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Joe Mauer’s long list of ‘firsts’ with his hometown paper

Shortly after signing with the Twins after being taken with the top pick in the 2001 draft, Joe Mauer takes batting practice in the Metrodome in July 2001. Joe Rossi / St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL - In his hometown newspaper, he entered the Minnesota sports scene as a fourth-string quarterback and left it, for now anyway, as one of the most beloved homegrown athletes in the state’s history.

The first mention of the name Joe Mauer in a St. Paul Pioneer Press sports story was as a Cretin-Derham Hall sophomore quarterback who barely played during a 47-0 victory over the Como Park Cougars in the fall of 1998.

Little did readers know that this particular sophomore would become one of the state’s most well-known talents and eventually shape the face of his favorite childhood baseball team for nearly two decades.

Here’s a look at some of Mauer’s firsts in the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

Cretin-Derham Hall years

• Mauer’s first baseball mention came in spring 1999 when Raiders coach Jim O’Neill sized up his team, the defending state champions and preseason No. 1 team in Minnesota. Mauer launched a home run during a Metrodome scrimmage the previous week and “demonstrated his potential” as a valuable player for the Raiders’ upcoming season. The article also highlighted the preseason sixth-ranked Park Center team featuring a pitcher — and future Twins teammate — named Pat Neshek.

• Mauer captured the attention of Pioneer Press sports columnist Charley Walters in April 1999, when Walters first noted that the catcher/quarterback would be highly projected in a future MLB amateur baseball draft and recruited by colleges looking to add the services of a quarterback from the same high school as NFL journeyman quarterback Steve Walsh and Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke.

• In summer 1999, Walters noted that the Minnesota Twins held an invitation-only workout at the Metrodome for high school sophomores and juniors in the Upper Midwest to showcase their talents, and Mauer was on the short list of participants. This offhand mention was early inclination that the Twins were seriously interested in the St. Paul prospect.

• In August 1999, Mauer became the youngest player selected to the U.S. Junior baseball team. He had been invited as a prospect but was so impressive that he was named one of the team’s two starting catchers. Walters noted that Mauer was “expected to be rated the No. 1 high school catcher in the nation among players who will graduate from high school in 2001.”

• In Mauer’s junior year at Cretin-Derham Hall, he was named the first-team all-state quarterback in 1999. Mauer threw for 2,500 yards and 32 touchdowns as he led the Raiders to the state championship. This was his first, first-team all-state selection. Also selected to the first team that year was Holy Angels receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr., now in the 15th season of a likely hall-of-fame career with the Arizona Cardinals.

• The following spring, Mauer was named to his first all-state baseball team after batting .575 as a junior. Also noted was a Stillwater all-state pitcher named Glen Perkins, a future Twins teammate who finished with a 7-1 record and school-record 0.57 earned-run average.

• As the accolades and projections began to pile up for Mauer entering his senior year in fall 2000, he was profiled by Pioneer Press sports reporter Jim Wells.

Wells spoke to Mauer’s dad, Jake, along with Chris Weinke and Raiders football coach Rich Kallok about the potential future for the three-sport phenom (Mauer was also a starter and major contributor on the basketball team). The comparison to Weinke was the feature’s focus. Would Mauer play professional baseball after high school, or would he become a quarterback for an elite university? Weinke said: “I always hesitate to point a kid in one direction. I told (Joe) that situations are different for every person, that’s the best advice I could give him. He’ll have to do what his heart tells him to do.”

Hometown kid lands in his hometown

• To the excitement of Twins fans, Mauer chose baseball. In June 2001, he was selected by the Twins with the first pick of the MLB amateur draft — the first Minnesotan selected first overall in the draft’s 37-year history. After the draft, Mauer held a news conference in the Cretin-Derham Hall gymnasium and was mobbed by students requesting yearbook signatures.

• In Mauer’s senior season at Cretin-Derham Hall, he batted .600 with 15 home runs and 53 RBIs.

• After signing his first MLB contract, a deal worth $5.15 million, Mauer spent his first summer in the minors. In spring 2002, he attended his first Twins spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., and received praise from then-Twins relief pitcher J.C. Romero after he realized who he’d been throwing to during batting practice:

How’d the kid look? “The kid?” Twins pitcher J.C. Romero said, looking confused.

Yeah, the kid. . . . The Kid. (Shrug). Joe Mauer. “Oh,” Romero said, “That was Joe Mauer?”

Romero spent about five minutes throwing to the 18-year-old catcher from St. Paul during the Twins’ first spring training practice Monday at the Lee County Sports Complex.

“Now that I know his name, it makes sense,” Romero said. “His hands were very good. He was very smooth. I couldn’t tell he was 18.”

• Mauer stayed in the minor leagues for three seasons and, in 2003, was named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year. In his final minor league season, he batted .339 with five home runs and 85 RBIs, splitting time between Class A and AA.

• In 2004, Mauer made his first 25-man roster with the Twins out of spring training after a roster spot was made available following the trade of starting catcher A.J. Pierzynski in the offseason.

