least, that’s what Verlander and his Detroit teammates thought as Mauer whipped his bat head through the zone and pulled a line drive to right field for a double.
“That was a joke,” Verlander told reporters in the clubhouse after the game. “I came in the dugout and I said, ‘I will never know how he hit that pitch, kept it fair and didn’t break his bat.’ He almost got the barrel on it.”
Tigers pitcher Jarrod Washburn, who has held Mauer to three hits in 15 at-bats, ticks off the laundry list of attributes that he thinks make Mauer the best hitter in the AL.
“He obviously has a tremendous eye,” Washburn says. “He hardly ever chases anything out of the zone. He covers everything in the zone, and he’s just so quiet at the plate. His hands are quiet, and his lower half is quiet. When you’re standing on the mound, you look at him and say, ‘I don’t know where to pitch this guy.’ “
Sometimes desperate times call for extreme measures.
“I’ve walked him to get to Morneau, and nobody wants to face Morneau,” Washburn says.
Mauer’s offensive exploits alone were enough to earn him BA’s Player of the Year, but that’s only part of the equation. Mauer showed leadership in helping Minnesota overcome a seven-game deficit and the loss of Morneau to an injury to overtake Detroit for the division title. He also helped nurse the Twins’ pitching staff through an injury to Kevin Slowey and stagnation from Francisco Liriano, who hasn’t been the same pitcher since his return from Tommy John surgery.
Mauer is not a big video devotee, but he immerses himself in scouting reports and takes a diligent approach to devising game plans for Twins pitchers. Gardenhire says it’s not uncommon for him to look over and see Mauer, peeling off his shin guards, replaying an opposition at-bat right before his turn at the plate.
It’s that selflessness and grounded approach that endear Mauer to his teammates regardless of how well he’s hitting. He might drive a Mercedes Benz, but in every other respect, he’s the kid in your neighborhood who happened to grow up and be a superstar.
“People ask me about Joe all the time, and it’s like, boring,” Twins backup catcher Mike Redmond says. “I’m like, ‘God, what do I say?’ It’s hard to even come up with a funny story to tell about him. He’s just Joe.”
Says Cuddyer: “He’s pretty vanilla. He takes pride in that, I think. He just goes out and does his job really, really, really well, and that’s it.”
In the coming months, attention will shift to the question of how long Mauer will be around now that the Twins have left the Metrodome behind for $517 million Target Field, which opens in April. The Twins have lost Torii Hunter and Johan Santana to bigger markets in recent years. Mauer is eligible for free agency after the 2010 season, and as a local boy and the face of the franchise, he’ll give Twins diehards palpitations as he determines where he’ll be playing through his early 30s.
It’s generally regarded as a positive sign that Mauer is represented by Ron Shapiro, the veteran agent whose clientele once featured Cal Ripken Jr. and Kirby Puckett—civic treasures who took less money to spend their entire careers with their original clubs.
“I selected Ron because of those guys,” Mauer says. “He represents good guys—not just great baseball players. When you look for an agent, you want somebody who shares the same values and things that you stand for. Obviously there are a lot of things that go into my decision, but we’ll worry about that when we have to.”
Mauer has already achieved so much of what was predicted for him at Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul. He was sufficiently skilled on the football field that Florida State offered him a scholarship to play quarterback, but the Twins swayed him toward baseball by choosing him first in the 2002 draft and giving him a club-record $5.15 million bonus.
Mauer has been worth every dime. At 26, he has already bagged Baseball America’s High School, Minor League and Major League Player of the Year awards—a hat trick achieved by no other player. After Mauer hit .339 in two minor league stops at age 20, Twins scouting director Mike Radcliff made it clear he wasn’t long for the farm. “He’s not a normal prospect,” Radcliff said in 2003.
Most people will tell you Mauer hasn’t changed one iota since high school. His parents, Jake and Teresa, have a poster in their home of young Joe making his first appearance on the front of the magazine in 2002. And Mauer lights up at the memory of how it felt to appear on the national radar for the first time as a teenager.
“I was pretty pumped up reading about it when I was kid,” Mauer says. “Seeing yourself on the cover of Baseball America is pretty cool.”
Congratulations, Joe, and enjoy the tribute. There’s plenty more where this came from.