My Joe Mauer memories
I still remember getting the call from a number I didn’t recognize back in the spring of 2009. It was an editor from MLB.com, telling me I’d been chosen for an internship to cover the Minnesota Twins during the 2009 season. I was shopping at Target at the time and can still picture hanging the phone up with excitement at my first post-college journalism opportunity.
Little did I know at that point what that Twins season would ultimately entail.
Minnesota went on to win the American League Central in 2009, culminating in the most exciting baseball game I’ve ever witnessed — a tie-breaking Game 163 against the Detroit Tigers at the old Metrodome. And while the Twins were swept in the playoffs by the New York Yankees, that season will always stick with me for the efforts of one individual.
That man is Joe Mauer, who on Monday held a press conference to announce his retirement from baseball. After 15 seasons in the majors, all with the Minnesota Twins, Mauer’s record-breaking and controversial contract ran up with the conclusion of the 2018 season. For better or worse, much of what Mauer was built up to be was thanks to that 2009 season. It was a year I was fortunate to have the opportunity to cover as a reporter.
Joe and I both got a late start to the 2009 season — Mauer because of a back injury that meant he missed the month of April, while I joined the Twins beat in late May after graduating from college. My first day on the job started with a bang when Michael Cuddyer hit for the cycle and thrust me into the craziness right from the get-go. But it wasn’t anywhere close to the start to 2009 that Mauer had.
On the very first swing Mauer took that year, he cleared the fences. He sent a 2-0 pitch from Kansas City’s Sidney Ponson and deposited it into the seats in left-center field. That swing was foreshadowing for what would ultimately become one of the greatest seasons in Twins history.
It was one of 28 home runs Mauer hit that year, easily setting a new career high that he never came close to achieving after that. Mauer’s month of May alone was absolutely absurd. He belted 11 homers, had 41 total hits and drove in 32 runs, all in a span of 28 games. It was right around the final few home games of May that my internship began, and already I could sense the buzz surrounding a potential monster year for Mauer.
Mauer’s blistering start to 2009 didn’t fizzle out, either. The hype machine kept rolling. He made the cover of Sports Illustrated, which tossed out the notion that Mauer could become the first player in baseball to hit .400 since 1941. Mauer, who had won his second batting title the year prior, was well on his way to his third. His third All-Star Game was a lock, as was his second Gold Glove. One thing Mauer did add to his resume that year was an appearance in the Home Run Derby. He had 15 homers before the midsummer classic.
Simply put, every Mauer at-bat during that summer of 2009 became must-watch. Any time he stepped up to the plate, you truly felt something special could happen — because often times, it did. If it wasn’t a home run into the left-center field seats at the Metrodome, it was a double or another run-producing hit. Mauer was putting up numbers never before seen from a catcher, and he did it all in his usual unassuming way.
Mauer has never seemed truly comfortable in the spotlight, which is one reason why some Twins fans felt frustrated with the St. Paul native during his career. The lights were never brighter on Mauer than they were in 2009, yet he handled all the added attention like a pro. Amid a season like the one he was having, I felt fortunate to just be an observer to the history that was being made. Yet I was still a young reporter and building a rapport with any player isn’t something that happens instantly. One interaction I had with Mauer that year away from the Metrodome changed things for me.
It was Justin Morneau’s casino night, a fundraiser that Mauer’s good pal Justin hosted every year. I was tasked with covering the event for MLB.com, meaning I was the awkward intern roaming the floor at the International Market Square with a notebook and a recorder, trying to bug a few players to grab quotes for my story. Feeling a bit out of place, I ran into Mauer in the crowd. I don’t recall exactly what Mauer initially said to me, but it was something to the extent of a question as to whether I was going to be playing some of the casino games that night.
I told Mauer I was there for work, so I wouldn’t be joining the festivities.
“Always working,” Mauer joked in his dry sense of humor.
To hear the eventual MVP tell me he thought I was always working meant a lot. To this day, nine years later, that moment stuck with me.
I got to know Joe a bit more over the next several years as the Twins beat writer for FOX Sports North. But I didn’t travel on the road with the team, unlike several other beat writers, so I still didn’t get to know Joe — a pretty private person — super well. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure that he knew my name. It’s not like I reminded him of my name after meeting him for the first time in 2009, and many of my interactions with him were in a group setting.
When I arrived at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers for the Twins’ spring training several years back, later than the other beat writers, I made my way to the field on my first day there. Mauer was standing around the batting cage and noticed me standing nearby.
“When did you get here, Tyler?” he asked.
I guess he knew my name after all.
All of this rambling is my way of trying to put into words the lasting memories I’ll have of Mauer, as he is now officially retired. (No word yet on if his new child, due in November, will be friends with my first child, due in December.)
I covered Joe Mauer in a game for the last time in late September against the Chicago White Sox. Mauer had just one hit in that game, but it was a patented Mauer single smashed right up the middle. I wasn’t in the Twins’ locker room postgame — I went to get quotes from Chicago — so I never got to tell Joe congratulations on his career.
I figured the season finale could be an interesting one, and anticipated some sort of Mauer tribute in the ninth inning. My guess was that manager Paul Molitor would take Mauer out of the game during the top of the ninth so the hometown crowd could give Mauer one final ovation as he walked off the field for the last time.
I couldn’t have anticipated what actually DID happen, and I’m glad I flipped on the game just in time.
Not more than two minutes after turning on the game at the end of the eighth inning, Mauer emerged from the dugout — in his catcher’s gear. It was gear he hadn’t worn since a concussion in 2013 forced him to switch to first base for the remainder of his career. Some fans had suggested that Mauer catch one last game, but I knew the concussion worries meant that wouldn’t happen.
I didn’t think about the possibility of Mauer catching just one pitch, which is what ultimately happened. The story about how the idea came about and what it took to pull it off was written about in this great piece by The Athletic’s Dan Hayes.
Once I realized it was Mauer walking in the catcher’s gear, I turned to my wife and said, “Holy crap, he’s actually doing it.”
The two of us stopped the household chores we were doing to watch the emotional scene unfold at Target Field. I’d never seen Mauer cry before, but he couldn’t help fight back tears as the crowd saluted Joe Mauer the catcher one last time. He eventually caught the first pitch of the inning from Matt Belisle, and that was it.
Mauer’s time as a catcher, as a Twin, and as a baseball player ended on that one pitch. The send-off couldn’t have been better.
Fans in Minnesota had mixed feelings on Mauer. Many were bitter about the contract he signed, which at that point was the richest in baseball history. Yes, he made $23 million a year, and more than $200 million for his career. But if you look at his career production, his career value was more than $300 million, per Fangraphs.
Even Mauer’s biggest detractors had to take a moment to appreciate what took place at Target Field in Mauer's final game.
Mauer will go down as one of the best players in Twins history. He’s the only catcher to win a batting title, let alone three. He spent his entire career with his hometown team, playing his last several years managed by someone who attended the same high school as him. He appeared in commercials, on countless magazine covers, and became the face of a franchise for so many years. His No. 7 will eventually be retired by the Twins, and I’m sure one day his statue will stand outside of Target Field alongside the likes of other Twins greats.
Whether or not Mauer will one day get the call from the Baseball Hall of Fame remains a point of debate among the baseball community. While he did things few catchers had ever done before, I’m not quite sure his career numbers will earn him a spot in Cooperstown. Even if he’s not a Hall of Famer, that shouldn’t take away from the career he did have.
Congrats on everything, Joe. You’ll go down as one of the all-time greats in Minnesota sports history.