He clutched a wad of tissues as tightly as a foul tip. Joe Mauer started crying before he started speaking Monday at the press conference confirming his retirement, and his opening remarks, which went on for almost 15 minutes, featured frequent interruptions for sniffles.
The room at Target Field was packed with family, friends, former teammates, current and former Twins employees as well as reporters, and everyone sat silently as Mauer pressed on. Few had seen Mauer like this. Not even on his final day as an active player, when Mauer pulled his catcher’s gear out of storage and caught one last pitch from Matt Belisle — the perfect punctuation to a 15-year career — was he this choked up.
Teary retirement press conferences are almost a cliché, but the rawness of this from someone so soft-spoken and stoic was something else. Mauer being Mauer, he even apologized to anyone he forgot to thank, promising to make up for it privately in the coming weeks.
“For a guy who’s been able to contain his emotions for a long time, it’s good to see him finally let it go,” said former Twin Justin Morneau, Mauer’s ex-roommate and longtime pal. “We all know, being around him every day, the passion that he had, and the heart and everything that goes along with it. To see him get a chance to speak freely, thank the people he wanted to thank, and know he’s happy and comfortable with his decision, is good.”
There’s a sadness in seeing Morneau — still blond, tall, trim and goofy — two years into retirement at 37, and Mauer joining him at 35. Concussions limited both their careers, which at one point seemed on Hall of Fame tracks. Morneau won’t get there, and Mauer may not either. A quick sampling of eight Hall of Fame voters I know and trust found only three likely to vote for him, with one outright no and the rest maybes. Induction requires 75 percent of the vote.
Morneau knows what it’s like to win a Most Valuable Player Award, suffer a concussion, then never fully regain elite form. Morneau was bidding for a second MVP Award in 2010 when he collided with John McDonald’s knee trying to break up a double play in Toronto, missing the rest of that season and much of the following spring. Morneau was never again an All-Star and never again drove in 100 runs, though he won a National League batting title with Colorado in 2014. Mauer’s numbers dropped off significantly after his August 2013 concussion against the Mets, a game postponed from April by snow showers and bitter cold.
Mauer on Monday confirmed what most of us presumed, that his concussion diving for a foul ball in May worried him and set him on this path to retirement. “That play wasn’t the end, but it got me thinking,” he said. Morneau, too, suffered an additional concussion diving for a ball at first base, in 2011. Mauer could still hit in big moments — his .407 mark with runners in scoring position led the majors — but his health took precedence over everything else.
In the Hall of Fame discussion, Mauer’s chances rest on how voters weigh his stardom over 10 seasons as a catcher — three batting titles, five Silver Slugger awards, three Gold Gloves, six All-Star Game selections and one MVP award — against his final five competent seasons at first base. Mauer was the first American League catcher to win a batting title, in 2006; his three titles are the most by any catcher in baseball history. When Mauer stopped catching, his .329 career average topped all catchers with at least 3,000 plate appearances.
“If you’re the first to do anything in this game, with the rich history that it has, I think that’s pretty special in itself,” Mauer said.
It says something about Mauer that four people the Twins fired — managers Ron Gardenhire and Paul Molitor, plus general managers Terry Ryan and Bill Smith — attended the press conference. (Says something about them, too.) Molitor, one of St. Paul’s three Hall of Famers, made a case for Mauer to join them. Of the 15 major-league catchers in the Hall — three more played in the Negro Leagues — only three had a career average higher than Mauer’s .306.
“The naysayers will talk about not enough career numbers, and maybe a little decline at the end, those type of things,” Molitor said. “The positive is going to be that decade when he was a catcher and accomplished those things no other player did. There are going to be a lot of those numbers that put him right in the mix of some of those Hall of Famers. The debate will probably go into the next handful of years until he’s eligible.”
And Molitor is especially heartened to see the outpouring for Mauer as he departs, something that was lacking in the seasons he struggled through injuries, trying to live up to expectations and that $184 million contract.
Monday, Mauer repeatedly saluted and nodded toward his wife, Maddie, about to give birth to their third child. He acknowledged the big-name Twins in attendance, from Tom Kelly to Tony Oliva to Kent Hrbek to Jack Morris to Glen Perkins, as well as trainers, equipment managers, clubhouse attendants, and pretty much everyone who was ever kind to him. Zach Parise of the Wild, another hometown product with the burden of a big contract, was there as well.
Mauer insisted he had not made up his mind on his final day of the season, though it seemed obvious to the rest of us when he stepped out of the dugout in his catcher’s gear. In a forgettable season, Mauer provided the one unforgettable moment.
“In my mind, even as a fan, I’m going, I don’t know how we’re going to top this,” Molitor said. “When Joe came in and he talked about the possibility of doing that, he said, `I don’t want to make the impression that this is going to be a sign that I’m done.’ I said, `Joe, this is going to be a sign that it looks like you’re done, just so you know.’
“I think he wanted to keep that door open and take the time he needed. And obviously, I think the way he went out is something he feels really good about.”
Mauer will spend the next few months being Dad to a newborn and gradually deciding his next move. The Twins likely will slot Mauer into an advisory role and see where it leads. As a savvy ex-catcher, Mauer fits the profile of a modern manager, if he chooses to go that way. He departs before his club asked him to, always preferable for the face of any franchise.
A World Series eluded him — that hurts — but the rest of it was memorable, though a touch sad. Next to the dais where Mauer spoke hung a framed blowup of the Sports Illustrated cover from 2006, calling Mauer “American Idol.” That photo is how we’ll remember him: a young, healthy, smiling catcher, with the old-fashioned mask tilted back on his head, entering a prime that that went by too quickly.
“I can’t believe it’s over,” said Perkins, like Mauer a Minnesota kid who spent his entire career with his hometown team. “He seemed invincible. But Father Time gets us all.”