….And scene. Target Field. Twins v. Yankees. September 11, 2018. The Twins were imploding toward a monumentally disappointing season, and the Yankees were bludgoning their way to hitting the most home runs in a single season by a team on their way to a sure playoff spot. Not to mention that the Yankees have basically been the modern equivalent of a medieval torture device for the local Minnesota nine ever since 2003. The Yankees figuratively (and literally) were going to take a baseball bat to a painfully overmatched Twins team, right?
Perhaps. But not this game.
I was at the game with my co-worker J. The Twins had jumped all over the rare Yankees pitching punching bag known as Sonny Gray, and had run the score up to 6-1 in the bottom half of the fifth. One out. Bases loaded. Joe Mauer strides to the plate with that silly, yet now nostalgic, walk-up song from T.I. In a very Joe Mauer at bat, he works the count to 3-2 after fouling off a few pitches.
It was a warm night. Maybe one of the last gloriously humid nights of the summer before it’s inevitable September wheezing decline. The ball was carrying in the steamy air.
One of the reasons I love seeing baseball in-person is hearing the sights and sounds of the game up-close, and watching what I want to watch. And boy, did I get a treat.
Joe puts a swing on the ball. The crack of a bat is like gunshot – he “barreled up” on the pitch. But…the trajectory. Most of time, it’s hard to tell right off the bat (again, literally and figuratively) whether a fly ball is going to be a harmless outfield pop fly, or whether it’s going to fall within “the gap” between the left-fielder/center-fielder or right-fielder/center-fielder…or whether it’s going to be the coup de grâce of baseball – a home run…a round-tripper, a yard-bomb, a tater, the long-ball…whatever you want to call it.
But, sometimes the trajectory is a cannon blast into the sky, a sharp angle upwards. You hear a ton about launch angle and exit velocity these days, and there’s tons of value in all of that analytic data. But sometimes, you just know something without having to run the analytics.
And this was one of those “know ’em when you see ’em” blasts. Fall was encroaching, so the sky was already a pitch-black canvass around 8:30 that evening. The perfect back-drop to observe a streaking baseball-sized white spot knifing through the night. I took my eye off the ball because I wanted to see what the Yankees center-fielder Aaron Hicks was doing (Hicks is a former first-round draft pick of the Twins who the team rushed to the majors in the panic, and predictably struggled. And since the Twins front-office could never seem to figure out how to develop a major-leaguer on a consistent basis, we dealt him to the Yankees for a catcher who couldn’t catch or hit, and traded said catcher to the Diamondbacks for basically a bag of baseballs, and predictably said catcher suddenly started catching and hitting taters at an alarming rate).
The center-fielder generally has the best view of the ball hit to the outfield, and Hicks knows what he’s doing in CF, so watching him was a good trend-analysis . Hicks was playing in (Joe was more likely to slap a shallow fly ball to center than hit it over Hicks’ head), and I saw Hicks turn around in a panic and start racing to the fence.
I turned back to the wall, and for a few seconds, doing the eyeball analysis of whether the ball has enough trajectory to clear the fence. But basically, I was just holding my breath.
Hicks stopped short of the wall in defeat. And the ball dramatically drops on the centerfield grass beyond the wall (where pine trees used to be…they were removed after Target Field’s inaugural 2011 season…after which everything basically went to shit, which led to the legend of the Curse of the Pine Trees). Grand slam. Fireworks. Joe rounds the bases, the crowd going crazy, a curtain call when he comes back to the dugout.
The Twins ultimately vanquished the mighty Yankees by a margin of 10-6 that night. Joe had his short-term vengeance against the team that bedeviled him so.
Watching Joe Mauer “touch ’em all” (meaning he was going trot around the diamond touching first, second, third and home plate, because that’s what you get to do after a home run), I basically had a moment. I figured he was probably retiring after this year, and I may have just seen my last “Great Joe Mauer Moment.” It was kind of an emotional deal for me.
