The Backyard Rookie In St. Paul native Joe Mauer, the top pick in the 2001 draft, the Twins have a sweet-swinging young catcher ready to call the shots

March 29, 2004

The prodigy's parents are in Section 109, Row 14, right behind
home plate. Dusk is dropping on Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers,
Fla., as Jake and Teresa Mauer listen for the evening's starting
lineups. How many times, they are asked, have they done this, sat
and waited to watch one of their sons--all three of whom are in
camp with the Twins--play a baseball game? They turn to each
other and share a look, weary but proud. "That's all we do, all
summer," Teresa says. ¶ "All spring, too," Jake adds. ¶ Teresa
smiles and says, "Basically our whole lives." ¶ Tonight their
oldest son, 25-year-old Jake III, an infielder, is on the Twins'
bench. He is here just to get a taste of big league life; two weeks
from now, he will be back in minor league camp. Billy, 23, a
Class A righthander, sits with his parents in the stands.
Batting eighth and catching, the public-address announcer
bellows, is their youngest, 20-year-old Joe.

Tonight the attention of the Mauer family--Grandpa Jake, a
bartender who was the boys' day-care provider while their parents
worked, is here too--centers on Joe. He has been microscoped
since his sophomore year at Cretin-Derham Hall, a private
Catholic high school in St. Paul, when two dozen scouts began
watching him take batting practice every afternoon. "The first
day of spring training this year, there were seven TV camera
crews covering my every move," Joe says. "Pretty nuts." Whenever
Mauer arrives at or leaves the spring training complex, the same
handful of men, claiming to be fellow Minnesotans, descend on his
late-model SUV for autographs. When it is suggested to Mauer that
he rent another vehicle to make a quicker getaway, he replies, "I
can't. Not old enough."

Now the scrutiny and hounding will go nationwide. Without a major
league at bat on his statistical ledger, Mauer, the first pick in
the 2001 draft, will start at catcher for the defending two-time
American League Central champion Twins; his family has set aside
about 1,000 Opening Day tickets for friends, relatives and
acquaintances. In a budget-conscious organization that has long
depended on drafting and developing talent to stock its roster,
Mauer's burden is to replace the traded A.J. Pierzynski, a 2002
All-Star who hit .312 last season and will earn $3.5 million this
year in San Francisco. To succeed, Mauer must learn the nuances
of the Minnesota staff and the tendencies of every American
League hitter, adjust from Double A to big league pitching and
withstand the nonstop glare that will halo him throughout the
season.

By all accounts Mauer is ready. Scout-centric Baseball America
and statistically inclined Baseball Prospectus named him the
game's top prospect this spring. He appeals to proponents of
performance analysis because he displays offensive consistency
and patience: He has never batted lower than .302 or had an OBP
worse than .393 in four minor league stops, has 129 walks against
101 strikeouts over that span and last year threw out 36 of 69
runners trying to steal. Scouts love his quick hands, smooth,
compact lefthanded stroke and defensive footwork. He also has the
all-around athleticism that sets their mouths watering. (Mauer
was even offered a scholarship to play quarterback at Florida
State.)

Equally important, he handles a staff with an aplomb that belies
his inexperience. "It's pretty impressive," says Twins reliever
Joe Nathan, "that a 20-year-old can already feel so comfortable
at this level. Usually it takes all camp for a catcher to learn
what his pitchers like to do, how they set guys up. He's fast."
Mauer likes to catch side sessions for starters throwing
in-between outings, and when he's in the lineup he sits beside
his pitcher in the dugout between innings. When he's behind the
plate Mauer processes everything going on around him: Over which
shoulder does the umpire like to set up? What pitches are working
best for my pitcher tonight? Is the batter jumping at fastballs?
Where are my fielders positioned? "That's what I love about
catching," he says. "You're the guy in charge."

The bat speed and hand-eye coordination that make Mauer's swing
so potent evolved from his father's inventiveness. When Joe was
eight, Jake jerry-rigged a batting aid in the garage of the
family's three-bedroom house in St. Paul. What would come to be
called the Quickswing was a V-shaped elbow of PVC pipe on a
stand--both open ends facing the batter. A ball fed into one end
of the pipe drops out the other end a few seconds later and is
(with any luck) smacked with a bat. In short, it's a version of
the hitter's soft-toss drill that can be performed alone. "He'd
bring it to the gym three or four times a week," says Jim
O'Neill, Mauer's baseball coach at Cretin-Derham Hall, "and the
other kids couldn't come close using baseballs and bats.
Meanwhile, Joe was hitting golf balls with a piece of pipe." Now
the Mauers hope the Quickswing can become their main business
venture; a spiffed-up version, endorsed by Hall of Famer Paul
Molitor and plugged on cable commercials in the Twin Cities and
in several states, sells for $79.95 (www.mauersquickswing.com),
and the family hopes to sell as many as 30,000 units by
Christmas.

