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Thought it would be fun to relive an old Top Prospect Alert interview with Twins All-Star catcher Joe Mauer. This was originally published back in 2004. Enjoy.
Player of the Year
By Dan Mullen
Flashback to the 2001 Minnesota State Baseball Tournament, Cretin-Durham High School of St. Paul is in trouble. Never mind that they're ranked number one in the state, or that they're the defending state champions. It doesn't even seem to matter that Joe Mauer is their catcher and that he is well on his way to national high school player of the year honors in baseball, and that he may very well be the first player selected in the upcoming Major League Baseball draft. After all, it really doesn't matter who is playing catcher when you don't have enough pitchers to throw him the ball.
Because of the week’s wicked Minnesota weather, Cretin-Durham has to win both games of a doubleheader on Saturday before they can advance to the championship game on Sunday, and coach Chris O’Neil only has two fresh pitchers to choose from for the three remaining games. This is when his lanky six-foot-four star catcher steps forward during the pre-game meeting and tells his coach, ‘if you need me to pitch I can.’ After his coach decides this is about the only hope they have, Joe Mauer calmly takes the rubber in the morning game of the Saturday doubleheader; a couple of short hours, and ten strikeouts later, Cretin-Durham is celebrating. Mauer, whose fastball was clocked at 92 miles an hour in the game, tossed a shutout in the state semi-finals, his first time on the mound since Junior High School. The next day, back behind the plate, Joe Mauer drives in six runs leading Certin-Derham to the state title, and Joe Mauer ends his high school career as a winner.
The need for Mauer to step up and save the team isn’t that different in 2003, as the New Britain Rock Cats, the Minnesota Twins Double-A affiliate, are struggling through the first two months of the season. They are in last place in the Eastern League’s Northern Division with a 26-37 record. The team just doesn’t have its usual talent, as most of their best players from recent years are up in the Majors, and even the best player the Rock Cats had to start the season, Justin Morneau, has been moved up to Triple-A Rochester.
Then on June 20th enters catcher Joe Mauer, the first overall pick in the 2001 Draft, who had just celebrated his 20th birthday two months earlier. Despite his baby face and the fact that he only had one full season of pro ball under his belt, he had been called up from Single-A Fort Meyers because he was ready for Double-A baseball and he was going to lead this team.
Now this isn’t a Hollywood movie, and Joe Mauer didn’t go 5-for-5 with a home run off the scoreboard to win the game in his very first Double-A contest (in fact he went 0-for-3) but the Rock Cats got the first shutout victory from their pitching staff, 1-0, with Mauer calling the pitches from behind the plate.
Three months later, the Mauer-led Rock Cats were set to take the field for their first home game of the Eastern League Playoffs, and while this may not be ‘The Natural‘, in many ways Joe Mauer is a natural, as he earned several 2003 Minor League Baseball player of the year awards after hitting .341 as the youngest player in the Eastern League, and led the league’s catchers in runners thrown out.
Before the Rock Cats take the field in a game that Mauer got them to, Rock Cat manager Stu Cliburn speaks about what Joe Mauer has meant to him and his team.
" When the Twins decided Mauer was ready to come up, I got a call from (former Twins Manager) Tom Kelly, and he said, ‘Hey Stan, you’re about to look a whole lot smarter," Cliburn said. "And while you don’t like to give the credit to just one guy, that’s what Mauer deserves, he made the whole team a lot better and made me look like a great manager."
While coming up as a 20-year-old and leading a Double-A team, with players up to eight years older than him, out of last place and into league playoffs may seem like a fairy tale in its own right, Mauer’s journey won’t be complete until he is putting on the blue pinstriped uniform for the team he loved as a kid, as the Twins’ starting catcher.
Growing up in St. Paul, Mauer spent countless hours pretending his backyard was the Metrodome and he was Kirby Puckett or Kent Hrbeck, hitting a game winning homer in the World Series. When it came to sports, Mauer was such a hard worker and so talented from a young age, that it seemed only his abilities in basketball and football could get in the way of his dreams of becoming a baseball player.
When Mauer was in second grade, he actually made his school’s varsity basketball team, a team that was intended for fifth and sixth graders, and in high school he averaged twenty points-a-game and was named all-state as a junior and senior. But it was his football talents that came the closest to detouring Mauer from his baseball dreams.
Mauer quarterbacked Certin-Derham to a state championship his junior year, and was named the state’s player of the year in both his junior and senior seasons. He was also named National Player of the Year in his senior season, making him the first two-sport National Player of the Year ever, and was recruited by virtually all the major football programs in the country. Mauer verbally committed to play football for legendary coach Bobby Bowden at Florida State, but only under the condition that if the situation in the following spring’s Major League Baseball draft were right, he would go to baseball. The Mauer family gathered on the day of the Major League Baseball Draft to literally have Joe’s future spelled out before them. Things couldn’t have worked out any better, as he was drafted first overall by Minnesota.
"The baseball draft isn’t on TV so we actually heard about it from a friend, and when we found out him and dad just hugged for a while, I think we knew right then (that Joe would choose baseball)," said Bill Mauer, Joe’s older brother, who along with another brother Jake, also plays in the Twins Minor League system. "The bottom line is we are a baseball family, and Joe was born to be a Minnesota Twin."
"It was really hard for me at first (not playing football), but now that everything’s going so well and we’re in the playoffs, I just try not to think about it too much," Mauer said. "I just watch a lot of games on TV and try to get my football in that way."
Even though the Rock Cats would ultimately be eliminated from the playoffs by the New Haven Ravens in five games, Mauer won’t have much time to miss football this fall, as the Twins are sending him to Phoenix for the Arizona Fall League, designed to help top prospects further develop their skills and prepare for the Major Leagues, and he has made the USA Olympic Qualifying Team where he will get to play against the best young players from all over the world.
Getting sent to Arizona to play baseball in 90 degree heat for the first part of his off-season will be a new experience for Mauer, who had to resort to the creative efforts of his father to get his swings in during the harsh Minnesota winters of his youth.
Always looking for ways to help his sons become better ballplayers, Jake Mauer invented a device that allowed them to take batting practice whenever they wanted to, even by themselves, and in the family garage when it was too cold to play outside.
"My dad invented it when I was about six or seven years old," Mauer says with a laugh about the homemade machine that was made using a coffee can, a net and a tube. "Really, I think he did it as a way to get us out of the house and to stop bugging him to pitch to us, and it allowed me to practice any time I wanted to."
When word spread of the machine’s role in developing Mauer’s sweet-swing, One Minnesota Scout says Mauer’s swing is better than anybody else in the entire Twins organization, Jake Mauer received many calls from parents and coaches of young players who wanted to buy the machine to make their own kid the next Joe Mauer. Shortly thereafter a refined version of ‘Mauer’s Quickswing’ was made available in Minnesota sporting goods stores and over the Internet, the Quickswing, fully endorsed by Joe Mauer as well as another former Cretin-Derham star, Paul Molitor, currently sells for $99.95.
If having the childhood machine that helped develop his swing become a nationally sold item doesn’t speak enough for Mauer’s emerging popularity, a quick trip to E-Bay, where Joe Mauer autographed baseball cards have gone for as high as $50.00, shows how much people are already willing to pay for the Mauer name. Although the attention is sometimes intense, Mauer is always happy to sign an autograph, but he has had to take some measures to stop people from making money by selling his name. "Sometimes it is really overwhelming," Mauer said shortly after stopping to sign a hat for a fan wanting an autograph for his son, also named Joe. "But when it's for the kids, I love doing it so much. It's when I know that autograph isn't going on the guy's mantle, that I have a problem with signing and all." Mauer's solution to those trying to turn around and sell his autograph, is to personalize many of them by writing the person's name on it before he gives it to them. "If I write their name on it, that gets rid of the chance of them selling it," Mauer explains. "Also , I remember when I was a kid and (former Twin) Tony Oliva signed a ball to me, 'Joe, Best Wishes, Tony Oliva.', I thought that was so cool. Hopefully I can do that for a kid."
While Mauer has figured out a plan to stop the selling of his autographs, he has had a harder time getting away from a lot of good natured ribbing from his teammates about all the attention he gets, from fans and the media.
In the shadows of the Rock Cats dugout, an hour before game three of the Eastern League Playoff game in New Britain, Mauer was interrupted three times by teammates pretending to be very excited to get the chance to see ‘the’ Joe Mauer, they’d heard so much about.
"Pretty much every city they go to someone wants to do a story on Mauer, there’s always someone new looking to talk to him and sometimes the other guys do get a little sick of it all," said Ken Lipshez who covers the Rock Cats for the New Britain Herald.
"Any other guy but Joe and you can bet there would be guys pissed off and jealous of him," said New Britain pitcher J.D. Durbin, who was called up from Single-A with Mauer in late June. "But Joe’s so quiet and so humble, it’s good he gets noticed or we might forget he’s around."
The Twins plan on starting him at Triple-A in 2004, but admit that if he has another spring training performance like he did in 2003 when he hit .421 in 11 games and lived up to the label of best defensive catcher in the minors, it will be hard to keep the homegrown Mauer off of their opening day roster. And then, when he takes the field in the Metrodome wearing the Twins pinstripes on his lanky frame, it is a good bet that he will get noticed once again, nobody will forget he’s around.
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