I was at the Metrodome on May 1, 2009, when Joe Mauer made his regular-season debut after missing the first month due to a lower back injury. I’ll never forget the thunderous applause that accompanied his first trip to the plate. For four long weeks, baseball fans in the Twin Cities had been deprived of their sacred son -- a local super-celeb soon to become one of the richest players in the sport’s history.
These days, you don’t notice the same flurry of excitement when T.I.’s "What You Know About That" (Mauer’s walk-up song for seemingly his entire career) blares over the Target Field speakers. In fact, the backstop’s reputation has become so sullied over the past 14 months that you might detect scattered boos coming from the stands after he grounds into another double play (his league-leading total of 10 has him on pace to challenge Jim Rice’s single-season record).
To the knowledgeable hardball fan, these boos are misguided -- Mauer isn’t exactly killing the Twins with his .400 on-base percentage -- but also somewhat understandable, and a reminder of a painful truth: He’s not the player he once was.
The catcher set an almost impossible standard in '09 when he led the league in batting average, OBP and slugging while ripping 28 homers and plating 96 runs. Most understood that he would not be able to maintain that kind of insane proficiency on a consistent, long-term basis, but after capturing the MVP award he found himself fortuitously bearing down on free agency.
The Twins, on the verge of opening a publicly funded ballpark, had no choice but to lock up the hometown hero with his value at an all-time high, lest they risk being outbid by larger-market clubs in free agency the following offseason.
The team took care of business, signing the St. Paul native to an exorbitant $184 million extension. Ever since, Mauer has been living in the shadow of that colossal contract, which is already widely labeled an albatross with seven years left to go.
Injuries began to bog Mauer down before his new contract even kicked in. Late in the 2010 campaign, his left knee -- which had been surgically repaired back in 2004 when he suffered a torn meniscus as a rookie -- began to bark. He battled through a playoff sweep at the hands of the Yankees, tried resting it and then in December underwent a surgery that was deemed minor at the time.
That "minor" surgery would set off a disastrous 2011 for Mauer. He missed 80 games, mostly due to ongoing leg problems, and posted respectable yet unspectacular numbers: .287/.360/.368, three homers, 30 RBIs.
This year, Mauer has been far more durable, as he’s uncharacteristically sat out only one game (almost as if to make a point). He’s looking better at the plate, but the power is nowhere to be found. He has homered twice all season, and is hitting the ball into the ground at a career-high rate -- nearly 60 percent.
Mauer can still be a valuable player while rolling singles past diving infielders, taking walks and sprinkling in the occasional double. But it will take more than that to win back the disenchanted Target Field faithful. They don’t want a table-setter, they want a table-clearer--– especially if Mauer continues to transition away from catcher into more offense-heavy positions like first base and DH.
On that aforementioned May Day back in 2009, the batting titlist did not let down his adoring fans. He stepped up to the box for his first at-bat of the season against Sidney Ponson, dug in, took the first two pitches in classic Mauer fashion, and then unleashed a signature picturesque swing, driving the ball over the fence in left-center. A happy harbinger to an unforgettable MVP campaign.
A little more of that authoritative offensive production now might quell the boo birds at the ballpark. Then again, a pessimist might suggest that Mauer’s assortment of lower-body injuries have permanently altered and weakened a once legendary swing. Heck, that might not even be pessimistic.
As Johnny Bench once said, "A catcher and his body are like the outlaw and his horse. He’s got to ride that nag till it drops."