Thursday October 1st, 2009

If Joe Mauer played in New York, supermodels would start rumors they were dating him. There would be 14 books about him, with titles like Joe Mauer: We Don't Deserve Him and The Devil Owned My Soul Until I Watched Joe Mauer Take Batting Practice.

He would be Derek Jeter and Albert Pujols rolled into one, the darling of both tabloid editors and stat geeks.

"Aw man, it'd be ridiculous," Mauer's Twins teammate Michael Cuddyer said when asked about the possibility of Mauer playing in New York. "He would be everywhere. You'd see him on every billboard. You'd see him on every magazine cover. You already see him on a lot of them, and he's a Minnesota Twin. He's having, arguably, the best year in the history of the position."

Cuddyer paused, just for a moment.

"Not even arguably, really."

Mauer is hitting .367, with a .441 on-base percentage and a .597 slugging percentage. He leads the American League in all three categories. Traditionally, the Triple Crown includes batting average home runs, and runs batted in, but most serious fans these days understand that on-base percentage and slugging percentage are more telling indicators of a player's value than homers or RBIs. Joe Mauer is about to win the Enlightened Triple Crown.

I'll admit it: the "if he played in New York" angle has been used -- and overused, and misused -- a lot through the years. But in Mauer's case, it is absolutely true. If he played in New York, imagine the hype Mauer would have generated this season.

He joined the Twins on May 1 after offseason back surgery. They were a .500 team. Manager Ron Gardenhire tried to warn everybody that it was ridiculous to expect the same Mauer who had been so great the past three years, and that he might only play a few days a week, that he might need two or even three bounds to leap tall buildings.

Then Mauer got seven hits in his first nine at-bats, and the shackles were off. Since joining the lineup, Mauer has played 133 of the Twins' 136 games. He has not missed one since June.

And he has done it while playing 102 games at catcher, the toughest position in the sport by far. Catchers are supposed to call a good game, block balls in the dirt and say "hey, don't worry about my knees -- I'll get two new ones someday." What Mauer is doing is like if Adrian Peterson led the league in rushing while also calling all the Vikings' plays.

Ask the Tigers' Brandon Inge. He knows. He played catcher as a young player, on management's orders, and found it so overwhelming that he couldn't hit a lick. For his career, Inge is a .199 hitter as a catcher and a .251 hitter as a third baseman.

"Your knees, your joints, your elbows, every foul tip that catches you in the shoulder -- it's rough," Inge said. "Put it this way: I don't ever, ever, ever want to do it again. Ever."

And what does Mauer say?

"I like catching and hopefully I can do that for a while."

Catchers will often skip a day game after a night game. Well, get a load of what Mauer did on Tuesday: he caught a night game after a day game. After catching nine innings in an afternoon game against the Tigers, Mauer asked Gardenhire if he could catch at night, too, instead of being the designated hitter. Well, maybe "ask" is not the right word. Mauer, classy guy that he is, allowed Gardenhire to fill out the other eight lines on the lineup card.

I asked Mauer about that Wednesday, and I might as well have asked him which kind of snake he would most like to French-kiss.

"Yeah. I just, uh ... you know, it's that time of the year," Mauer said. "I just wanted to make sure Gardy was on the same page as me. He kind of looked at me funny. Then I think he saw how adamant I was about it. So he said 'Alright.' "

Mauer's team probably won't make the playoffs -- three games behind the Detroit Tigers with four to play, the Twins need miracles even Mauer can't perform. (Of course, he would be headed to the postseason if ... he played in New York! Are you kidding me? The Yankees would make the playoffs with a cardboard cutout at catcher.) But think of where they would be without him.

The Twins' other M&M slugger, Justin Morneau, hasn't played since Sept. 12. Third baseman Joe Crede has had five at-bats since mid-August. Yet the Twins have hung around the AL Central race to the end.

Some baseball stars hit towering home runs that make you think the ball has wings. That's not Mauer. His genius is that he never seems to miss a pitch. He just hits one line drive after another, all summer long. He has only struck out 60 times all year.

That is the kind of stat that people would be crowing about ... if he played in New York. Instead, Mauer toils in his home state of Minnesota. It's a wonderful place to visit, but you wouldn't want to launch an MVP candidacy there.

I think he'll win the MVP anyway. Joe Mauer is the best player in the American League, maybe the most valuable player in the whole sport this season -- Pujols included. His 2009 season will end in a few days. But it will also endure for years. It is the standard by which all future catchers will be judged.

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