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In a Career Full of Close Calls and Near-Misses, the Selection of Joe Mauer was Anything But

In a Career Full of Close Calls and Near-Misses, the Selection of Joe Mauer was Anything But

Written By Brandon Warne (ZoneCoverage.com)
Photo by Brian Curski

Just two dates appear on Joe Mauer’s career transaction register.

  • June 5, 2001 — Drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the first round (first overall) of the 2001 amateur draft.
  • October 29, 2018 — Granted free agency.

Mauer actually signed with the Twins on July 17, 2001, and from that point on until he was granted free agency the day after the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, he was never outside of the club’s contractual control.

For a grand total of 6,314 days, Mauer was under contract with his hometown team.

That’s longer than Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president by nearly 2,000 days. That’s longer than Kirby Puckett was a Twin for — 5,260 days after subtracting his 1992 free agency, but counting the 1996 season until he retired on July 12 — by more than 1,000 days.

In more than one way, Mauer grew up with the Twins. Not only was Mauer a Twins fan as a child, but he went from a brown haired, fully buttoned polo-wearing 18-year-old to a ruggedly-handsome, father of two.*

* Mauer’s wife Maddie gave birth to a son on Wednesday — Charles Joseph Mauer — to push the count in their roost to three.

Though, to hear some of the Twins executives most involved in Mauer’s evolution as a player — there wasn’t that much growing up to do.

“He was just a community person,” said Jim Rantz, the farm director who oversaw Mauer’s limited time in the minor leagues. “Of course, his family is so community oriented. He comes from a great family. He was brought up the ladder properly.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard a bad word about him from umpires, managers, coaches, instructors,” said Terry Ryan, the club’s general manager at the time Mauer was selected. Many people have their fingerprints on a player when he’s drafted, but ultimately, it’s the GM who makes that final call.

“Fans, every once in a while go looking for something, but that’s OK,” Ryan said. “That’s not a big deal. He’s just one of those types of guys who treated everybody the same, whether you’re one of the guys in the clubhouse or the owner. He treated everybody about the same.”

In a lot of ways, Mauer’s story was that of a Disney feature film.

The stories about him as a prep athlete feel like a real-life Bill Brasky, to the point where you’d think he was the real-life embodiment of Paul Bunyan himself — if we didn’t have video to document any of it.

Ryan said he was first aware of Joe when he was 14.

“(We saw) pretty much everything we saw as a professional player,” Ryan said of the first impression a young Mauer made. “I think the first thing you notice about the young man was his athleticism, his size and his swing. When you’re looking for a baseball player, those are things you’re looking for. He’s got that swing that everybody raves about, but he was a great athlete with great character. There weren’t many things he possessed that you weren’t positive about.

“He was just one of those guys that come around every once in a while. He was just a great baseball player.”

Club president Dave St. Peter wasn’t quite as early to the party, but Mauer wasted little time making an impression on him, as well.

“I remember (Terry talking about Joe) in the spring of the year we drafted him,” St. Peter said. “I was aware of him; I’d seen him play a high-school football game as a junior at the Dome. That was the first time I ever saw him play was football. The first time I saw him play baseball, Terry had told me Cretin was playing a game in the Dome. I’m not really sure why — I don’t know if it was a playoff game or they’d been snowed out or what — but the first time I ever saw him swing the bat, he hit a home run over the baggy in the Metrodome as a high school senior.

“Terry asked me if I’d seen him. I said, ‘Yeah, I saw him.’ He asked how Joe did, and I told him he hit a home run in his first at-bat. It was impressive. Obviously, he’s never disappointed a single day in terms of his on-field performance and just his overall approach to the game.”

Rantz was more instrumental in Mauer’s development after he was drafted, but even he got in on the action.

“Terry followed Joe in high school,” Rantz said. “He attended his football, basketball and baseball games. He saw him at a very young age (14). I didn’t see him until he got into high school — his senior year. I knew he was something special when he hit for the cycle in the Dome playing a Minneapolis school. At 18 years old, he hit for the cycle. He stood out right away.

