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Born To Be A Twin
Minnesota chose St. Paul native Joe Mauer first overall, and he blossomed into the Minor League Player of the Year
by Will Kimmey
NEW BRITAIN, Conn.--As summer turned to fall, getting to the Metrodome was the only goal for Joe Mauer. But it wasn't happening.
His aunt and uncle held tickets to see the Twins face the Braves in Game Six of the 1991 World Series, and wanted to take his parents. But with three boys under 12, Jake and Teresa Mauer declined the invitation because they could not find a babysitter. Instead, the two older boys--Jake III and Bill--got to go see their hero Kirby Puckett rob Ron Gant of extra bases with a catch against the outfield wall, then hit a homer in the 11th to force a deciding Game Seven that the Twins would win. Eight-year-old Joe got to stay home with mom and dad.
"I missed the first couple innings because I was pouting," Mauer says. "I'm still kind of bitter about that. They got to go to Game Six, and I had to watch it at home. That sucked."
These days, Mauer says he'd just as soon watch a game on TV, but the memory of missing out lingers. As does the way his brothers often remind him of the event. Though the Mauer's home in St. Paul was just five to 10 minutes on the freeway from the Metrodome, Joe never felt farther away. Now 20, Mauer has a unique chance to avenge the slight. The Dome is nearly 1,300 miles from the Twins' Double-A affiliate in New Britain, but Mauer has never been closer.
"He doesn't have to improve any of his tools or skills to jump in and impact the game at the major league level," Twins scouting director Mike Radcliff says. "He's not a normal prospect. Improvement is a different word with a guy like that. He's good enough with his present abilities. He fits into a category with (Cubs righthander Mark) Prior and guys like that who make an impact as soon as they get there."
While Prior shot through the minors and already has appeared in the All-Star Game, Mauer is developing into a Gold Glove-caliber catcher who could challenge for a batting title.
This season Mauer hit .339-5-85 between New Britain and high Class A Fort Myers, posting the highest average of any minor leaguer not yet old enough to order a beer and the best of any minor league catcher. Managers voted Mauer the best defensive catcher in his league for the second straight year, he threw out better than 50 percent of basestealers, and New Britain's team ERA was 0.61 better with him behind the plate. He served as a team leader to a roster including players as much as seven years his senior.
Twins officials weren't sure how Mauer would handle the transition to Double-A at midseason. They knew he'd be fine defensively, saying he's been ready to catch in the major leagues since spring training--but they wondered how his bat would hold up in a league where pitchers throw any of their three offerings in any count, where hitters can't just sit on the fastball alone.
Mauer was hitting .335 in the Florida State League, so farm director Jim Rantz felt Mauer was ready for a challenge. He quickly showed they had little reason to worry. After going hitless in his first two games for New Britain, Mauer registered at least one hit in 55 of his final 71 games. Batting third for the Rock Cats, Mauer hit .341, he would have ranked second in the Eastern League if he had enough at-bats to qualify.
Mauer's mere presence often translates into wins. When the Twins promoted him, along with righthanders J.D. Durbin and Jim Abbott, to New Britain, the RockCats were 25-37 and wallowing in the Northern Division cellar. The day of the move, former Twins manager Tom Kelly, who now works with the organization as a roving instructor, called manager Stan Cliburn and said, "Hey Stan, you just got smarter."
Kelly was right. Their arrival sparked a five-game winning streak and led to other spurts of 15 wins in 18 games, 11 of 13 and nine in a row as the RockCats went 48-31 the rest of the way to earn a playoff berth.
"It's unbelievable," Cliburn says. "You don't like to give the credit to one man, but he deserves the credit because people fed off him. They built around him. That pitching staff on that mound, we had 18 straight quality starts—six innings-plus with less than three runs—when he got here. Just because of his presence behind the plate giving them confidence that was missing. Not taking anything away from Rob Bowen. Rob Bowen is a major leaguer now. Joe just found a way to get it out of them.