• He stroked his first MLB hit, a line drive up the middle, during the 2004 season’s home opener and finished with two hits and two walks that day. The Twins won Mauer’s first game, a come-from-behind 7-4 victory over the Cleveland Indians.

• Mauer landed on the disabled list for the first time on April 8, 2004, just one week into his young career. He had torn his medial meniscus cartilage in his left knee and was expected to miss about a month of playing time. He ended up being out for nearly two months.

• Upon returning to the Twins from the disabled list, Mauer hit his first MLB home run, a 408-foot, three-run blast that helped the Twins defeat the Detroit Tigers 6-5.

After the game, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said: “I think we’ve all seen it and read about it over and over again. I don’t know what it is about superstars, but they do those things. Good players always come up in those situations and get the big ones. That’s why they are the good players. I think you’ll see that from him hopefully a lot. He rises to the occasion, and he can handle those situations. He doesn’t try to do too much.”

Award-winning seasons

• 2006 was a huge year for Mauer. He recorded his first 5-hit game on June 27 and was selected to his first of six MLB all-star games in July. Mauer finished the season with an American League batting title, the first by a catcher in the history of the AL and the first of three batting titles he would win. Mauer also won the 2006 American League Silver Slugger award for catchers, the first of five silver-bat trophies that would bare his name.

• In February 2007, Mauer signed his first contract extension with his hometown team. The deal was a 4-year, $33 million contract that would cement the catcher as a Twins plank-holder for Target Field, the team’s new Warehouse District stadium, which would open in 2010.

• In 2008, Mauer took home his first gold glove, the first of three consecutive American League Gold Glove awards. He also won his second batting title and second Silver Slugger award. The 25-year-old finished the season hitting .328 with nine home runs and 85 RBIs. Mauer also walked 84 times with only 50 strikeouts .

• In 2009, the Twins won their fifth AL Central division title in eight seasons and Mauer won the American League MVP award with 99 percent of the first-place votes from the Baseball Writers Association of America. He was also an all-star and won his third batting title, a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger and posted a career-best .365, batting average.

After the MVP announcement, Mauer said: “It’s pretty surreal to hear (those words), ‘AL MVP’. My dream was to make it to the big leagues, and now that I’m here, I’m an MVP. I can’t really describe it.”

Former Twins general manager Bill Smith said: “He’s a special player with special skills that you can’t teach. But he has character you can teach; his parents have done a marvelous job.”

Mauer joined Justin Morneau, Rod Carew, Harmon Killebrew and Zoilo Versalles as Twins who won the most prestigious award in baseball.

A career ending

• It took Mauer 16 years after being drafted by the Twins to hit his first walk-off home run in the big leagues. It finally came on May 5, 2017.

The Twins blew a two-run lead in the top of the ninth and were one strike away from extra innings with the Boston Red Sox when Mauer connected with the game-deciding blast. He was mobbed at home plate by his teammates and lifted off the ground by Miguel Sano.

After the game, then-Twins manager and fellow Cretin alum Paul Molitor said: “You’re happy for Joe. He’s obviously got quite the résumé and has done a lot of things in this game, but that’s a nice one to add.”

• On April 12, Mauer notched his 2,000th career hit against the Chicago White Sox. The seventh-inning single scored two runs and added to the Twins’ lead, which was part of a 4-0 victory. Mauer joined Kirby Puckett and Rod Carew as the only Twins players to reach 2,000 hits with the club.

After the game, the 34-year-old said: “Leading up to it I really didn’t think it was that big of a deal, but I got emotional. It was fun to see the fans, the boys on the top step and family up there too. After that inning I was probably the most awkward I’ve ever been on a baseball field, I’ll tell you that. I didn’t know what to do. Definitely appreciate the ovation from the fans. That was pretty special.”

His last 'first'

• On Sept. 30, Mauer appeared in what much of the crowd at Target Field believed to be his last game as a Minnesota Twin. His eight-year, $180 million contract was coming to an end, and Mauer, and the fans, knew it. Every time his name was mentioned by the public-address announcer, the crowd roared and chanted.

He was hitless in his first three at-bats, and fans in the crowd became worried they may not see their hometown hero reach base in his potential finale. Then, with one out in the bottom of the seventh, Mauer approached the plate for the last time.

The count from White Sox pitcher Juan Minaya was full, three balls and two strikes. The standing crowd held its breath. Mauer connected with an opposite-field rope to the gap in left-center and fans erupted as he rounded first base in a dead sprint on his way to second. The relay throw from the outfield to second base was a fraction too late to meet the feet-first slide of the Minnesota icon. He was safe with a double in what would be his final at-bat. It was the 428th double of his career, a Twins record. The ovation was incredible, only to be outdone in the top of the ninth when No. 7 emerged from the dugout wearing his catcher’s gear.

He caught one pitch from relief pitcher Matt Belisle and retreated back to the dugout, leaving tears in the eyes of many fans in attendance.

Sports fans from across the state watched Mauer grow from high school star into a baseball giant. While his baseball-playing days are over, he undoubtedly will continue to inspire future generations of hometown athletes.

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