Joe Mauer – #7. Probably the most divisive Minnesota sports figure in recent memory. Weird, right? Grew up in Saint Paul (so he’s a verified “one of us”), a three-sport high school athlete icon (not only was he exceptional baseball, but was the National High School Football Player of the Year as a quarterback…Bobby Bowden at Florida State basically told him if this baseball thing didn’t work out, he was welcome to be the FSU starting QB anytime), comes from one of Saint Paul’s most respected families, and the most low-key, non-quotable, “geewhiz” guys you’ll ever meet (I mean, he once recorded a milk commercial with his mother).
And yet, the white-hot hate on social media against him was enduring. Didn’t hit enough home runs. Ground into many double-plays. Couldn’t adapt against the analytics-driven infield shifts. Always hurt.
The Twins took Joe Mauer with the very FIRST pick of the 2001 amateur baseball draft. At the time, I was pissed. The Twins were quite unexpectedly resurgent after years of basement-dwelling, and were in a pennant race for the first time since 1992 dammit. And we needed pitching. Mark Prior, a standout flamethrower, strike-out machine pitcher at USC, was being deemed as “Major League Ready” out of college, was also in the draft. I was #TeamPrior. I thought it was the most Twins (and Minnesota) thing to do by taking the local boy in the draft (but what I didn’t know was that Prior and his old man had basically told the Twins before the draft that there wasn’t enough money in the world for Prior to sign with the Twins, so don’t bother).
Boy, was I wrong. Prior had a stand-out season with the Cubs in 2003, but the Cubs basically threw his arm in the meat-grinder (as the Cubs did back in the day to their starting pitchers), he suffered an arm injury, and he never pitched a major league game after 2006.
But…Mauer. His accolades have been well-documented, but greatness always merits another mention, so here goes….
- First American League Catcher to win a batting title. In fact, he won three of them (2006, 2008 and 2009). Mauer finished second in AL batting in 2013, third in 2010 and fourth in 2012.
- AL MVP in 2009 (when he finished first in AL Batting Average, AL Slugging Percentage and AL On-Base Percentage).
- 6 All-Star Games (elected as a starter in four games)
- 3 Gold Gloves as Catcher
- In terms of the Twins, he’s second or third in most team career offensive categories, usually behind Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew and Kirby Puckett (all Baseball Hall of Famers).
- At the time of his retirement, he was the longest tenured player playing for one team.
Despite all of that, Twins fans never seemed to appreciate his historic career. They just wanted more taters.
Mauer rocketed up the Twins’ farm system, and there were legends of “man among boys” in each of his minor league stops. In fact, his rise led the Twins to pull off one of the greatest trade heists of baseball history in preparation for Mauer’s call-up in 2004. AJ Pierzynski was the Twins catcher, and had proven to be an offensive force and a decent defensive backstop (he also was a bit of gremlin, in that he did gremlin-type stuff to the opposing team, which led to fans loving him if he played for your team, and hating him if you played against him)…but he was in Mauer’s way. So, the Twins shipped him off to the San Francisco Giants before the 2004 season for Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser.
So, the trade basically netted the following: a) clearing the way for Joe Mauer to play catcher; b) the Twins ‘all-time leader in saves (Joe Nathan); c) a starting pitcher that had some quasi-dominant years with the Twins until the Twins gave up on him and another team made him consistently dominant (Francisco Liriano…and notice the theme here with players the Twins give up on and rise to prominence with other teams); and d) a pitcher with one of the greatest baseball names ever (Boof Bonser).
In the glass half-empty category for the same off-season, the Twins also gave up on a guy named David Ortiz, giving him his unconditional release. You’re welcome Boston for all those World Series titles that ensued after you signed him and he morphed into Big Papi.
Mauer made his major-league debut in 2004, and man did he show off his promise. 35 games, .308 batting average, .570 slugging average, 6 home runs and 17 RBI’s. Note that he only played 35 games, because he twisted-up his leg in some astroturf seam in the Metrodome, because in Minnesota, we were too damn “thrifty” to replace a facility that was built on the cheap and hopelessly out-date a mere two years after it opened. One local radio station called it the “Big Inflatable Toilet,” and I couldn’t disagree with that description.
