Joe Mauer, the American League’s Most Valuable Player, might have smiled more at his press conference this afternoon that he did all last winter.
Back then, surgery to remove a kidney obstruction failed to alleviate pain in his lower back. Mauer went to spring training unsure when he would be healthy enough to play, and it drove him nuts. “I’ve got to thank my family for standing with me,” he said. “I probably wasn’t very pleasant at that time.”
So when Mauer entered the Halsey Hall Room at the Metrodome for his first public appearance as the MVP, looking sharp in a dark blue pinstriped suit over a pastel blue T-shirt, two rows of Mauers packed the front of the room — his parents, Jake Jr. and Teresa, his maternal grandparents, brothers Jake III and Bill with their wives and two little daughters. Joe hugged his mom and grandmother and waved to 18-month-old niece Malia, adorable in her little blue Mauer No. 7 T-shirt.
“My goal coming into the season was just staying on the field,” Mauer said. “Something like the MVP award was never anything I could imagine.”
Mauer was a near-unanimous choice, receiving 27 of 28 first-place votes from members of the Baseball Writers Association of America and 387 points, far ahead of the Yankees’ Mark Teixeira (225) and Derek Jeter (193). Voters rank their choices from 1 through 10, with 14 points for each first-place vote, 9 for second, 8 for third, 7 for fourth and down to 1 for 10th.
The only other first-place vote went to the fourth-place finisher, Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera – yes, the Miguel Cabrera who came home drunk after a game the last weekend of the season, got in a fight with his wife and had to have general manager Dave Dombrowski pick him up from jail. The Cabrera voter had Mauer second.
Mauer, who finished fourth last year, pockets a $100,000 bonus for the MVP win, on top of the $25,000 bonus he earned for his second Gold Glove. Mauer made $10.5 million in salary last season and is scheduled for a bump to $12.5 million next year.
Two other Twins get votes
Two other Twins received mention. Michael Cuddyer earned an eighth- and a 10th-place vote for 4 points, while Jason Kubel picked up one eighth-place vote for 3 points.
The award capped a remarkable season for Mauer that, frankly, had to be seen to be believed. After missing all of spring training and the first month of the season, he returned on May 1 and homered in his first swing off former Twin Sidney Ponson. He went on to hit .365, a major-league record for a catcher, to win his third batting title. He led the A.L. in batting, slugging and on-base percentage and established career highs with 28 homers, 96 RBI and 191 hits.
“That first swing, we just looked at each other on the bench and just started laughing,” said Mauer pal and 2006 MVP Justin Morneau, who attended the press conference. “The rest of the year went just like that.”
From the audience, Morneau couldn’t resist heckling his buddy. When Twins media relations director Mike Herman asked if there were any more questions, Morneau cracked, “Are you finally going to buy dinner?”
Closer Joe Nathan, reached by phone at his Tennessee home, got a kick out of that. “When Joe gets that extension, he’ll have enough to buy a lot of dinners,” he said.
Contract discussions off-limits today
That’s the one topic neither Mauer nor Twins general manager Bill Smith would touch this afternoon. Mauer will be a free agent after next season, but according to a source close to Mauer, the Twins haven’t even begun negotiations with his agent, Ron Shapiro. Fortunately for the Twins, neither Mauer nor Shapiro appears to be in a hurry.
“All that contract stuff is for another time,” Smith said.
So what are the Twins waiting for? Smith laughed off a suggestion that Mauer’s MVP selection added several million dollars to a potential deal. “If you think that if he finished second, the price was going to come down…” he said, not bothering to finish the sentence.
As a free agent, Mauer might command one of the richest contracts in baseball history if the Yankees and Red Sox get involved, as expected. Keep in mind, though, that Mauer’s 2010 salary is already the second-highest in baseball for a catcher, behind Jorge Posada’s $13.1 million. The bigger issue may be the length of contract rather than money, since catching is so physically demanding.
Smith did say the club has revenue projections for Target Field, and a sense of how much their payroll will increase with the expected increase in revenue. Monday, he called Mauer and Morneau “once-in-a-lifetime players,” and acknowledged the difficulty of middle-market teams like the Twins keeping such players. Look at Cleveland, which dealt Cy Young Award winners C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee in consecutive seasons.
“It’s certainly a great challenge, but as an organization, we’ve gone through it before,” Smith said. “When you look at our ’87 team, look at the stars of that team, and look at who we kept in 1991.” Smith meant Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek. “And we added a lot of good players,” he said.
But there’s one other thing. Here’s the money quote from Mauer, one that ultimately will decide whether he stays or goes: “A World Series, that’s where I want to be.”
If Mauer stays, it won’t be because the Twins opened a vault. It will be because Mauer truly believes he can win a world championship in Minnesota. And that may be the biggest challenge of all.