|ESPN.com: Baseball||[Print without images]|
|Joe Mauer has overcome back problems to post monster first-half numbers for the Twins.|
KANSAS CITY -- The chanting begins with a handful of fans during his first at-bat. "Let's go, Mau-er!" More fans join in for his second at-bat. "Let's go, Mau-er! Let's go, Mau-er!" Many more join for his third at-bat. "Let's go, MAU-ER! Let's go, MAU-ER!" And by his fourth at-bat, so many fans are shouting and chanting throughout the stadium that their voices are echoing down the concourse and thundering high into the upper decks. "LET'S GO, MAU-ER! LET'S GO, MAU-ER! LET'S GO, MAU-ER!"
And here's the thing: The Twins are not playing at home in the Metrodome. They are on the road in Kansas City, and these fans are chanting for Joe Mauer at Kauffman Stadium.
Despite missing all of April, Joe Mauer could still become just the ninth catcher to score and drive in 100 runs in a season. Oh, he's also leading the American League in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage -- a season that may top the best we've seen from the likes of Mike Piazza, Johnny Bench or Yogi Berra. • 10 best hitting seasons for catchers
Granted, Twins fans always travel well, piling into their cars with the "Land of 10,000 Lakes" license plates and driving east on I-94 or south on I-35 for a chance to see their team play outdoors as God intended. But as phenomenally popular as Kirby Puckett was, "Let's go, Puck!" chants never filled road stadiums like this. So it must be more that brings Minnesota fans to ballparks throughout the Midwest, yelling Joe Mauer's name and wearing his replica jersey as though it were a required state uniform.
"You're seeing something special," says Shawn Anderson, one of the many Minnesota fans who made the trip recently to Kansas City. "You're talking about a once-in-a-lifetime-type player. Watching Joe play is like watching Tiger Woods golf."
As important as the Hall of Fame trajectory, Mauer also possesses the qualities Minnesotans cherish most. He's polite; respectful; humble; quiet as a week in Lake Wobegon; and most important of all, born and raised in Minnesota. He grew up in St. Paul, often playing on the same ball fields that Paul Molitor, Dave Winfield and Jack Morris did before him. Mauer doesn't just wear Minnesota on his jersey, he is as much a part of the culture as the mountain peaks of plowed snow filling suburban cul-de-sacs each winter and the fried foods on a stick at the state fair each summer. He not only is of the state, he was officially All-State in high school (where he starred in baseball, basketball and football). Garrison Keillor really should introduce him for each at-bat, and Prince should play his walkup music.
And there is one more reason "Let's go, Mau-er!" chants are echoing through Midwestern ballparks this summer: Mr. Minnesota has a lot of relatives. Type the name "Mauer" into the Dexknows.com search engine, and it brings up 41 in St. Paul and more than 100 in the surrounding area. Joe himself says he doesn't know how many Mauers there are. "I'm still meeting them," he says.
|Mauer should be smiling these days: He's hitting .373 and leading the AL in slugging percentage.|
"I don't know what the population of the Twin Cities is, but half are probably Mauers," Twins catcher Mike Redmond says. "There are a lot of cousins. A lot of cousins. Everyone is either someone related to Joe Mauer or played with Joe Mauer somewhere."
Redmond is Mauer's backup, and when he subs for the man who is currently the best and most valuable player in the American League, it's like a band's going on stage and announcing that Springsteen has the flu and it'll be playing in his place. "There's a lot of pressure," Redmond says, "because when he gets a day off, you better do something."
"The hardest thing for us is that our best hitter is a catcher, and catchers need days off," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire says. "So when I need to give my catcher a day off, that's hard because it means we lose our best hitter."
With a .373 batting average plus 15 home runs (Mauer led the American League in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage at the All-Star break), Mauer is the Twins' best hitter, even with the presence of good friend Justin Morneau right behind him in the lineup. Gardenhire and the Twins did without Mauer for the first month, when the catcher was recovering from a sacroiliac condition so painful it hurt just to lie in bed, let alone get up and walk. The sacroiliac joint is located at the base of the spine, and inflammation can be painful enough for anyone, but especially for a major league catcher whose job requires squatting up and down dozens of times a day. Can it get any worse for a catcher than a bad back?
Well, actually, yes. Mauer also needed surgery to remove blockage in his kidney last winter.
"The offseason was just crazy. I wouldn't wish it on anybody," Mauer says. "I had trouble getting out of bed, walking. At first I thought it was just due to a long season, but when the pain didn't go away after a couple weeks, I knew something was wrong. Some days were better than others, but it was just so frustrating not knowing what was going on. I saw a bunch of different people for different things. I had the kidney problem, so I was seeing urologists, orthopedics, physical therapists, people like that. I had to do something, not just for my baseball career, but for my health in general."
Finally, doctors at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore placed Mauer on medicine that alleviated the back pain and allowed him to play. He says that he still takes medication regularly and undergoes a regular maintenance program but that he is relatively pain-free for the first time in a long while. Or at least, as pain-free as a catcher can ever be, what with the foul tips off the mask, the fastballs off the fingertips, the collisions with baserunners the size of lumberjacks, and the constant squatting in the heat of summer.
"You never feel 100 percent," Royals coach and former catcher John Wathan says. "It's just a position where you have to go out there and grind it every day. You have some sort of bruise every day. The legs, the arms, you might take one in the mask, or some collision at home plate. I dislocated my shoulder three times. I had all kinds of broken bones. It catches up to you at some point."
