Paul Feiner isn’t one to bring it up. The 33-year-old digital marketer loves talking sports, just not about himself and not about that day. His boss at Go Kart Labs, a digital agency in Minneapolis, didn’t learn of his employee's claim to athletic fame until Feiner had worked there six months, and then teased him, “That would have been the first thing out of my mouth when I shook your hand:
‘I’m the guy who struck out Joe Mauer.’”
Lots of guys can say that now, especially with Mauer, the longtime Twins star, coming off a season in which he whiffed a career-high 96 times. But Feiner is the only one with the distinction of striking out Mauer in high school, when the St. Paul prep star batted .567 and whiffed exactly once in 222 at-bats.
It happened in the second game of the 2000 Minnesota state high school tournament, Feiner’s senior year, when his Elk River Elks played Mauer’s Cretin-Derham Hall Raiders. It wasn’t expected to remain such a big deal then but once Mauer made it to the major leagues in 2004 and started winning batting titles (he now owns three), people began mentioning Feiner’s accomplishment.
Instead of parlaying his newfound sliver of fame into free drinks and a unique pickup line, Feiner displayed Mauer-like humility and went mostly mum. He has given few interviews on the subject, turning down requests because he had ambitions to be known as something other than “the guy who struck out Mauer.” Feiner lived in Gemany for a year and a half teaching English to business people. He worked in finance. He got married. And he’s back in Minnesota, where in addition to his day job he runs a website called "I Love Minnesota Sports." These days he’s more willing to indulge those who ask him about that day. “I don’t shy away from it any more when people bring it up,” he says.
Feiner had never faced Mauer before that game, but he knew who he was. Everyone in Minnesota did. Even as a high school junior, Mauer was already legendary, an All-State football and basketball player in addition to being a top baseball prospect. “He was a presence,” Feiner says. “Different than any other player.”
So when Mauer stepped into the box for his first at-bat, Feiner lobbed an Eephus pitch. It missed wide. Mauer cracked a smile and smoothed the dirt with his foot. Then he lashed a single.
His next time up, Mauer lofted Feiner’s pitch over the leftfield fence to give Cretin-Derham its first run.
The score was knotted at 1-1 entering the sixth inning. The game had become a pitching duel between Feiner and Mauer, a wundekind not only with his bat but also with his arm. Though Mauer says now that he was “more of a thrower, not a pitcher,” he was nonetheless undefeated in five decisions that season and offset his 92 mph fastball with a curve and a knuckleball. Feiner hadn’t managed a hit off him, though did reach on a fielder’s choice.
Mauer came to the plate again with two on and two out in the top of the inning. Feiner, caught up in the competition, wasn’t intimidated to be facing the nation’s best young hitter in a pressure situation; instead, he cruised on the adrenaline of the moment. With a 2-2 count he reached for his best pitch, a 12-to-6 curveball, which he had been throwing since before it would have been recommended. He delivered it perfectly, and it broke down to Mauer’s shoetops. Mauer swung -- and missed.
Mauer’s teammates, who had never seen that happen, asked their star if he was feeling okay. They were only half-joking.
Feiner ran off the field to the cheers of a couple hundred Elk River fans above the first-base dugout. He exchanged high-fives with his teammates (which included centerfielder Paul Martin, now a defenseman with the Pittsburgh Penguins) and thought, Yes! We can win this.
Mauer helped make sure that didn’t happen. He went back to the mound and kept the Elks from scoring again, finishing with 13 strikeouts. The Raiders’ offense then rallied for six runs in the seventh and advanced to the next round with a 7-1 win, eliminating Elk River.
Forgive Mauer for letting the memory of that at-bat go fuzzy -- he has tallied almost 7,000 professional plate appearances since and made six All-Star teams -- but he, too, has had people bring it up to him. Feiner isn’t one of them, as the two have never met. “If I were to run into him I’m sure we’d have a couple laughs about it,” Mauer said last season. “I’ve heard he’s a nice guy and doesn’t like to talk about it a whole lot.”
Feiner's baseball career ended that day 14 years ago, after pitching one of the finest games of his career. He hasn’t played competitively since. Mauer, of course, has carved out a career that could very well end in Cooperstown. But for one at-bat, one pitch, Paul Feiner created a memory that he'll never forget.
John Rosengren is the author of The Fight of their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro Turned Baseball’s Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption.