Joe Mauer’s first-base debut tonight says lots about his — and team’s — situation

Strange days, indeed.

Minnesota Twins outfielder Rene Tosoni was about to give his equipment bag to a clubhouse attendant for the charter flight to Chicago on Wednesday when he noticed Joe Mauer dressing across the way. That got him thinking. Tosconi reached into his locker, grabbed a first baseman’s glove and tossed it into the bag.

“You never know what can happen,” he said, smiling.

True that. Wednesday morning, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire ended more than a week of speculation by announcing that Mauer will start at first base tonight against the White Sox. It will be Mauer’s first major-league appearance at a defensive position other than catcher.

The good teammate
Mauer insisted Wednesday that this is nothing more than a good teammate honoring a request by his manager, helping out until his buddy Justin Morneau returns from neck surgery in mid-August. That Mauer will use a semi-new glove borrowed from Michael Cuddyer, rather than asking Rawlings to send him a personalized one, illustrates how temporary he considers this.

Joe Mauer
REUTERS/Jeff Haynes
Joe Mauer

“I think everybody in here knows that I’m a catcher,” he said. “Everybody throws their own little spin on it, things like that. Really, what I’m doing going over there is trying to help the team out.

“Gardy thinks we can field a better lineup right now with me at first base, and I’m going to do whatever my manager asks me to do. But we’re in the position with what’s been going on, not just with me but with everything, that hopefully this will help.”

All through the homestand, Mauer has taken ground balls at first base, looking no worse than utility guys like Luke Hughes. Although Gardenhire tried to pump him up — “He’s pretty fluid over there. He’s got soft hands and moves really well” — there is no way to tell how prepared Mauer will be to field, move and think at major-league speed. “He’s an athlete,” Cuddyer said. “He’ll be all right.”

We’ll find out. If Mauer shows any competence at the position, the drumbeat to move him from behind the plate permanently will carry Twin Cities talk radio for weeks.

If nothing else, a few games at first base might help Mauer’s legs, which are bothering him again. The left leg in particular, the one with the ravaged knee, continues to be troublesome. Gardenhire did not use Mauer in the field Wednesday. “Well, me not playing today, that probably tells you how they’re feeling,” he said. Plus, the back of his right shoulder remained sore from the Cesar Ramos fastball that hit him on Monday.

“I never talk about injuries and things like that, but I want to be in the lineup every day,” he said. “I understand what it’s going to be like the rest of the year. I guess that’s where I’m at right now.”

It’s not surprising that Gardenhire chose to give Mauer his initial first-base start on the road, where the Twin Cities media contingent drops by about two-thirds. Why Mauer needs protection from reporters and TV cameras is an odd notion, based as much on Gardenhire’s puzzling paranoia about the local media as Mauer’s reticence to discuss his health.

Mauer still the polite, well-meaning mensch
Mauer in real life is basically the Mauer you see in his commercials and appearances — a well-meaning mensch who remains unfailingly polite, even to reporters who rip him. On and off the field, Mauer conducts himself with class and dignity. That’s why the sellout crowd at Target Field gave Mauer a standing ovation on June 17, when he returned after missing more than two months with bi-lateral leg weakness.

That night, Mauer told MinnPost he wondered what reaction he might receive, a subtle acknowledgement of the shrill segment of Twins fandom that considers him a wuss and a serial malingerer. That Mauer caught the fifth-highest number of innings of any catcher in baseball from 2005 to 2010, according to fangraphs.com, means nothing to these people. Mauer realizes he can’t change their minds, so he won’t try.

However, Mauer might have avoided some criticism had he and the Twins been more forthcoming about his ongoing left knee problems. But that goes against Mauer’s nature. And the Twins, like many organizations, often undersell the severity of injuries to their stars.

Fact is, Mauer may be finally paying the price for the left knee damage he suffered in his second game in the big leagues, on April 6, 2004, when he slid toward the Metrodome stands in pursuit of a foul pop. Mauer tore the medial meniscus, which cushions the joint. Sometimes the meniscus can be stitched and repaired, but this one was too badly damaged, so Dr. Joel Boyd removed it. That put Mauer’s catching career on the clock.

In a December 2004 interview with Minnesota Public Radio, Dr. Rob LaPrade, a knee specialist at the University of Minnesota, predicted that without a full meniscus, Mauer could develop arthritis and bone spurs over time and see increased knee stiffness. The only unknown, LaPrade said, was how long Mauer could play before it manifested itself.

The Supratz injections Mauer chose to have after his December 2010 knee surgery suggest that day is here. Supratz and Synvisc are brand names for a fluid injected into the knee to relieve pain from osteoarthritis. It’s not unusual for baseball players to seek such treatment, or to play effectively after having it. Twins pitcher Nick Blackburn received injections in both knees, and former Twin Ron Coomer in one. Hank Aaron had a Synvisc injection after he retired and filmed a testimonial video about it.


Team made communications missteps along the way
Of course Mauer tried to keep his treatment quiet, and might have succeeded had Gardenhire not talked about it in spring training. That, and a few other communication missteps, led the Twins to make head trainer Rick McWane available to provide daily medical updates and answer questions.

The day Mauer returned, I asked him whether in hindsight, he should have been more up-front about the treatment to head off the backlash of criticism.

“It’s easy to say that now,” he said. “I’m just glad things got taken care of yesterday.” Mauer meant his press conference on June 16, when he spoke at length about his injuries and his recovery.  
 
Although Gardenhire usually sticks up for his players, he twice criticized Mauer for pitch selection in his first eight days back.

In Mauer’s return June 17, with Alex Burnett pitching against San Diego in the seventh, Gardenhire said Mauer went against the scouting report by calling for a first-pitch fastball with two on. Ludwick homered into the second deck in left. “Every piece of information we have says, don’t throw a first-pitch fastball to Ludwick,” Gardenhire said. One week later in Milwaukee, Jose Mijares ripped Mauer for calling all fastballs after Prince Fielder beat him with a two-run double; Gardenhire thought Mauer should have mixed in some sliders.

Since then, Gardenhire hasn’t missed a chance to praise Mauer or jab his critics. Six days ago, he noted how Mauer calmed Francisco Liriano through the early innings of an eventual 6-2 victory over Milwaukee. Mauer also had three hits that night, prompting this from Gardenhire:

“Be patient with him. He’s one of the best hitters in our league. He’s been through a whole lot. You’re going to see a lot more of this, mark my words. Those of you who doubted him should slap yourselves right in the face.”

Hold off on that. Mauer is still hitting .223 after striking out with the bases loaded as a pinch-hitter to end Wednesday’s 12-5 loss to Tampa Bay. As long as Mauer’s left leg, the anchor leg on his swing, remains problematic, he figures to struggle with his timing.

 “I think that’s been the most frustrating thing, just trying to find how to go out there and have good at-bats,” he said.

“I know it’s going to be a grind. You get hurt early in the season, it stays with you the whole year. That’s our sport. I’m just trying to stay on the field.”

Thursday, that desire takes its next logical step. Mauer admitted being nervous about playing first base for the first time since 2003, when he appeared in one game for Class A Fort Myers. He played 13 games there the year before for Quad Cities, a low Class A team, and made one error in 103 chances. Mauer spent most of Wednesday watching and talking with Cuddyer, trying to prepare for a night when so many eyes will be on him.

“I’m just trying to cram everything in,” he said.

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