The Perfect Catch

Humble, hardworking and handsome, Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer is the ideal hometown hero, and he's poised to make history at a position that hasn't seen another quite like him
August 06, 2006

When the MinnesotaTwins play on TV, Jake Mauer Sr. draws the shades at his house on Big GooseLake, 35 miles north of Minneapolis, and settles into a chair three feet fromhis 56-inch TV screen. Macular degeneration has robbed him of much of hisvision, but by turning his head just so, he can, with his peripheral vision,see his grandson Joe step up to the plate. If Jake sees Joe overstriding orcarrying his bat too low, he snaps photos on his digital camera and calls himlater, with comments. However, Jake adds proudly, he rarely sees flaws; what hesees is "the greatest hitter I ever saw--and I saw Ted Williams." Inshort he sees the young man he helped raise in a St. Paul neighborhood sevenmiles from the Metrodome. "I watch Joe, and I see myself so much, I couldcry," says Jake, now 75. "The way he is, that's the way I should havebeen."

Jake had his shotin the early 1950s. A lefthanded hitter with power who played shortstop andthird base, he was supposed to be better than his three older brothers, all ofwhom played in the high minor leagues. But his time with the White Sox' Class Aaffiliate in Colorado Springs was brief. His performance was hobbled by anoverly enthusiastic social life, and his career ended with a knee injury afterfour months. "I thought I could play ball and drink and party and chasewomen, but it catches up to you," says Jake. "I've harped on that withJoe: Don't make the same mistakes I made. Focus on playing the game. Focus onbeing the best player you can be."

So behold JoeMauer at 23, not yet the best player he can be, but already nearly as good asit gets (box, page 54). Aside from being baseball's leading hitter  (.368at week's end), one of the best defensive catchers in the league, an All-Starand one of the biggest reasons the once wayward Twins had won 35 of their last45 through Sunday, he is humble, hardworking and handsome, the Minnesotan idealof a hometown hero. "If you are going to model yourself after a player, 95percent of what you want to be about is right there in Joe Mauer," saysTwins batting coach Joe Vavra. "There are so many things he possesses thatyou wish the rest of the kids in the country had."

Take, forinstance, his success at the plate. If he can keep up the pace he has set thissummer (.376 since June 1) the lefthanded hitter could become first AL catcherto win a batting title. (No catcher has won a title since Ernie Lombardi of theBoston Braves batted .330 in 1942.) He could also set a new standard in themajors. No catcher has ever hit more than .362 in the modern era, with goodreason. The position is so demanding mentally and so punishing physically thathitting is sometimes an afterthought. With the wear and tear from foul tips,collisions at the plate and that infernal crouch, it's little wonder thatoffensively prolific catchers--even at his young age, Mauer included--arefrequently mentioned as candidates for an eventual position switch (see: Torre,Joe; Piazza, Mike).

Mauer can hitrighties (.372) and lefties (.359), he can find the gap in defensive shifts,and he can spray the ball all over the field. His other gifts are legion. Afterpraising Mauer's size (6'4", 220 pounds), hands, arm, demeanor, patience atthe plate (he leads the team in walks, with 48), handling of the staff,game-calling savvy, athleticism, upbringing and unfailing good manners, Twinsmanager Ron Gardenhire pauses. "It's kind of hard talking about him,"he says, "because you're throwing so many accolades at a really youngplayer, but we haven't figured out anything bad about him."

Neither haveopponents. "Offensively, he has no weakness," says Tampa Bay Devil Raysmanager Joe Maddon. "Defensively, he is one of the best catchers in theleague. I think when God made his blueprint for catchers, he stamped Joeout."

The only knock onehears about Mauer, who has just eight homers, is that he lacks power. "Someguys, it's not in their makeup to let it fly like that," says Gardenhire."Joe does every once in a while, but when you have a natural swing likethat, you leave him alone and let him be a baseball player."

That swing wasboth discovered and nurtured by Grandpa Jake when Joe was still in diapers.Widowed at age 48 in 1979, Grandpa Jake lived with the family of his onlychild, Jake Jr. He tended bar at night and provided day care for Joe and hisolder brothers, Jake III and Billy, while their parents worked. "He waslike a second father to us," says Joe. Grandpa Jake changed the boys'diapers, made their peanut butter sandwiches and preached the virtues ofhitting. "If you can hit," he'd say, "they'll always find a placefor you." He tried to get the older boys to emulate his style and hitlefthanded, but they wouldn't bite. "Then one day Joe [then a toddler]picked up a plastic bat lefthanded and whacked a little beach ball," saysGrandpa Jake. "I said, 'Ho-leee! We have a lefthander!' His brothers triedto get him to hit righthanded, but I told them to leave him alone."

Mauer, who throwsright and signs--and signs and signs--autographs right, honed his swing byspending countless hours in the family basement swatting a skinny 32-inch steelpipe at Wiffle balls and golf balls dropped through a coffee-can-and-PVC-pipedevice his dad invented when Joe was nine. Besides giving the boys a quick,compact stroke, the device, which Jake Jr. now markets as Mauer's Quickswing(quickswing.com), kept them "away from Nintendo," says Joe's mother,Teresa, and beyond the grasp of trouble they were unlikely to go looking foranyway.

"We alwaystold the boys, You are related to or know half of St. Paul, so if you screw up,we'll hear about it," says Teresa.