“Yeah, oh yeah,” Rantz affirmed when asked if Mauer was head and shoulders above even the Division I players he encountered on those St. Paul ball fields. “He was a special talent. You had to like a lot of things about him because he did so much. He was a super athlete, you know? He had a lot of skills, and he showed it.”

None of this is to say that Mauer’s selection was a slam dunk. Drafting first overall can be a blessing and a curse, as Ryan noted.

“We were very happy to pick Joe; we weren’t very happy to be in that position,” Ryan said. That means that the year before we were bad — and I was a part of that, too. It turns out we had a guy down there seven miles from the Metrodome, and it looked like he might be a guy in that position. It ended up being almost a storybook finish.”

Nevertheless, sometimes the right decision and the easy decision intersect. Still, it’s fair to say it was a decision that was widely second-guessed for a long time, as Mark Prior turned into a front-of-the-rotation ace for the Chicago Cubs and Mark Teixeira started swatting home runs for the Texas Rangers.

Both players debuted before Mauer — Prior in 2002 and Teixeira in 2003 — but as college players, this was to be expected. Still, that didn’t calm the fan sentiment that the Twins took the local kid because he’d be easier — read: cheaper — to sign.

Ryan, as one might expect, doesn’t care for that narrative.

First of all, he says, Mauer wasn’t that easy to sign.

“It wasn’t easy,” Ryan said. “But it wasn’t one of those that was long and drawn out with bickering and bitterness and all the stuff that can happen. He was good enough to share with us and his family was good enough to say, ‘He wants to sign; it’s just a matter of how much.’

“We weren’t going to take anybody we weren’t sure we’d be able to sign,” Ryan concluded. With the club being unable to sign high draft picks Travis Lee and Jason Varitek in the previous decade, it was easy to chalk this up as a lesson learned.

But Mauer was far from a charity pick at No. 1 overall.

“Fortunately we had the first pick,” Ryan said. “But if we didn’t, he wasn’t going to be around long. Even if we’d passed on him, he was going in the first couple picks regardless. There was that much interest in him. He’s one of the best high-school baseball players I’ve ever seen. He’s up there with Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, I would say. Those types of areas. He’s probably the best high-school catcher I’ve seen — by far.

“But there’s no mistaking his ability, that’s for sure. Just as importantly, there’s no mistaking his character.”

Ryan said the Twins honed in on Mauer as the pick a little over a week in advance of the June 5 draft.

“I would say maybe 10 days before the draft,” Ryan said. “You kind of do a lot of digging the last couple days, but as we went through that spring, Teixeira and Prior were the main guys who were his competition up there.

“But with all we knew about him and that position he played, it’s tough to find guys who can catch and hit. Joe could do that. I would say that was the separator.”

That’s not to say there wasn’t some trepidation in the room, though Mauer quelled it fairly quickly on the field.

“Mike Radcliff — our scouting director at the time — was charged with recommending the best player we could take at the time,” St. Peter said. “When you’re in that position, and then you consider the fact that this was a local kid, you have to ask yourself, ‘Is this young man not only legit on the field, but will he be able to deal with the massive expectations that are going to come with it?’ We knew Joe extraordinarily well; we knew his family extraordinarily well. By the time the recommendation came forward that Joe was going to be the guy, I think collectively the leadership of the organization had a high level of confidence that Joe was not only the right player, but that he had the right makeup and mindset to handle the pressures that would come with it.

“History will show it was the right decision. But at the time, it was far from obvious.”

Mauer signed six weeks later, in time to play 32 games for Elizabethton in the Appalachian League. While Mauer didn’t hit a home run, he was absolutely a man ablaze on the diamond as he hit .400/.492/.491 with 19 walks and just 10 strikeouts in 130 plate appearances facing players two and three years older than him, on average.

That earned Mauer a full-season promotion to Low-A Quad Cities the next year, where he hit .302/.393/.392 with again more walks than strikeouts. The promotions came fast and furious the next year, as he opened at High-A Fort Myers for 62 games before finishing the final 73 games with Double-A New Britain.

In fact, he hit better at Double-A (.853 OPS) than he did Single-A (.807) — the Florida State League is notoriously a pitcher’s league, for what it’s worth — and by that time it was obvious.

Joe was ready for the big show, less than 180 games into his professional career.