The rest was history. Between 2005-2012, I’m not sure there was a more feared hitter in baseball than Joe Mauer. His command for the strike zone was artist-like. He seldom struck out (he almost never took a called strike-three. In fact, when a umpire called a strike against him, he would step out of the box, give the umpire the gentlest of withering glances, and the umpire usually gave him a look of “Gee, Joe. You didn’t think that was a strike? Well, that’s really good to know…..”
He was on dominant Twins teams. Between 2004-2010, the Twins won four AL Central Division titles with him behind the plate. These were the salad days of the team – not only did we have Mauer, but we had household names like Justin Morneau (2006 AL MVP winner), Johan Santana (AL Cy Young Winner in 2004 and 2006…and he probably should have won it in 2005, but got crappy run support), Torii Hunter, Joe Nathan, Michael Cuddyer, Denard Span, Shannon Stewart, Brad Radke, etc. However, the team was built on small-ball (emphasis on “pitching to contact” and “hitting the ball the other way”), and such teams were perfectly built to win the weak AL Central, but ran into certain annihilation when they hit the Yankees in the playoffs.
In 2009, the final year of the Metrodome, he had a season for the ages. All of a sudden, he started hitting for power (28 home runs), and batting average (.365, which led the league by leaps and bounds), in addition to a bunch of other obtuse statistical categories. All while he missed the month of April with a knee injury. I was his first game back in May (I was splitting a 20-game ticket package with a law school buddy), and saw him hit his first tater of the year, and my buddy turned me and asked “Where the fuck did that swing come from???”
Target Field was opening in 2010 (which was largely taxpayer funded), Mauer was approaching free-agency, he was the local boy, a fan favorite, coming off a year that showed off his power promise that we all thought he had. The Twins ownership had no choice, and they had to ante-up the cash. Mauer signed an eight-year, $184 million contract leading up to 2010. At the time, it was one of the richest contracts ever given in professional sports.
Here’s the deal with Minnesota. We’re cheap. We expect value for every dollar. And that axiom applies to our pro sport athletes. If we’re giving someone $184 million buck-a-roos, they damn well better produce in ways we expected them to produce.
But, there’s a problem there. 2009 was an outlier year for Joe. He was never going to produce that sort of power again. His hitting style depended on him shortening up his swing, and hitting the ball the other way (in his case, left field).
While he had brilliant seasons after the contract, he was never going to be able to replicate 2009. And certainly not the eye-popping tater numbers he hit in 2009.
Then 2011 happened. Coming off a division winning season in 2010, expectations were high. And the team hit the shitter in 2011 for many different reasons (the first year of the big contract), including some weird, strange injury to Mauer. All of a sudden, Joe stopped playing, and the front office was increasingly cryptic as to why he wasn’t playing. We heard fatigue, soreness, and the infamous “bilateral leg weakness.” If Twins General Manager Billy Smith had just been honest with people that Joe’s body was just banged up after catching all those years with a 6’5” frame, I think all would have been forgiven. But, his studied (and in my view, ignorant) silence just fed all sorts of weird-ass rumors, including that Mauer had MS. But so began the hate for Joe Mauer.
Much has been made of Joe Mauer’s hitting style. He was an on-base machine, with multitudes of walks, singles and doubles. But never the year of the tater like 2009. He also started to strike out an unusual amount. And I lost track of the number of 6-4-3 double plays he hit into (after the Twins announced they were retiring his #7 next year, when I told a buddy of mine about it, he asked whether the number was going to be 6-4-3).
Things came to a head in 2013, when a foul-ball ricocheted off his head in August, inflicting a serious concussion. He’d never play catcher again (at least until the last game of his professional career).
Joe made himself into a superb first baseman afterwards (he probably should have won the Gold Glove at 1B in 2017), but he never achieved the numbers of 2004-2011 again. Many folks lay the blame of the Twins descent into dark hell-pit of misery starting in 2011 at his feet, on the theory that his massive contract totally sucked up the payroll that the Twins needed to field a competitive team. I dissent from this point-of-view.
It’s not Joe Mauer’s (or his contract’s) fault that: 1) the Twins GM Billy Smith let team “heart and soul” leader Torii Hunter walk in 2008 after Hunter literally begged to sign a contract earlier that season so he could stay; 2) Twins GM Billy Smith was played like a violin by the Red Sox and Yankees when he need to deal Johan Santana (since he was unlikely re-sign with the team the following season), and had to deal with the New York Mets out of a position of weakness and couldn’t get any of the Mets’ top three-prospects for the best pitcher in baseball at the time; 3) that Billy Smith traded away promising power starting pitcher Matt Garza and decent shortstop Jason Bartlett to the Rays for troubled Delmon Young and average Brendan Harris (a buddy of mine will forever curse Harris for not being able to take a pitch in the seventh inning and grounding into a double-play, thus cutting off beer sales when he was next in line); 4) the Twins building a stadium that negated the power of their key left-handed sluggers; 5) Billy Smith trading away catching prospect Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps (a closer who featured a 92-mph fastball that routinely looked like he was throwing batting practice); 6) Billy Smith trading away (notice a trend here???) all-star shortshop JJ Hardy for a relief pitcher whose slider didn’t slide and whose curveballs hung over the plate in slow-motion, all so that Tsuyoshi Nishioka could play shortstop; 7) the Twins stubbornly refusing to adapt to the baseball data-driven evolution of power hitters, power pitchers and other analytics, preferring to keep things “old school.” Which was basically the equivalent of Poland attempting to turn-back the German blitzkrieg with horse-mounted cavalry in 1939; 8) the Twins farm-system consistently missing on first-round draft choices and being able to only produce a small handful of consistent big-leaguers since 2010); or 9) Justin Morneau suffering that freak concussion while trying to break-up a double-play in 2010 (while having an MVP season) and never being the same player again.
The Twins did a marvelous thing for Joe Mauer during the last game of 2018. He had alluded a few weeks ago that he may retire after the year (he had suffered another concussion earlier in the year, and with a growing family, he understandably was concerned for his health and well-being). In a surprise, he came out for the ninth inning in his catching gear – gear he had worn for so long, but not since 2013. Twins Manager Paul Molitor had struck a deal with the White Sox manager – Joe would catch one pitch, which would be a ball, and the White Sox hitter wouldn’t swing at it (thus protecting Mauer from the dreaded foul-ball smashing off his helmet again).
Seemed like an emotional event for everyone in the stadium (I’m still kicking myself for not attending – I figured it was going to be Joe’s last game, and wanted to go to say goodbye, but I was dating this girl who stayed at my place much longer than I thought she was going to, but that’s another blog posting). This picture from the Minnesota Twins, though, totally got me…
It’s Mauer donning the tools of ignorance (as the old-timers call catching gear) one last time before his final appearance – the first time he appeared as a catcher since 2013. For me, it’s symbolic of “what could have been.” What could have been been had he not suffered all those injuries. What SHOULD have been. Or the ravages of time which robs us all of the advantages of our youth, denying us from doing things we want to do…what came so naturally to us for all those years, and then…those skills slipping through our fingers. As Charles Barkley says….Father Time always wins.
At the end, I’ll always be a Joe Mauer fan-boy. If only because the night before I took the bar exam in 2006, I was freaking out. I wound up turning on the Twins-White Sox game (they were playing in Chicago) to settle myself down, and like the home run I remember so well that I detailed earlier, he hit another. This one brought the Twins back, and gave us a lead we’d never surrender that game. For whatever reason, watching that home run calmed me, and convinced me everything was going to be ok. And I passed. Thanks Joe for being the most majestic baseball player I’ve ever seen, for being a great role model for all those kids, for the way you tried to bring your best every game, even when your body was failing you, and for being a beacon for me personally during the bar exam storm….