"Joe Mauer at 20 years old, what he's doing here--there is something special. And he's going to do it for a long time wherever he goes."
He did it in Fort Myers during the first half. At 44-26, the Miracle won the first-half title in the Florida State League's Western Division and set a franchise record for wins in a half. Without Mauer and company, Fort Myers went 29-37 in the second half, falling into last place.
"You know, 2003 was a very, very productive year for Mauer," Cliburn says. "Not only for Mauer but a productive year for the Twins organization because of what he did for the other prospects on the team."
Mauer's contributions in every aspect of the game earned plenty of accolades during the year, and help him garner one more at season's end: Baseball America's 2003 Minor League Player of the Year.
The award serves as another reminder that the Twins chose wisely in tabbing the hometown kid from Cretin-Derham Hall first overall. He starred in baseball, football and basketball there, and could have played for a Division I college in any sport. Rated the top quarterback prospect in the country as well as the best catcher, Mauer spurned his commitment to Florida State in order to sign with the Twins for a club-record $5.15 million bonus.
"To turn down a football scholarship to Florida State, I know the Twins offered him a big bonus, but money's not everything," Cliburn says. "He had to look at the tradition, what the Mauer family is all about, what Minnesota's all about. Sure, it would have been nice to go down there and play football and be an NFL player. But Joe Mauer wants to be a Minnesota Twin."
Mauer's first love always had been baseball--and the Twins. Plenty of athletes get the "born to play baseball" tag. But Mauer's label reads "born to be a Twin." Just check the lineage. His grandfather Jake played football for one season at Minnesota and spent time in the minors with the White Sox, his chance at the big leagues ripped away when he came down with polio. Jake Mauer had three brothers who also played minor league baseball, one of whom was also a Golden Gloves boxing champion. Joe's father, Jake Mauer Jr., played plenty of baseball growing up, and met his wife when some of her softball teammates took her to a ball field to introduce them. Teresa Mauer more than held her own on the field of play. When her high school didn't have softball she tried out for the baseball team, suffered the razzing and players throwing at her head during tryouts before playing for her school's inaugural softball team. She also played volleyball and basketball, as did her sister Jean, who was the first woman inducted into the Creighton sports hall of fame. "I joke with people I married her just for the breeding," Jake says. "She hates when I say that."
Jokes aside, it did work out. Their oldest son, Jake III, 24, was a Division III all-American as an infielder at St. Thomas (Minn.) and was drafted by the Twins in the 23rd round the same year they took Joe. Bill, 23, pitched at Concordia College and signed with the Twins this summer, leaving everyone named Mauer with a Twins hat. "That's our goal," Jake says, "to all get home to play in the big leagues."
Mauer's been working toward that goal since he was 2. The family has a picture featuring little Joe in diapers with a bat in his hand. He had a sweet swing even then. And he always played against kids older than him. Which is partly why it didn't come as a surprise that Mauer fared so well against advanced competition in Double-A this year.
"He's always played with the big kids on the block, so to speak, because he's always had ability," Rantz says.
At 4, Mauer was asked to leave his tee-ball league because he hit the ball too hard for the other players. So he moved up to a coach-pitch league. Looking back on it, Mauer figures losing the tee at such an early age gave him extra experience against live pitching.
In his grade school, Mauer started at point guard on the basketball team as a fifth grader alongside his brother Bill, who was in the eighth grade. Mauer actually made the team in the second grade, but was removed from the roster after complaints from the parents of some of the sixth graders he beat out.
The Mauer brothers have always been fiercely competitive, and extremely loyal. Jake and Bill turned everything into a competition and the younger Joe would tag along, but more often than not he managed to hold his own when the three Mauer boys would head to the park for pickup games. As a high school junior, Jake chose Joe, a seventh-grader, first for a pickup football team and made him the quarterback. The other kids complained about the family favoritism, especially after Jake picked Bill with his next pick.
"The first play, Jake runs his route, I get him the ball and we start pounding them," Joe says. Bill points out that Jake picked Joe first because he was more likely to feed Jake the ball than Bill was.
