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Joe Mauer, Lindsay Whalen and the whims of being a hometown hero

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Lindsay Whalen won four WNBA titles, two Olympic gold medals and two world championship golds, all after the Connecticut Sun traded her to the Lynx in 2010.

The symmetry was perfect. Word of Joe Mauer’s impending retirement broke on Nov. 9, a few hours before Lindsay Whalen coached her first women’s basketball game at the University of Minnesota, events that forever linked two of Minnesota’s most celebrated homegrown athletes.

Mauer ended his career the same day Whalen began the next chapter in hers, when she stepped onto the raised floor at Williams Arena to coach the team she led to the 2004 Final Four.

It’s hard to imagine any Minnesota athlete more popular now than Whalen. The Gophers announced a sellout of 14,625 for Whalen’s victorious coaching debut against New Hampshire, a record for U women’s basketball. Though the actual crowd appeared about 1,000 less — lots of empty rows in the student section with nationally-ranked Gopher volleyball playing next door — it says plenty about Whalen’s status as “Minnesota’s first daughter,” as Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve likes to call her.

Sure, the Twins announced 30,144 for that final-day lovefest for Mauer, who strapped on catching gear one last time in one of the most unforgettable moments in Minnesota sports. But even as Mauer gracefully stepped away, a handful of cranks continued ripping him for his $184 million contract and various injuries that interrupted his career, the same noise he’s heard for years. Whalen never made anywhere near the money Mauer did and largely avoided any criticism at all, even in her final Lynx season with her skills clearly diminished. Why did Mauer catch such flak while Whalen remained universally beloved? 

The rings: Whalen won four WNBA titles, two Olympic gold medals and two world championship golds, all after the Connecticut Sun traded her to the Lynx in 2010. A winner, no doubt. Mauer, meanwhile, lost every playoff game he appeared in. He sat out the 2004 Division Series his rookie year with a weak post-surgical left knee, but was active for Division Series sweeps by Oakland in 2006 and the Yankees 2009 & ’10, plus New York’s 2017 wildcard victory. Final tally: 0-10. When teams fall short, the guy with the big paycheck usually takes the heat. Which brings us to:

The paycheck: Imagine the uproar if the Twins let Mauer walk in free agency after the 2010 season, instead of signing him to that record eight-year, $184 million extension in spring 2010 following his M.V.P. season. With Target Field about to open and hometown boy Mauer eager to stay — unlike, say, Johan Santana and Torii Hunter — the deal, widely praised at the time, made sense for both sides. Mauer’s 2013 concussion and diminished production thereafter, along with the club’s consistent losing, set him up for easy blame. Even though Mauer never flaunted his wealth, some Minnesotans held it against him.

As for Whalen, the WNBA salary scale meant she made roughly the same as other Lynx veterans, about $100,000 a season — beer money by comparison.

Star vs. underdog: A three-sport standout at Cretin-Derham Hall High School and the No. 1 overall pick in baseball’s 2001 amateur draft, Mauer was supposed to be great. Not Whalen. Few in the Twin Cities knew much about her before she turned into a three-time All-American at the U, her play attracting such big crowds that women’s basketball games shifted from the Sports Pavilion to Williams Arena. Fans love winners who scrap, and Whalen personified that, especially in those Lynx championship runs.

Time away: Mauer spent two full years and part of a third in the minors. Other than that, he never left. Fans never got to miss him. With Whalen, they did. Connecticut drafted Whalen in 2004 when the Lynx failed to trade up far enough to pick her, and she spent six seasons with the Suns before Coach Mike Thibault graciously traded her home. By then Whalen was a full-fledged WNBA star. Lynx fans embraced her, and championships soon followed.

Perception: People who encounter Mauer usually come away with the same impression — what a nice guy. Mauer can be engaging with people he knows, and he’s often the first one to say hello. With kids seeking an autograph, a photo or just a smile, there’s no one better. But some fans viewed his stoic nature on the field as a lack of passion and leadership, leading to a bunch of perception problems. His reluctance to talk about injuries, and the Twins’ often clumsy attempts to protect him, created more. (Hello, bi-lateral leg weakness.) Sports talk radio savaged Mauer as injury-prone and soft.

Joe Mauer
Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Joe Mauer’s 2013 concussion and diminished production thereafter, along with the club’s consistent losing, set him up for easy blame.
“I’ve very happy to see the outpouring that Joe is getting upon his retirement, because we all know he’s had to withstand some chapters that weren’t particularly positive,” said former Twins manager Paul Molitor, the Hall of Famer, at Mauer’s retirement press conference.

“One of the things I used to hear about is that he was kind of passive and non-emotional. Joe’s fire was as deep, and burned as furiously, as any athlete I ever played with. He just had a way of being able to protect it outwardly for the most part, because he knew consistency was a big part of our game, and how to handle himself. I don’t doubt for one second that Joe wanted to win as much as any player I had the chance to be around.”

Whalen? Equally likable, and more outgoing as she entered her 30s. She loved firing up her teammates and urging on the crowd, things never in Mauer’s nature. Often Whalen took control of games and sideline huddles in big moments in full view of everyone, while Mauer preferred leading behind the scenes. And in Cheryl Reeve, Whalen had a media-savvy coach eager to talk her up. Teammates did, too.

The Lynx didn’t lose much, but after the tough ones you could always find Whalen at her locker, frank and accountable. Mauer too often left that duty to others, though he was better about it his final two seasons. And Whalen remains the only athlete I’ve covered in 30 years to apologize the next day for not giving a better answer to a postgame question. How could you not like that?

It will be interesting to see what Mauer does next, and how Whalen’s coaching career progresses. Something tells me fans will view Mauer’s career better with distance, perhaps with more compassion, especially since he and his wife Maddie plan to raise his children in Twin Cities.

