Early last season, Joe Mauer revived former teammate Michael Cuddyer’s old tradition of awarding a game ball after Twins victories. It makes for a clubhouse less noisy and a lot less foggy than Torii Hunter’s 2015 dance parties, but the low-key celebration is more in line with Mauer’s no-frills personality.
Mauer sees the game as well as anyone, and sometimes the people and things he chooses to honor are subtle. After the Twins routed Detroit 11-4 on Wednesday night at a chilly Target Field, Mauer acknowledged manager Paul Molitor’s 300th victory, a milestone Molitor said he wasn’t aware of until Mauer mentioned it.
“People have this perception of the quiet demeanor, but he had no problem being able to hold the room,” Molitor said. “The best thing for me is the way he doesn’t miss anything in the game when he acknowledges what transpired in a win. He has a pretty good sense of where the biggest credit should be sometimes. It might be more than one guy. And he’s funny. So how about that?”
Sunday afternoon’s season-ending game with the Chicago White Sox may be Mauer’s last. His eight-year, $184 million contract expires then, and Mauer told the Twins he needs time to decompress and decide whether he wants to keep going. The concussion he suffered earlier this year, five years after the one that made him stop catching, clearly spooked him. And his wife Maddie is pregnant with their third child.
For someone who says he hasn’t made up his mind, Mauer is certainly acting like someone savoring his final days as a Twin. Three times in the last two months he acknowledged the cheers of fans at Target Field. There were curtain calls for his three-run pinch homer that beat Detroit on August 17, and the September 11 grand slam against the Yankees. Tuesday night, when Mauer reached base for a record 3,073rd time as a Twin — one more than Harmon Killebrew — a standing ovation prompted him to tip his batting helmet.
“It’s been the last few years, to be honest, trying to take small moments here and there to really enjoy it and soak it in,” Mauer said before Thursday night’s 9-3 Twins victory. “We all know we can’t do this forever. There have been some nice moments this year that have been really good.”
And yet, these are some of the same fans who criticized Mauer for being hurt too much and failing to live up to his contract.
The frustration is understandable. Over the eight years of the contract, the Twins finished under .500 six times and made the playoffs once, losing last year’s American League wild card game to the Yankees. Mauer never had another season like his Most Valuable Player breakout in 2009, when he missed spring training and the first month with back problems, homered on his first swing back, then went on to hit .365 with 28 homers and 96 RBI — all career highs.
Signing the St. Paul product long-term at that point was an automatic, but the ensuing seasons haven’t been kind to him. Since Mauer’s debilitating concussion in 2013, when two jarring foul balls off his mask in a makeup game against the Mets ended his days as a catcher, he batted over .300 only once in five seasons. When the run of AL Central titles dried up after 2010, many fans blamed Mauer, in their minds the underperforming constant in all the failure.
Ron Gardenhire managed Mauer through much of it. In the visiting manager’s office Thursday at Target Field, Gardenhire, now with Detroit, put aside the fruit parfait he was eating to defend Mauer’s intensity and work ethic. He focused quickly on 2011, the season of Mauer’s “bilateral leg weakness,” the unfortunate phrasing by the Twins that baffled fans and triggered so much Mauer backlash.
It was a fiasco that combined Mauer’s reticence to discuss injuries with the club’s puzzling media paranoia, as well as a startling lack of common sense. According to someone in the organization (not Gardenhire), the phrase “bilateral leg weakness” appeared on a Post-It Note passed from the medical staff to the front office to the media relations department, and no one in the chain spoke up to say, “What the hell does this mean?” And Mauer, also dealing with a viral infection, wasn’t available to explain himself.
In truth, Gardenhire said, the problem was Mauer’s left knee, which hadn’t recovered from off-season surgery. That’s the same knee Mauer hurt as a rookie in 2004, when he chose to have 90 percent of the cartilage removed instead of repaired to speed his return.
“Fans have the right do whatever they want,” Gardenhire said. “We’ve all been blasted by fans and the media and everybody else. But Joe has always done his job. He’s always caught, and hit. He got the concussion and people complained about that. He had the knee injury (in 2011) and people complained about that. But it was a knee injury. Whatever they decided to call it, he blew his knee out, and he was trying to play through it. He was playing every day, and how long can you do that catching? He’s a big guy. It’s not easy to do.
“People say he didn’t carry this team. He did his part. Other people didn’t do theirs. When we started losing, it wasn’t his fault. He was still doing his part. He was still doing the hitting, the catching, whatever. He went to first base because he had to, because of the concussion, and played the (bleep) out of that too.
“He’s done his thing in this game. And when it’s all said and done, I hope he ends up in the Hall of Fame, because he’s one of the best catchers I’ve ever seen, and one of the best hitters I’ve ever seen as far as being able to barrel the ball. Still, to this day.”
That’s why, in the fifth inning Wednesday night with the Tigers down 8-4, Gardenhire walked Mauer intentionally with runners on second and third. Jorge Polanco then cleared the bases with a triple, but Gardenhire was fine with that. “To this day, I still don’t want to pitch to that guy,” Gardenhire said.
The next night, before a sparse crowd that appeared closer to 8,000 than the announced 22,342, Mauer’s double off former teammate Francisco Liriano drove in the first of five runs in the third as the Twins enjoyed a rare laugher.
If this is it for Mauer, he’s going out strong. Through Thursday he was batting .340 in his last 12 starts, and an MLB-leading .410 for the season with runners in scoring position. And through all the criticism and nonsense, Mauer’s reputation as baseball’s friendliest guy, once the subject of an ESPN the Magazine cover, remains intact. Before batting practice Thursday, he stopped to sign an autograph for a small boy standing with his father near the dugout, something I’ve seen him do hundreds of times since his rookie year.
Until the Twins began publicizing his fund-raising efforts for Children’s Hospital, where his wife had been a nurse, Mauer supported it quietly. There was never a hint of scandal with Mauer, and he never embarrassed the Twins organization. If he does retire, expect the Twins to keep him on as a special assistant, similar to the roles given Hunter, Cuddyer, Justin Morneau and LaTroy Hawkins.
You wonder how much more Mauer and Morneau, the latter-day M & M boys, could have accomplished together if not for the concussions that altered their careers. Mauer, the only catcher to win three batting titles, was on a Hall of Fame track until switching positions. Will voters consider his eight seasons of excellence as a catcher, from 2006 to 2013, a long enough a body of work? We’ll see.
For now, Mauer has a season to finish. Plenty of tickets remain for Sunday, a special 2:10 p.m. start as MLB lines up all games coast to coast to begin at approximately the same time. Few expect Mauer, the hometown boy, to play for another team. He will be a Twin next year or be gone. Mauer said he’s still having fun, so walking away will not be easy.
“Competing is still No. 1, getting out there and going against the best in the world every night,” Mauer said. “That’s probably at the top of my list. Obviously there’s all good and bad in anything. Getting yourself prepared and ready for that can be challenging at times. But going out there and competing, that’s still why I go through all those other things to do it.”