Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Who is Joe Mauer?

Mauer tags Brett Gardner out in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game

Joe Mauer is the heart and soul of the Twins.  A homegrown talent who spent his childhood days in St. Paul, Minnesota and went to Cretin-Derham High School, Mauer was a local legend even before he was drafted in 2001 by the Twins.  A multi-sport athlete, Mauer dominated both the gridiron, as evidenced by his scholarship offer to play quarterback at Florida State, and the baseball field, where he struck out just once in his high school career.  The Twins controversially opted to take Mauer first overall instead of right-handed pitcher Mark Prior.

The move was seen as cheap, since Prior was going to be more expensive to sign, and as homerism.  There was no doubt that Mauer was a special talent, but Prior was universally regarded as the top option in the draft.  With the support of hindsight, the Twins need make no apologies for their selection.  While Prior is toiling away in independent ball, attempting to work back from numerous injuries, Joe Mauer continues to work on a spectacular Major League career.

After raking at all stops in the minors, Mauer was ready for the Major Leagues on opening day 2004, a couple weeks short of his 21st birthday.  Two games in, however, he suffered an injury and didn't return for almost two months.  Mauer impressed while he was in the lineup but again injured himself in mid-July, forcing him out for the rest of the season.

Thus, 2005 was his first full season.  He was solid, and his batting numbers were very good for a catcher, but 2006 was the year he would break out and become the elite player Twins fans everywhere hoped he would be.  As the calendar turned to July and his batting average still stood at .392, he sparked--not for the last time--discussion of whether or not he could become the first player since Ted Williams in 1941 to hit .400.  Alas, as it has been every time for the last 70 years, that discussion was premature, but Mauer did finish the season with a .347 average, good enough to win the batting title by a couple points over Derek Jeter.  It was the first time a catcher had ever won the batting title in the American League.

Mauer also made his first All-Star appearance and won his first Silver Slugger award.  He watched, however, as his teammate Justin Morneau won the MVP award.  Most intelligent people felt Morneau, as good a season as he had, wasn't even the most valuable player on his team, and thought Mauer was a much more deserving candidate.  No worries; his time would come eventually.

In 2007, Mauer dealt with injuries and didn't repeat his success from 2006.  He rebounded the following year, though, and made his second All-Star appearance, won his second Silver Slugger award, won his first Gold Glove, and won his second batting title, albeit with a lesser average of .328.  He also placed fourth in the MVP voting, topping his finish from 2006 by two spots.

And then came 2009, the most glorious year in a splendid career.  Mauer spent the first month on the disabled list, returning on May 1st against the Kansas City Royals.  He took the first two pitches of his first at bat for balls, before unloading on the third offering from Sidney Ponson and depositing it in the seats in left-center.  It was just the beginning, though, as Mauer had one of the greatest seasons ever for a catcher.  He won his third batting title in four years--and before him, no AL catcher had ever won one!  He led the league in on-base percent and slugging percent, too.  And he collected an MVP trophy nearly unanimously, save for the one doofus who voted for Miguel Cabera.

The celebration of Mauer's historic season quickly transitioned to his impending free agency that would follow the 2010 season.  The Yankees and Red Sox (among others) were already salivating about the opportunity to nab Mauer.  In the midst of Spring Training of 2010, however, Twins fans heard the fantastic news that Mauer had agreed to an 8-year, $184 million contract with Minnesota that would keep him with the club through 2018.  While it was certainly a huge sum of money, I at least was willing to see them pay any amount to keep him.  There is a good chance that contract will not look so good by the end of it, but I do not care.  For the joy Mauer brought while I watched Twins games, I would have had the Twins pay any price for the chance that I can watch that again for the next few seasons.

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