We love the ones who love Minnesota back. That’s something Mauer and Whalen never wavered on.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 11/16/2018 - 03:48 pm.

    “Mauer lost”… sure but he hit .275 in the post-season, not including the Phil Cuzzi double. Not great but not bad. It was not his fault that the pitching fell apart whenever we played the Yankees.

  2. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 11/16/2018 - 05:14 pm.

    Joe Mauer walked onto a team with a rich history. He was the latest in a line of heroes. Personally I never liked budget buster contracts like he or Kevin Garnett got, or any of many major league baseball players. It throws the team out of wack for the duration of the contract. Even if he had not been injured and continued with his early success I doubt the team would have reached the top. After all these are team sports; dumping an inordinate share of the payroll on one person never pays.

    Women’s basketball began for me in Lindsay’s sophomore season. The U program was a disaster no one cared about at that point. If the Lynx were around I wouldn’t know it. But from the beginning watching Whalen and the other members of those University teams was a revelation for me. It was such a team sport compared to the individual heroics that are common in men’s basketball. Lindsay was a star but she was selfless and her teams succeeded because of that.

    This play sums up Lindsay Whelen for me. I don’t remember which year it was or the name of the other player involved. Whalen stole the ball while on defense and she and a bench player made a run for the other end to get an easy two. The safest, easiest play was for Lindsay to finish with an uncontested layup. Instead at the last instant she dished to the slightly trailing bench player for her only points of the game. The pass was uncalled for except as a generous gesture. Probably no one remembers this but me, probably not even Whalen. It made me a fan for life.

    So, Joe’s contract, that one play by Lindsay. That’s the difference for me.

  3. Submitted by Betsy Larey on 11/17/2018 - 09:02 am.

    It still makes me sad that the Lynx, and the U or M women’s teams do so much better than the local mens teams with a fraction of the coverage. The coaches get minuscule salaries, and I guarantee you they work just as hard as the guys. I used to think this will eventually change, I’m not so sure anymore. Beth Goetz deserved the AD job at the U. With Sid and the good old boys still calling the shots, that was never going to happen. And one more thing —.When was the last time you remember a scandal, or criminal charges brought against anyone on our local women’s teams?

  4. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 11/17/2018 - 10:10 am.

    I commend the author for explaining the difference so well Joe came after Kirby Puckett, who was the best emotional leader one could ever ask for. He could not compete with that. He cannot be blamed for the excessive pay structure of MLB, fueled by how much money it generates.

    There is a rule in life if you expect people to be something they are not, your disappointment is on you. Also that in team sports, one person cannot compensate for the more limited talent of others. Whalen was always graced with high quality teammates while Mauer’s Twins always had weaknesses. Better to understand than shame and blame.

    • Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 11/17/2018 - 05:10 pm.

      Whalen was not always graced with high quality teammates. She carried the Gophers to prominence. If McCarvillle ( and I love her) had gone to UConn or LSU, which would never have happened, no one would know who she was. Same with the secondary players on the 2004 team.

  5. Submitted by Jon Ruff on 11/17/2018 - 10:20 am.

    Not to distract from this intriguing topic, but I’d like to fold into the discussion the very timely big place in my heart for Alan Page.

  6. Submitted by Jim Roth on 11/17/2018 - 12:36 pm.

    It’s mainly about winning and some about money. If the Twins won four World Championships during has career most would say money will spent. We don’t know how his contract was structured but however you slice it $184 million over 8 years is an average of $23 million per year and nearly $142,000 per game (whether he played or not). For that kind of money fans are very unforgiving if it doesn’t translate into championships.

  7. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 11/17/2018 - 12:50 pm.

    Whalen was a leader and a champion at every level. She inspired other players, fans and kids who wanted to be like her. After breaking her hand in her senior year, she came back to carry her team to the final four.

    Joe was a nice guy, a talented athlete, a good teammate and a fine hitter.

    Whalen brought people to the game and lifted them out of their seats more than any Minnesota player I’ve seen in any sport. For impact, there’s no comparison.

  8. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 11/18/2018 - 02:23 pm.

    I was an avid Hartman reader years ago. My clear memory is that in all the years Lindsay was a the U Hartman only mentioned the women’s basketball team once and that was to mention how much income they generated. Otherwise in at least the last three years Lindsay was at the U he never mentioned them again. Now last week, I think it was, for the first time ever Hartman wrote a column that focused on the women’s basketball team and their coach, Lindsay Whalen. You play for the Twins or Vikings and you get put on a pedestal. You play a woman’s sport and you are fighting for inches in the sport section. Mauer was Goliath and Lindsay was David. No comparison.

  9. Submitted by Howard Miller on 11/18/2018 - 03:54 pm.

    Joe Mauer could have enriched himself by leaving town.

    He made a lot of money here, but he could have done better financially. And won more trophies.

    He stayed loyal to the Twin Cities

    It’s bad fortune that he had the concussion problems. Stuff happens.

    He is who he is – he’s not a Tori Hunter, who loves media time.

    And there wasn’t a whiff of scandal, or anything untoward. Ever.

    Maybe we expect too much of sports and entertainment megastars, because the economics are quite insane. That’s not Mauer’s burden, that’s America’s odd approach to pro sports.

    Lindsey Whalen is a jewel. A diamond. More openly fiesty than Joe. Hope she makes enough to have a worry-free retirement. Pretty sure Joe is set.

  10. Submitted by James Robins on 11/20/2018 - 02:25 pm.

    The article simply nails it, in my view. Not a single quibble with any of the observations. Right length too for those of us who have a normal level of interest in these two sports – and their legacy stars.

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