2,000 Words on Joe Mauer to Celebrate 2,000 Hits
Image courtesy of Brad Rempel, USA TodayTHE NATURAL
In a number of ways. I've always felt a personal connection to Joe Mauer.
Maybe it's because we both grew up in the Twin Cities, and are only about two years apart in age.
Maybe it's because our subsequent paths have been so closely intertwined. When I was on the freshman baseball team at Washburn High in South Minneapolis, our varsity team faced off against Mauer's Cretin-Derham Hall at the Metrodome; he hit for the cycle with an extra triple. His one-strikeout prep career, which turned him into a top draft pick, was the stuff of legend for any of his contemporaries.
Maybe it's because we're both dorky white boys with closet aspirations of being rap stars.
It's probably a combination of all these, but more than anything, it's simply an appreciation for watching Mauer play the game. As someone who coaches young kids in the summer months, I have an acute appreciation for the fundamentals and instincts on display every time Mauer takes the field.
He was hailed as one of the best defensive catchers in the game during his heyday behind the plate, and it's utterly unsurprising that he has quickly developed into one of the league's finest at first. His aptitude for the sport is unbelievable. Purely in terms of fundamentals, he plays baseball as soundly as anyone as I have ever seen. I still find myself marveling about stuff like this all the time:
Of course, he never did fully evolve into the mythical force that flashed in 2009, and for that, his will always be a story of unfulfilled promise in the eyes of some. But plenty of us will happily appreciate Mauer as a unique figure in franchise history, whose No. 7 may never be worn again.
Haters gonna hate. That's always been my basic stance regarding the confounding level of negative sentiment toward Mauer from Twins fans. It's easy enough to tune out. I've kind of gotten used to doing so from experience, actually.
Here's the thing: My dad? He's one of those naysayers. In fact, he is a model example. Pretty much any time Mauer's name is brought up around him, there'll be a reference to the salary. The ill-advised contract. The blasé "oh hey neato" attitude.
Dad's not being mean-spirited, really. There is just a certain level of grumbling, griping and grousing that is inherent to the sports experience for many – almost therapeutic in a way – and Mauer is a fairly easy target.
I get that. I'll never understand why folks find it so easy to overlook his considerable positives, but alas. I can see why the big salary, the absence of fiery competitiveness, and the lack of prototypical slugging prowess make him a lightning rod.
There's no point in trying to sway anyone at this point. If you're reading this, you're either nodding your head and basking in Mauer's generational greatness or rolling your eyes, and that's fine.
But if you're sour on the guy, I would urge you to try and enjoy the present. At this point his salary is completely immaterial. Even if it wasn't, right now Mauer's earning the checks by playing some pretty incredible ball. His plate approach is as good as any in the league, and he's driving pitches as fiercely and consistently as he has in many years. You really could not ask for a better No. 2 hitter, wedged between the elite power bats of Brian Dozier and Miguel Sano.
The only people who should be cursing Mauer right now are opposing pitchers trying to navigate this minefield of a lineup.
The other thing that I really love about Mauer is how unbelievably, ridiculously, outrageously Minnesotan he is. Maybe that's why so many locals feel an innate animosity toward him – they look at Mauer and see so much of themselves. His distinct accent, his (almost creepily) friendly demeanor, his understated personality.
I mean, look at him:
It's no secret I'm a sucker for the story of Glen Perkins: Minnesota high school phenom turned college star turned first-round pick turned All Star big-leaguer. An entire career spent in his own backyard.
Well, Mauer takes the hometown hero narrative to new extremes, rarely seen in the history of sport. Born and raised in Minnesota's capital city, he became a prep legend, then a No. 1 draft pick by the team he grew up watching. And during a 15-year career, all spent with that same team, he has won an MVP and made six All Star teams. He'll be a borderline Hall of Fame case when he hangs 'em up.
Through it all, he's still the same soft-spoken, easygoing dude with an almost nonexistent ego.
Alright, how we doing. Not even at 1,000 words yet? Hoo boy. Alright, well as I try to hammer out a word for every hit in Mauer's career, let's look back and try to pluck out the five biggest and most memorable from that pool of two thousand. (Obviously this is very subjective, and I'd love to hear your own submissions in the comments.)
5 BIGGEST HITS OF JOE MAUER'S CAREER
Notches His First Career Hit: April 5, 2004
Mauer was in the Opening Day lineup on April 5th, 2004, facing Cleveland at the Metrodome. Still only 20 years old at the time, he drew a walk against CC Sabathia in his first career plate appearance. Mauer then struck out, walked again, and led off the ninth with his first MLB hit — fittingly, a ground ball single to center. He'd add a second in extra innings.
