They sat together Thursday in the front row at Torii Hunter’s retirement press conference, former roommates and still good friends. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau were the fresh-faced kids with unlimited futures when Hunter left the Twins the first time, in 2007. It made sense for them to be there, showing their respect, when Hunter said goodbye for the last time.
Twins communications director Dustin Morse texted everyone he knew in the Twins orbit Wednesday night, inviting them to the press conference, trying to pack the room. Mauer and Morneau both happened to be in town. Mauer, of course, lives here in the off-season. Morneau, just cut loose by the Colorado Rockies, married a Minnesotan and brought his four-month-old daughter back to be baptized.
“The only thing we had to figure out was the baby-sitting,” said Mauer, the father of twin girls.
In a packed room the old M & Ms boys took places of honor, a few seats to the right of Hunter’s wife Katrina. They grinned as general manager Terry Ryan read a long list of Hunter’s managers and teammates, names that made Hunter teary, from Tom Kelly, Ron Gardenhire and Mike Scioscia to David Ortiz, LaTroy Hawkins, Jacque Jones and Mike Trout.
Then it was Hunter’s turn to thank more than two dozen people individually. His wife, whom he promised to take to a nude beach. (I sat too far back to see her reaction.) His agent Larry Reynolds. His grandfather who loved the Chicago Cubs so much he made young Torii sit and watch Andre Dawson on television, converting a football fan to baseball. All his managers. Former Twins coaches Jerry White and Al Newman. The late Harmon Killebrew for insisting he sign legible autographs, a lesson Killebrew passed along to every notable Twin.
Hunter kept calling back his favorite Scripture passage, Proverbs 27:17 – “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” To Hunter, it meant passing down knowledge. Kirby Puckett sharpened Hunter, and Hunter sharpened younger players, from Mauer and Morneau to Byron Buxton and Aaron Hicks.
Ten years ago, a petty late-season disagreement between the veteran Hunter and the young Morneau in the dugout spilled over into the clubhouse, where Hunter threw a punch at Morneau that struck Nick Punto. Before that Hunter had been riding Morneau to play through a bone spur in his elbow, imparting a lesson about dealing with pain he learned from Puckett. The whole thing was silly, and they didn’t speak for months. Eventually they talked it out and became closer friends. Morneau said he tried to mentor younger Rockies players the last two years the same way Hunter mentored him.
“When you’re on a team together, you’re like brothers,” Morneau said. “Sometimes brothers don’t always agree. Looking back on it, it’s something we probably both wish we handled differently. It’s definitely not an indication of how we feel about each other.”
Hunter said he knew it was time to quit because his body couldn’t handle the daily grind anymore. It took 90 minutes to two hours of treatment and stretching just to play a game. He hung on two years longer than he should have, with the notion of playing for former teammate Paul Molitor luring him back to Minnesota. He retired with 353 homers and nine Gold Gloves, and Ryan said Hunter can have a job with the Twins whenever he’s ready. Hunter leaves with one hole in his record: He never played in a World Series.
“My going out without a championship, that’s tough,” Hunter said. “But in my mind, I’ve had a career and been a champion by giving so much and giving back.
“It might not have been God’s plan for me. There may be something else he wants me to do. I don’t think about what I don’t have too much. I think about what I do have.”
Those words meant a lot to Mauer and Morneau, who are running out of seasons to fulfill their own World Series dreams. Mauer turns 32 next April, and Morneau will be 35 in May.
Morneau has never been the same since that July 2010 basepath collision with John McDonald in Toronto triggered his concussion problems. The 2006 American League MVP, Morneau never came close to 100 RBI again, though he won an NL batting title in 2014. Another concussion this season idled Morneau for almost four months. And while he finished strongly, hitting .338 his final 22 games, Colorado declined his $9 million option for next year.
“I’m a free agent, and I’m open to pretty much anything at this point,” he said.
Mauer just finished his worst full season, batting a career-low .265 with a career-high 112 strikeouts. Three years remain on his eight-year, $184 million deal that, even if he agreed to waive his no-trade close, makes him untradeable. Mauer said Thursday he has no lingering issues from the 2013 concussion that made him stop catching. But the last two years he lost his impeccable sense of the strike zone. Umpires called more and more low strikes, leaving Mauer confused and frustrated.
“This is a game of adjustments,” he said, “and that’s an adjustment I need to make.”
Quietly, Mauer passed along accumulated wisdom to young hitters like Miguel Sano, telling them to watch how Hunter prepared himself to play. Hunter in turn advised Mauer on taking care of his body as an older athlete, which enabled him to play a career-best 158 games.
“He helped me to get out there every day, which was a big goal for me,” he said.
Mauer said he hardly watched the baseball postseason, thought he was thrilled for his former backup catcher, Drew Butera, who caught the last strike of the World Series. “Some guys never get that opportunity,” Mauer said “Sometimes, I think people think it’s a lot easier than what it is.”
That’s why Hunter’s words Thursday stuck with him. Watching an emotional Hunter say goodbye, Mauer learned one more lesson that may be comforting the day he retires: A championship ring can’t, and shouldn’t, be the sole judge of a champion. Iron sharpens iron.