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Fifteen years a Twin: ‘It worked out’ for Joe Mauer, hometown team

Minnesota Twins first baseman Joe Mauer reacts to a standing ovation in the ninth inning against Chicago White Sox at Target Field on Sept. 30 as he took one last pitch as a catcher. Brad Rempel / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — The Twins had their choice of any player available in the 2001 amateur draft, including dominant Southern Cal right-hander Mark Prior and Mark Teixeira, the slugging switch-hitter from Georgia Tech just named college player of the year.  

The Twins used their No. 1 pick on a high school catcher from Cretin-Derham Hall named Joe Mauer, who turned down a football scholarship from Florida State to sign with the hometown team.

“It worked out,” said Terry Ryan, the Twins’ general manager at the time. “It worked out for the Twins, it worked out for Joe Mauer, it worked out for our market.”

Eighteen years later, Mauer, 35, has retired as the Twins’ leader in doubles and reaching base safely, and second in hits. He made his retirement official Friday evening in an open letter to fans released by the Twins, explaining that after two serious concussions — the last in May — he wanted to protect his health and be there for his growing family.

Mauer and his wife, Maddie, are expecting their third child this month.

“There is a part of me that will always want to compete,” Mauer wrote, “but I have reached a point where my desire is outweighed by the possibility of another injury.”

Mauer’s decision was widely expected in the wake of an emotional season finale at Target Field, where Mauer doubled in his final at-bat and put on his old catcher’s gear for one last, and largely ceremonial, pitch at his favorite and best position in a 5-4 victory over the Chicago White Sox.  

Ryan, now a special assignment scout for the Philadelphia Phillies, was watching that game on a television in Florida.

“I had it on and was not thinking much about it, all the sudden things started happening and I thought, ‘Uh-oh, this might be it,’ ” Ryan said Saturday. “It was a wonderful ending to a phenomenal career.”

Mauer will be at a news conference scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday, Nov. 12, at Target Field.

Choosing Mauer in the 2001 draft was close to a slam dunk, but not entirely. Prior was considered nearly major-league ready, and in fact made his major league debut in 2002. Teixeira had just hit .427 with a 1.319 OPS at Georgia Tech. He made his major league debut in 2003 and hit 409 career home runs with Texas, Anaheim, Atlanta and the New York Yankees.

“Those were the guys under serious consideration,” Ryan said. “And you have to remember, Joe is a local guy. We were very knowledgeable about him as a young man, his family history, the multi-sport thing, what he was like off the field.  

“Then there was the catching position, which is difficult to find — plus he was a left-handed-hitting catcher, and an offensive catcher.”

Mauer skipped Triple-A and made his major league debut in 2004. Within five years he had won three batting titles — a first for a catcher — three Gold Gloves, four Silver Slugger Awards and an American League Most Valuable Player award. He won all four in 2009, when he hit .365 with 28 home runs, 96 RBIs, a .444 on-base percentage and a .587 slugging percentage.

It might have been the best season by a catcher in baseball history, and earned Mauer an eight-year contract worth $23 million a year that expired at the end of this season. Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine expressed interest in re-signing him, but Mauer was ready to retire.

“Joe made everything look easy. I stood in the on-deck circle and watched,” Justin Morneau wrote Saturday on his Facebook page. As the “M&M Boys,” Mauer and Morneau led the Twins to AL Central Division titles in 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2010.

“He dominated his position in a way a no catcher had before: Batting titles, high on base percentage, Gold Gloves, MVP,” Morneau wrote. “Joe was the most important hitter in our lineup. He was the definition of a superstar. He made everyone around him better because he was so consistent in his approach to the game. The moment never got big on him. He was poised. Most importantly he was humble.”

Serious concussions in 2013 and last season changed everything for Mauer, making him a first baseman in 2014 and, ultimately, ending his career prematurely.

“Joe was up there with the greatest catchers who ever played,” Ryan said. “Unfortunately, there was a lack of longevity. That’s the only difference.”

Mauer remained a valuable player as a first baseman, and in 2017 helped the Twins get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2010 when he hit better than .300 for the eighth time in his career. He hit .282 last season and retired with a .306 career average.

His contract was a source of irritation for a subset of Twins fans who felt Mauer didn’t hit for enough power — he never came close to the 29 homers he hit in his last season at the Metrodome — and his composure on and off the field made some believe he wasn’t a clubhouse leader, or even passionate enough to be the team’s highest-paid player.

That’s not true, longtime teammate Brian Dozier said.

“Joe has the ability to command a room by his presence and what he’s done and how much people respect him,” Dozier said Saturday. “Guys like that don’t really have to be vocal, you just do you and people follow. He wasn’t the big rah-rah or outspoken guy; he was so good at being who he was that he didn’t have to be.”

Dozier, who played in the World Series after being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers at the non-waiver trade deadline, said Mauer also had his occasional outbursts.

“He’s a guy that doesn’t show too many emotions to the cameras and others, but trust me, there have been plenty of times when I feel sorry for all the stuff near the bathroom when he’s in a funk, or strikes out, or thinks there was a bad call,” he said. “There are times you walk in after that and see a Joe Mauer ash bat splintered into a thousand pieces; buckets and balls all over the place — everything. That’s happened a time or two.”

Ryan credits Twins vice president for player personnel Mike Radcliff, then the team’s scouting director, with the final decision to draft Mauer in 2001. And it was Bill Smith, who succeeded Ryan as GM in 2007, who signed off on Mauer’s $184 million contract extension.  

“Billy was the GM at the time, but the entire organization, ownership, knew that he was going to get a better contract from someone else,” Ryan said. “It was a very competitive situation. He was coming off an MVP season; you don’t let a player like that in his prime just walk away. Billy did the right thing, and it was a mutual agreement because he wanted to stay in Minnesota.”

“There were teams that were large-market clubs that would have grabbed him off the open market; Billy never let him get there. Bill and the front office did a good job on that one, in my opinion. Unfortunately, the concussion business hindered his ability to play catcher.”   

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