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.
“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.