MVP Joe Mauer's got superpowers

By Patrick Murphy

Not many athletes are the top high school baseball and football player in the nation the same year. Not many athletes are top draft picks at age 18. Not many athletes win MVP awards at age 26. Not many athletes accomplish all this within 10 miles of where they grew up. But Joe Mauer isn’t like many athletes.In an era of loudmouth, troublemaking professional athletes grabbing all the headlines, Joe Mauer has remained humble on his way to becoming arguably the best player in baseball.

Born April 19, 1983, in St. Paul, Mauer was playing baseball from a young age. His father was a baseball coach and he had four relatives who played professionally. It wasn’t much of a surprise then that the young Joe had a bat in his hand and was playing catch when most kids were still learning to walk.

Jim O’Neill, Mauer’s high school coach, discovered Joe when he came to Cretin-Derham Hall baseball camp at 10 years old.

“The first time I saw him swing he hit a home run,” O’Neill said. “It wasn’t the swing that struck me, although it was sweet even then, it was the way he ran around the bases. It was as though it was nothing special, just another hit.”

As fortune would have it, that was only the first of many home runs O’Neill would see Mauer hit. At the 2009 All Star Game in July, O’Neill was handpicked by Mauer to pitch to him in the Home Run Derby.

Close personal friend and high school teammate, Tony Leseman, said of Mauer, “I’ve known him since I was 10 years old and he was always a very good athlete no matter what sport or game we were playing.”

Word of the St. Paul stud got around quickly. Macalester baseball coach, Matthew Parrington, recalls hearing about Mauer’s exploits when he was only 14.

Mauer attended Cretin-Derham Hall for high school, starring in baseball, basketball, and football. In basketball, his third sport, Mauer was named All-State twice. As the quarterback of the Raiders’ football team, Mauer led the team to the Class 5A State Championship. He was also named the Gatorade National Player of the Year and USA Today Player of the Year. After the football season, Joe signed a letter of intent with football powerhouse Florida State pending the MLB draft. It might have seemed surprising that a player would only conditionally commit to the defending national champions, but being the only player to ever be named National High School Player of the Year for two sports, Joe wanted to keep his options open.

During his high school baseball career, Mauer struck out once. Once. In his senior season, Mauer hit .605 with 15 HR and 53 RBI. Scouts were in a frenzy over which sport Mauer should choose after high school. Growing up a Twins fan in St. Paul, Mauer went the baseball route when he was drafted first overall in 2001 by the Twins as an 18-year old senior in high school.

Mauer played his first games in the big leagues in 2004, and has been a mainstay as the Twins catcher ever since. His breakout season came in 2006, when he was selected to the All Star Game, and won his first of three AL Batting Titles, hitting .347. One of the many things that make Joe’s success as a hitter so remarkable is the fact that he is also a catcher, the most demanding position on the field.

“People do not understand how difficult a job he has,” Parrington said. “Almost every other catcher in the big leagues breaks down physically during the year, not to mention the mental toll of working with a pitching staff.”

Joe had his best major league season to-date this year, hitting .365 with 28 HR on his way to capturing his third batting title and winning his first AL MVP. Although he piles up unheard of numbers, Mauer’s sole focus is on helping his team win.

“He makes everyone around him play at a higher level,” Leseman said. “His attitude and leadership is contagious and that’s why he’s played on so many winning teams.”

When 2006 MVP Justin Morneau went down for the year with a season-ending back injury, Mauer led the injury-plagued Twins to the playoffs by rallying past the division-rival Detroit Tigers. The Twins were three games back with only four to play, but managed to force a one game playoff and beat the Tigers in extra innings. Although the New York Yankees swept the Twins in the first round of the playoffs, Mauer clearly established himself as a leader.

“The Twins organization is incredibly proud of Joe Mauer’s development as a player and a person,” Twins President Dave St. Peter said. “Joe’s a special talent who is reaching his full potential as one of the game’s most dynamic players. Meanwhile, off the field Joe has truly emerged as a strong leader within our clubhouse and a truly active member of our community.”

Mauer’s quiet and humble demeanor, St. Paul roots, and incredible play have made him a hero to Minnesota sports fans.

“Joe Mauer is Brett Favre, Paul Bunyan and President Rosenberg rolled into one — a character of mythic proportion,” said Mac professor and former Star Tribune sports writer Howard Sinker. “In addition to being one of baseball’s elite players and a likely Hall of Famer, there’s no other contemporary athlete in Minnesota who is identified so closely with the state.”

In Minnesota, teenage girls swoon over him, their brothers want to be him, and their dads all have man crushes on him.

Even as Mauer had a career season in 2009, the one thing in the back of every fan’s mind was that 2010 is the final year on his contract. This means that if the Twins don’t re-sign him, Mauer will test the free agent market, where he would likely be offered $25 million a year. Losing Joe Mauer would be like Lake Superior disappearing. And to make matters worse reappearing in Boston or Los Angeles. Or to make matters much worse, appearing in New York.

“There’s absolutely no way the Twins can afford to lose him to the Yankees or Red Sox (or anyone) through free agency,” said Sinker, “and I think nobody knows that better than the people who own and operate the Twins.”

The Yankees 2009 payroll was over $201 million, compared to the Twins 2009 payroll of $65 million. The thought of Joe Mauer in pinstripes causes Twins fans to tremble, and me to openly weep. Considering that the Yankees spent over $432 million on the top three free agents after the ’08 season, there is no reason to think they won’t give him the second biggest contract in MLB history (behind only current Yankee Alex Rodriguez) with New Jersey as a signing bonus.

No one could argue that Mauer could and would get more money playing for a bigger market team, but for those who know him, Minnesota and the love of baseball mean more to Joe Mauer than money.

“I saw the same mannerism all through High School and now with the Twins,” O’Neill said. “Today he is the American League MVP and still very humble and gracious.