Seven years later, the three brothers still stick together. Joe owns a three-bedroom house near the Twins' spring training complex in Fort Myers, Fla., and that's where they live in the offseason. They wake early to lift weights and participate in their own drills, then head out for more competition, engaging in wars on the links (where Joe shoots in the mid-80s) and tennis courts. They're still the same three brothers, still waging their individual athletic battles. But some things have changed. The older two know their little brother has surpassed them athletically, and have been made well aware of the fact. They've gone from Jake or Bill to Joe Mauer's Brother.
"I didn't realize how good he was until Elizabethton our first year," says Jake, who debuted with Joe in the Rookie-level Appalachian League in 2001. "I thought it was a step up from the level of competition I was playing in college. But just looking at the other catchers, at how much better he was than them. And we're talking about guys that were from big (college) programs like USC. That's when I really knew."
Early on, most of Mauer's catching experience came from serving as the catcher/umpire while one of his brothers pitched to the other in a game of Wiffle ball one-on-one. He ultimately found himself behind the plate as part of his desire to compete with the older, better players. As an eighth grader, Mauer realized that squatting behind the plate was the best way to make the varsity team at Cretin-Derham. The team didn't have a catcher entrenched, and he knew the value of a lefthanded-hitting backstop.
"I just fell into it I guess," he says. "I also liked the fact that I got to control the game and be in charge. It's like being the quarterback in baseball."
He made the varsity as a sophomore and has caught ever since. Each year Mauer picks up something new, learning from a host of Twins instructors and coaches. Crediting good teaching and experience, Mauer has blossomed into the best catcher in the minors, and the game's best catching prospect since Ivan Rodriguez and Sandy Alomar Jr.
He receives every pitch fluidly, holding it in place to goad extra strikes out of umpires, and blocks everything that bounces. He studies hitters endlessly, and has a rapid recall of most every pitch he calls against them, knowing what works and what doesn't. He has a plus arm and pitches go from his glove to second base in less than two seconds. He's so proficient, in fact, that he goes series and weeks at a time between steal attempts. "I like the challenge," Mauer says.
He gunned down speedy New Haven outfielder Tyrell Godwin in the first game of the Eastern League playoffs, and the Ravens didn't attempt another steal in the five-game series.
Cliburn, a former major league catcher who has worked with Mauer the last two years in instructional league, says he's so polished that he has needed just two tips. Because of Mauer's height and long legs, he used to pinch his knees inward in his crouch, but Cliburn reminded him to point them out to offer the pitcher a better frame. He also had Mauer extend his arm out further to receive low pitches; when he caught them too close to his body, it robbed the umpire's view of strikes.
"So I've told him two things," Cliburn says. "And you tell him one time and that's all I had to tell him. It's amazing sometimes for a young player coming out of high school, you have to tell them over and over again before they finally retain it. You tell him one time and he picks it up like that. You never have to tell him again. It's a manager's dream. He's aware, he's smart and he retains instruction. If it was that easy for everybody in professional baseball, then you wouldn't need coaches. He makes it easy for a manager."
There's no question he could catch in the majors right now. If Twins all-star catcher and team leader A.J. Pierzynski went down, there's little question among Twins officials that Mauer's name would be the first one off the lips of general manager Terry Ryan and manager Ron Gardenhire. Would the prized prospect plopped into the middle of the pennant race respond? "I would not have a doubt in my mind," Radcliff says.
Mauer has already dealt with the big league staff the last two years in spring training, starting games against the Orioles and Yankees. He handled 10-year major league workhorses such as Brad Radke, Rick Reed and Eddie Guardado with aplomb. Veteran catcher Tom Prince says Mauer looked like he had been catching those pitchers his entire career.
"You could see the pitching staff felt comfortable throwing to him," Rantz says.
Mauer called the experience "weird, but good weird," especially catching Radke, whom he recalls watching on TV often. But he took to catching and learning those pitchers the same way he does any other. Just as he had to adjust to the new and more experienced staff in New Britain this season after his promotion.