Seals Up His First Batting Title: October 1, 2006
Entering play on the final day of the '06 season, Mauer had the slimmest of leads over New York's Derek Jeter in average – .346 to .345 – and so the American League batting title was very much on the line. Mauer later admitted he had "never been so nervous in (his) life," and struck out swinging in his first at-bat. But he came back with a big double in his next AB and followed with a single to basically clinch the honor. Oh, and in the meantime, the Twins clinched the AL Central crown, with Mauer's two-hit day helping fuel a critical victory.
Opens His MVP Campaign with a Bang: May 1, 2009
Joe wasn't quite right when he showed up to spring training in '09, and he ended up missing the first month of the regular season due to a lower-back issue. When he made his highly anticipated debut on the first of May, I was in attendance at the Metrodome, with uncharacteristically good seats. Tucked a few rows behind the visiting dugout on the first-base line, I had a perfect view of Mauer's first swing of the season: a home run drilled over the left field wall. It was a booming start to one of the great months in the modern baseball history – he batted .414 with a 1.338 OPS and 11 home runs... as a Gold Glove catcher! Of course, he'd rightfully go on to win the AL MVP, leading the league in AVG/OBP/SLG.
Sparks Twins Rally in 11th Inning of ALDS Game 2: October 9, 2009
Leading off the top of the 11th in an epic seesaw battle in the Bronx, Mauer delivered his second hit of the game – a double, drilled down the left field line off Damaso Marte. Jason Kubel followed with a ground ball single up the middle, scoring Mauer and giving Minnesota the lead. Claiming a huge win on the road, the Twins were able to even the series at one, finally canceling their lengthy hex against the Yankees and heading back home with momentum.
Oh, wait. No.
In actuality, Mauer's obvious double was inexplicably ruled a foul by Phil Cuzzi, who was staring directly at the ball from about 15 feet away when it bounced well inside the line.
Mauer did end up singling in the at-bat, but instead of scoring on Kubel's ensuing base hit he moved up to second, and then to third on a single by Michael Cuddyer. Yanks reliever David Robertson (yep, same David Robertson), went on to retire three straight batters to leave the bases loaded. Mark Teixeira hit a walkoff home run to lead off the bottom of the inning. And the hex lives on to this day.
That moment was in so many ways emblematic of Mauer's entire career, and his legacy with a segment of fans. He did end up coming through and getting on base, but not in the singlehandedly game-changing fashion that dances through our heads still to this day.
So while it wasn't actually a hit, I'm counting it. Dangit Cuzzi.
Tallies Hit No. 2,000 Amid Late-Career Renaissance: April 12, 2018
There have been plenty of other noteworthy knocks in Mauer's fantastic career, many of which surely deserve to be replace the copout selection above. But choosing favorites from a sea of 2,000 is a tall task, which speaks to the caliber of his body of work.
Closing your eyes, you can probably picture a montage of Mauer hits: solidly stroked singles to left, double to the gap or down the line, a ground ball single up the middle – like the one that started it all at the Dome 14 years ago, and the one he struck last night in Target Field for the big milestone.
Slogging through the miserable 2011, 2012 and 2013 seasons was tough enough as a Twins fan, but watching Mauer go through his concussion, and come back as a sub-mediocre player, took the agony to new heights. The thought of Minnesota trying to rise back to contention in spite of him, rather than because of him in some way, was tough to stomach.
As such, it has been incredibly gratifying to see Mauer return to his former offensive glory just as the team reemerges. I honestly didn't know if we'd ever see the 34-year-old (35 in one week) perform at this level again, and the way it's come together... well, to borrow his vernacular, it's pretty neat.
Looks like I've still got about 60 words left to burn, so I'll close by imparting you with some wisdom from the man himself, according to BrainyQuotes:
"It frustrates me if I'm not good at something, so I do it until I get good at it."
“I hate striking out, doesn’t matter what time of the game. I just don’t like striking out.”
"I like Lil Wayne."
"I'm not as cool as I'm supposed to be."
"Nobody wants to hear me rap."
I suspect no human has made it this far into the article, least of all Joe Mauer himself. But Joe, if you are somehow reading this, please know this much: You're as cool as you need to be. And I want to hear you rap. Very badly. Very, very, very badly.
- Blake, LimestoneBaggy, James and 18 others like this