Ryan agreed, and shipped off incumbent catcher A.J. Pierzynski to San Francisco in a deal that became the trademark of his first tenure. In return, the Twins got setup man Joe Nathan, starting pitching prospect Boof Bonser and a wild-card lefty who was just barely 20 years old.

That lefty had thrown just 9.0 innings the year before, allowing eight earned runs with a K/BB ratio of 9-8.

His name? Francisco Liriano.

But back to Mauer.

Mauer’s development through the system was rapid. While many players drafted out of high school use up a large portion of the five years allotted before they have to be added to the 40-man roster, Mauer was the Opening Day catcher in 2004 — two months shy of his three-year anniversary of being selected first overall by the Twins.

His development was reminiscent of that from previous super prospects like Chuck Knoblauch and Kirby Puckett. Knoblauch skipped Triple-A altogether before winning the 1991 Rookie of the Year award, while Puckett played just 21 games above A ball before the Twins promoted him to the big leagues for good in 1984.

“He did that because that’s the kind of talent he was,” Rantz said of Mauer’s development. If you look at his numbers, he earned it. He hit .300, and he played a position we were in dire need of. They moved him along as quickly as we could, and he did a heck of a job.”

“It wasn’t much,” Ryan said of Mauer’s minor-league stops. “It was just fine-tuning, really. Seeing sliders and splitters. Maybe changeups in fastball counts. That type of stuff. Learning how to call a game — no problem. Joe’s a very intelligent catcher. His throwing and accuracy were darn near off the charts. Soft hands, very athletic back there. The last thing to come usually is the bat, but he could hit right from the get-go.

“You’d see some of the power in batting practice and you’d figure it would translate into game power; that was never the kind of hitter he was. Which is OK; as long as you’re a catcher, you don’t care. If you’re a first baseman, then you can start nitpicking.”

And really, anyone who says Mauer’s career wasn’t a success is doing just that — nitpicking.

“Yeah, I think short of us winning a World Series championship, that’s probably the only thing you could point to over the course of his career that we didn’t accomplish,” St. Peter said about the success of Mauer’s career. “But the game of baseball isn’t about one individual player. Winning at that level takes a team; we had some really good clubs that Joe was a key part of, but collectively we didn’t get it done in the postseason. I don’t put that on Joe Mauer; I put that on all of us.”

Even still, plenty of accomplished players are all-time greats who never won a World Series ring. Barry Bonds, Griffey, Ted Williams. One need not look even outside a Twins uniform to see this as well, as Harmon Killebrew was a giant on and off the field, yet never bore a ring outside of the one he got when he was married.

“Right,” Rantz said when asked if Mauer’s career was a rousing success. “You get three years in the minor leagues and 15 as a big leaguer. Not everyone gets that.”

“I would say that’s accurate,” Ryan said when posed the same question. “He did a lot for this organization. He did a lot for the game up here. He certainly the played the game in a way everybody respected. If he didn’t have those concussions, this would be about as banner of a day as you could ever want. You know he’d be a lock Hall of Famer. Even as is, he’s going to get a lot of discussion.”

Sure, Joe Mauer didn’t win a World Series. Heck, he never even won a playoff game. Part of that can be blamed on Phil Cuzzi, but I digress.

Sure, Mauer didn’t stay healthy early in his career. Or later, even. But the human brain is a tricky thing.

Sure, Mauer never hit for the power some might have liked, outside of his magical 2009 season. But if your own performance is what raises expectations, doesn’t that have to be factored into the discussion?

The fact of the matter is that if you didn’t like Joe Mauer, that was on you, not him.

He was community-oriented — even when people weren’t watching.

He was a first-rate leader on and off the field — even when people weren’t watching.

He treated everyone with dignity and respect — especially when people weren’t watching.

Joe Mauer was world-class in every sense of the phrase, and we were all lucky to be even a minute part of his career — one that certainly will be enshrined on a sunny summer day in Cooperstown sometime in the next 5-7 years.

Mr. Ryan summed up Mauer’s career best.

“He won an MVP, batting titles and was a Gold Glover. Other than that, he wasn’t too good,” Ryan said with a wry smile.


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