"I had seen them but hadn't worked with them," he says. "With each pitcher, you've kind of got to learn their personality. Some pitchers you have to get on, some you have to let do their own thing. I feel real comfortable with the staff right now.
"Going out there with a guy seven years older than you, trying to tell him what to do is a little different at first. But we're trying to work together to get outs. Sometimes we get on each other but after the game everybody's friends. We're just trying to accomplish the same thing and everybody's competitive."
Along with his competitive nature, Mauer plays the game very instinctively. Like Derek Jeter's catch and flip in the 2001 playoffs against the Athletics, Mauer always ends up in the right place at the right time, under control. On a wild pitch third strike this season, he calmly turned around, caught an odd ricochet off the backstop and fired to first for a 2-3 putout.
"He impacts teams beyond stats," Radcliff says, comparing his presence to that of Larry Bird.
Like Bird, Mauer often brings out the best in his teammates. "We've had some pitchers have some good years throwing to him," Rantz says. "He instills confidence in his pitchers."
Mauer has worked almost every one of Durbin's starts the last two years, for example, and Durbin wouldn't have it any other way.
"I remember hitters when I face them in the game, but I don't know every pitch I throw to them. Mauer does," Durbin says. "With his knowledge of the game, even the big league guys are saying, 'That catcher's one of the best I've ever thrown to.' It's evident when you see him catch."
"When you write his name on the lineup card and put him at catcher," Cliburn says, "you know you're going to get a good pitching outing. It happens. He calls such a good game, he studies hitters, he knows when to take a visit to the mound. He does everything that's unteachable. It's instinct. He has all those qualities within. You never have to call a pitch for him, he knows what to do in situations. If there's a pitch I think needs to be thrown, I'll say Joe, pitch inside, and he's already thought of it ahead of time."
Mauer's leadership and poise extend beyond his relationship with pitchers. He's a team leader, but a quiet one. He commands instant respect from his teammates, and knows how to get the best out of them. He's not a fire-breathing, expletive-spitting monster, but Mauer still gets his points across in individual chats. And when something needs to be said, he isn't afraid to say it.
"Joe doesn't act his age," says brother Jake, his teammate at Elizabethton, Quad City and Fort Myers. "He'll do it quietly, but he tells you straight up and he's not going to sugarcoat it."
Still, he's quiet in the clubhouse. Reporters struggle to elicit more than single-sentence answers from Mauer, whom they describe as shy but genial. That he handles the media attention so well shouldn't surprise. He's been in the spotlight since he was a high school sophomore, catching for his high school team and then the U.S. youth national squad. He was a national story as a high school senior when he signed with Florida State, and later when the Twins drafted him.
He's popular enough now that the Minnesota media often offers up Joe reports—the Mauer is no longer necessary. "Because the kid is from here, they're all begging to get him here yesterday," Rantz says.
His fame keeps spreading. His New Britain jersey brought more than $1,000 in a charity auction. Quad City commissioned a Mauer bobblehead to give to season-ticker holders this year, and New Britain has one in the works for 2004. Even RockCats teammate Jeff Deardorff jokingly asked Mauer for a bat, saying he needed it to make a house payment.
When people aren't talking about how much it can bring on eBay, Mauer's bat is still a hot topic. Sure he brings a winning presence, high average, on-base percentage nearing .400, sparkling defense and poise--all great qualities. But people want more out of Mauer. They want 20 homers a year, and he's hit just nine in 1,030 minor league at-bats.
Ask Rantz, ask Radcliff, ask about every other baseball man around. The refrain's the same. Don't worry. The power's in there. It's the last thing to come with young hitters.
The Twins don't want him to get too pull-conscious yet. He's been through their power conditioning drills in instructional league, where hitters learn to hit balls with more backspin, and more carry. Pointing out the 30 doubles Mauer collected this season, scouts expect him to hit 20-25 home runs a year to go with his high average. "The home runs will come, I think," Mauer says. "I'm still learning what pitches to turn on and drive out of the park."