Though the Quickswing helped make Joe a superior hitter for
average, he has not yet shown power; in 1,177 minor league plate
appearances he has nine home runs, a ratio more benchwarmer than
Johnny Bench. "I'm never worried about power," says Minnesota
general manager Terry Ryan. "Joe's got a nice swing, he can hit
balls a long way, but I'm more interested in his ability to help
us win, score runs, catch a pitching staff, shut down the running
game and stay healthy. I think the power numbers will start to
show up." Says another American League G.M., "Power's the last
thing to come."

Talent evaluators and teammates uniformly praise Mauer's
maturity, but he retains a youth's passions and idols, like
Michael Jackson. "A big fan," says righthander J.D. Durbin, one
of Mauer's roommates last season at Double A New Britain (Conn.).
"He knows all the moves." It's jarring to envision Mauer--who
comports himself publicly with seriousness and sobriety, a stolid
Minnesotan--freaking in his apartment to the HIStory double
album. At the same time, it is refreshing because it is a
reminder that Mauer's skills obscure his youth, that he still, as
Durbin puts it, "dorks around."

The Mauers were, pre-signing bonus at least, a middle-class
family, Minnesotans four generations back on Teresa's side, three
on Jake's. Teresa still works full-time at Saint Patrick's Guild,
a religious-goods supplier. Jake was an engraver, and is now a
salesman working three days a week, for a trophy and award
company. "They worked a lot of hours, they sent us to private
school," says Jake III. "I can remember my dad working overtime
around Christmas to make ends meet, and he always coached our
teams." Joe used part of his $5.15 million bonus to pay off his
family's debts.

Like most every other highly touted rookie, Mauer will be heckled
mercilessly this season. He has heard it all before and is
usually oblivious to such distractions, but Teresa remembers a
game five years ago when the abuse was particularly venomous. "I
remember he came out to pitch, and his demeanor warming up was
mad," Teresa says. "I had never seen him that angry. He struck
out nine in a row and hit a home run."

That's only one of many tales about Joe Mauer's feats in St.
Paul. But now it's just backstory. On Opening Day, against the
Cleveland Indians at the Metrodome, in front of a thousand
friends and family members, Joe Mauer is expected to catch and
bat eighth for his hometown Twins. Two weeks later he'll turn 21.
And then there'll be 150 more games for Jake and Teresa to watch
him play this season.

SI.com
Complete baseball coverage, including Tom Verducci's weekly
Inside Baseball column, at si.com/baseball.

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON TRIPLE PAY The Mauer brothers--Billy (left), Joe (center and opposite) and Jake III--all draw checks from the Twins. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN

EXTRAORDINARY JOES
Four other rookies who, like Joe Mauer, could hit it big in 2004

BOBBY CROSBY, SS, Athletics, 24
This 2001 first-round draft pick (right) blossomed as a power
hitter last season, belting 22 home runs at Triple A Sacramento
while stealing 24 bases. With Crosby ready to move up, Oakland
was able to let free agent Miguel Tejada walk and use the extra
money to re-sign third baseman Eric Chavez.

ZACK GREINKE, RHP, Royals, 20
Think Bret Saberhagen. The 6'2", 190-pound baby-faced starter has
a veteran's repertoire (moving fastball that tops out in the
mid-90s, change, curve, slider) plus an easy, compact windup and
impeccable command. In 87 innings at Class A Wilmington (Del.)
last season he had a 1.14 ERA.

EDWIN JACKSON, RHP, Dodgers, 20
He owned Double A hitters last year, fanning 157 in 148 1/3
innings with a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In his big league
debut last September he beat Randy Johnson. Jackson's mid-90s
fastball and biting breaking ball have manager Jim Tracy
comparing him with a young Dwight Gooden.

ALEXIS RIOS, OF, Blue Jays, 23
This 6'5", 195-pounder won't break camp with the big club, but if
he excels in Triple A his stay in the minors could be short. At
Double A New Haven (Conn.) last year he batted .352 with an OBP
of .402 and a slugging percentage of .521. His primary need:
better discipline at the plate. --D.G.H.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)