Other position players can concentrate on their hitting, but catchers don't have that luxury. Their primary responsibility is catching and getting the best performance possible out of the pitchers. "Being a catcher, I take a lot of pride in my defense," says Mauer, who calls pitches on his own without checking with the dugout. "It's the first thing that I make sure to work on when I get to the park: go over the hitters and see what they're capable of doing. I understand I have responsibility for the offensive side, but I take a lot of pride in my defensive side, and defense always comes first."
|Mauer isn't just a great hitter; he also won a Gold Glove last year and calls his own pitches.|
The defense may come first, but the batting is never neglected. In 2006, Mauer became the first catcher to win a batting title since Ernie Lombardi in 1942. He won a second title in 2008 and is on his way to a third title, and he has newfound power. (Some attribute the early power to being pain-free at last, others to experience.)
Oh, and he also won his first Gold Glove last season.
"He has the ability to separate the two jobs," Twins bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek says. "He doesn't take his at-bat behind the plate, and he doesn't call pitches he can't hit. When in doubt, a lot of catchers will call the pitch they can't hit but it will be the pitcher's third- or fourth-best pitch, and that's where you get whacked around."
Of course, there would have to be a pitch Mauer can't hit for him to be able to fall into that trap.
Mauer was hitting .421 through June 19 when his average finally began dipping to mortal levels. An 0-for-9 mark the last two games before the break cut down the number of questions he faced at the All-Star Game about the possibility of a .400 season (his average fell from .388 to .373), but not all of them.
"I got a call from someone in St. Paul writing a story about .400," George Brett says. "I said, 'What month is it? June? Shouldn't we wait until September?' Joe's a great player and has been for some time. But is he a .400 hitter? I don't know."
"A guy asked me, do you think he'll hit .400, and I said, 'You put that equipment on and try doing it,'" Stelmaszek says. "For a catcher to hit .400 -- what else would there be left to do as a player? That would be it. There would be nothing left."
The No. 1 overall pick of the 2001 draft, Mauer reached the majors in 2005, but Minnesota fans may feel he's been around much longer. He not only played in the Metrodome at the state high school championship as the quarterback for Cretin-Derham Hall his junior and senior years, but he also played there in a youth league when he was in the fifth grade. Which means his Metrodome playing days date back to Kent Hrbek and Puckett.
"I had heard about Joe Mauer since I was in the eighth grade," says Gary Meier, a Twins fan who lives in St. Cloud, about an hour from St. Paul. "You saw his name in the paper all the time. Joe Mauer, Joe Mauer, Joe Mauer. When his high school came up to play in St. Cloud, we all wanted to see him."
"Everyone knew about him in football and how he had a scholarship to play at Florida State," Gardenhire says, "but the first real report I got on him was from my son, Toby, who played against his high school. He said, 'Dad, he's a man against boys.' I said, 'Where does he play?' And he says, 'Catcher. Or second base. Or third base. It doesn't matter. Wherever he's at, he's the best player.'"
|Twins fans have a hard time imagining a world where "MAUER" isn't on a Twins jersey.|
The Twins will move out of the Dome and into their new outdoor ballpark at the opposite edge of downtown Minneapolis next season. The question is how long Mauer will call it home. He is signed through next season, but after that he becomes a free agent, and his possible departure to the Yankees or Red Sox -- already presumed by many East Coast fans and writers as the only logical move for such a star player -- is almost unimaginable for Twins fans. The only future home they want to contemplate for Mauer outside their state is Cooperstown.
"Fans would never forgive the organization if they let him go," says Josh Finney, a fan from East Grand Forks. "He's a fixture. He's the face of the Minnesota Twins."
"So was Torii Hunter," Meier points out.
"Torii Hunter is from Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Mauer is from Minnesota," Finney replies, settling the issue.
Mr. Minnesota's agent is Ron Shapiro, who has a reputation for looking toward a player's long-term relationship with a team instead of seeking the last drop of blood available from a club. He represented Puckett and Cal Ripken Jr., who stayed with their teams their entire careers, though Shapiro also got them lucrative contracts to do so (and later arranged post-career service contracts). Mauer says he hadn't thought about free agency "until the media started asking me."
"I'm sure the questions are going to keep coming," he says. "I really haven't thought about playing anywhere else. I've still got some time to think about that and worry about that."
Brett grew up in Southern California, but he cherishes the fact he played his entire career with Kansas City, where he still lives despite the winter cold and the often unbearable summer humidity. ("September and October are great, though," he says.)
"You see some guys that are really good players who for some reason, played for three, four, five teams," Brett says. "Look at Winfield. Look at Molitor. Hall of Fame players who didn't have the opportunity to stick around with one team. It must be frustrating for them. Maybe they did it for financial reasons, maybe they got traded -- but for me to sign out of high school in 1971 and now it's 2009 and I'm still with the same team I signed with, that's special. But loyalty is a two-way street. The team was always loyal to me, and I was always loyal to them."
Mr. Minnesota eventually will have to choose whether to stay with his hometown team (as Ripken and Barry Larkin did) or crush his fans by moving on. For now, Mauer will focus on giving Minnesota fans the chance to chant his name not only this summer, but in October as well, and perhaps in a National League stadium.
"The biggest thing for me is seeing the Twins win the World Series in 1991 and the joy I had because of them winning the World Series," Mauer says. "That's the thing -- I'm looking forward to that. I want to be part of that."Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.