His high school coach, Jim O'Neill, gave Mauer his first lesson during his senior year. Blessed with precise control, O'Neill moved the ball all over the plate, instructing Mauer to take a normal swing. They found his sweet spot: belt high and a touch in from the middle of the plate. O'Neill told Mauer to wait for that pitch over the next few games, and not to swing unless he got it. Mauer tied a high school record by homering in seven straight games. The drill also helped his pitch recognition and plate discipline.
"I would see pitches and say, 'That's a strike, but it's not the right one,' so I'd take it. 'OK there it is,' I'd hit it. That helped me out a lot seeing pitches," Mauer says.
Mauer also likes to see a lot of pitches against pitchers he hasn't faced before. He says he's just as comfortable with two strikes as he is 3-1. Like Jeter or Nomar Garciaparra, Mauer is most effective when he rakes pitches up the middle and the opposite way. "It's a gift, going to left field," Cliburn says. "You can't teach that. You can teach the other part, turning on the ball."
Mauer learned his classic lefthanded stroke from his grandfather. His father and two brothers swing righthanded.
"Jake and Bill were trying to get me to hold it righthanded, but I was like, no, no, no, no," says Mauer, who also kicks a football with his left foot, but shoots a basketball righthanded. With his grandfather throwing batting practice and offering tips, Mauer honed his stroke into one so smooth that Cliburn compares it to Tiger Woods swinging a golf club.
He even earned an "I really like your swing, kid" from Jim Thome during a spring training game against the Phillies.
Mauer isn't star struck by big names, though. Puckett, one of his childhood heroes, invited Mauer to play in his charity pool tournament after he was drafted. (It got Mauer hooked on the game, and now there's a pool table in his house in Fort Myers.) He's been able to meet another World Series hero in Dan Gladden, now a radio broadcaster for the Twins, as well as Tony Oliva and Al Newman. But most thrilling for Mauer is the relationship he's developed with former Twin and Cretin-Derham alum Paul Molitor.
"That's still pretty cool for me," Mauer says. "Paul Molitor, you know. My buddies get blown away. He's one of my favorite players and is from the area, and he's such a great guy. My buddies are like, 'What'd you do today?' 'I had lunch with Paul.' 'Paul who?' 'Paul Molitor.' 'No way.' It's pretty cool."
Molitor heads a long list of famous Cretin-Derham graduates. Most have come from the gridiron, including NFL players Chris Weinke, Steve Walsh, Corbin Lacina and Matt Birk. Terrell Suggs, the 10th pick in the 2003 NFL draft, served as Mauer's center in grade school until his family moved to Arizona after eighth grade. Jack Morris didn't attend Cretin-Derham, but he grew up in Mauer's Highland Park neighborhood. Dave Winfield was born less than a mile away. All those names can make a guy's head spin. Now consider Mauer surpassed many of their high school feats and broke a lot of their records. In local circles, he's nearly reached their level of fame already.
He's already linked to a pair of young stars. Remember, the Twins drafted Mauer one pick before Mark Prior became a Cub and three picks before Mark Teixeira was a Ranger. "It's pretty crazy I was the first pick," Mauer says. "Especially to see Prior and Teixiera and those guys from that draft doing so well in the big leagues. For the Twins to think of me up there with those guys is pretty special, I think. Hopefully I can get up there and do well like them."
Mauer thinks about it all for a second. How far he's come from his days of Wiffle ball with his brothers, pretending to be Kirby Puckett or Kent Hrbek and winning the World Series for the Twins. He's so close to fulfilling his dream.
"That's the plan," he says, "to make it up there. I've got a lot of family and friends that want to see me play. I kind of put more pressure on myself than others. It's always been a dream of mine to play in the major leagues, and to play at home would be pretty special."
Mauer wouldn't even need tickets. He wouldn't have to watch it on TV. The hometown kid born to play for the local nine would be in uniform, doing what destiny seemed to have planned for him long ago.