The half of St.Paul that didn't know Mauer when he was growing up certainly knows him now."Anywhere we go out, people come up to the table, asking for autographs orsaying hi," says his housemate Twins first baseman Justin Morneau."It's always, 'You went to school with my cousin's friend,' or 'Do you knowso-and-so?' Somehow he's connected to every single person in Minneapolis andSt. Paul."

In 2004, afterMauer tore the meniscus in his left knee in the second game of his rookie year,an injury that limited him to 35 games for the season, three differentstrangers knocked on his parents' door with offers to heal their son withoutsurgery. One guy said he could do it with "the power of sugars." "Ihad already had surgery, so I will never know," says Mauer, evercharitable, about the sugar cure. "They were just trying to help. They justwant to see me do well."

You can't blamethe residents of St. Paul for feeling a special attachment to Mauer. His familywas already well-known among local sports fans before he hit it big: Aside fromthe four boys from Jake Sr.'s generation who played minor league ball, severalof Joe's relatives played in college, and some are coaches or officials.(Grandpa Jake's nephew Ken Mauer is an NBA ref.) Teresa (née Tierney) playedthree sports at St. Paul's Central High, and her sister Jean was a softballAll-America at Creighton and the first female student-athlete inducted intothat school's Athletics Hall of Fame. Jake III and Billy played in the Twins'farm system for a few years until injuries ended their careers.

Joe's career atCretin-Derham High was something straight out of Chip Hilton. For the sake ofbrevity, we'll boil it down: He was a two-time All-State guard in basketball,and USA Today's national player of the year in football and baseball as asenior in '01, the first athlete to pull off that double.

In February 2001,after passing for 3,022 yards and 41 TDs and only five interceptions in hissenior year, Mauer signed a letter of intent with Florida State. Four monthslater the Twins made him the top pick of the draft and gave him a $5.15 millionsigning bonus. "He had composure under pressure, a great arm and naturalinstincts you don't often see in high school quarterbacks," says respectedcollege football recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. "If he had stayed incollege football, [I wouldn't be surprised] if he ended up having the same kindof success Tom Brady is having now."

Shortly afterMauer signed with the Twins, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden wrote him aletter promising that his scholarship would still be there if he ever changedhis mind. (Mauer has no reason to doubt this: In 1997, seven years afterCretin-Derham grad Chris Weinke turned down Florida State to pursue a baseballcareer with the Toronto Blue Jays, Bowden gave him a scholarship. In 1999Weinke led the Seminoles to a national title, and the following year he won theHeisman Trophy.)

A return to thegridiron seems unlikely now, what with things on the diamond "going prettygood," as Mauer puts it with typical understatement. Indeed, things aregoing so well for him that it's easy to forget the criticism the Twins receivedwhen they drafted Mauer ahead of USC pitcher Mark Prior, whose $10 million tagwas deemed excessive by the Minnesota front office. It didn't take Mauer longto justify the Twins' faith, however. After a brief tour of the minors, with afinal stop at Double A New Britain, Mauer was declared major league ready atthe end of the '03 season. His quick progress allowed the Twins to tradecatcher A.J. Pierzynski to the San Francisco Giants for three pitchers:reliever Joe Nathan and prospects Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser. As Giantsfans continue to rue arguably the worst trade in their club's history, Nathanis having a career year (22 saves, 0.84 WHIP), while Liriano, the Rookie of theYear favorite, is having an even better season (12--2, 1.96 ERA).

But Mauer, whoaccounts for nearly a quarter of the Twins' named or numbered T-shirt sales,remains the fan favorite, a player so adored that fake versions of hissideburns, the distinctive two-inch rectangles that bracket his face, havestarted appearing in the stands. The Twins have encouraged the trend in a TVspot that tweaks the Mean Joe Greene Coke ad from the '70s. In the Twins'version a fan tells Mauer, "Hey, Joe, great game. Are you thirsty?" andhands him a bottle of water. After glancing at the Twins jersey on hisshoulder, Mauer instead yanks off his sideburns and sticks them on theenthralled kid's face. (Mauer didn't want to shave off his sideburns for thecommercial, so Jake III served as his bared-jawline double.) The Twins, whoheld a Joe Mauer Bobblehead Day in '05 and a Joe Mauer Bat Day in July, havescheduled a Joe Mauer Sideburn Day for Aug. 10. The first 10,000 fans in linewill get a pair of fake sideburns.

Short of anill-advised shave, it's hard to envision what Mauer could do to derail hispopularity or his career. He has little interest in the nightlife that hisgrandfather--"a 21-year-old stuck in a 75-year-old's body," Joe sayswith affection--still embraces. Mauer likes to unwind by watching movies andmusic videos, and he prefers to meet women through his friends. Recently, thesister of the wife of Jon Pridie, a Double A teammate of Mauer's, set him upwith Chelsea Cooley of North Carolina, who is also known as Miss USA 2005.Mauer says that the two are dating as their schedules allow, though heemphasizes that they are "still in the getting-to-know-each-otherstage."

As for gambling,the activity that sustains his grandfather--Jake Sr. has been writing andselling $2 tip sheets at Canterbury Park outside the Twin Cities for the past22 years--"Joe hates it," says Grandpa Jake. At a recent familygathering Joe played a few hands of cards, recalls Billy, "but after losingfive or 10 bucks, he got up and said, 'That's it, I'm done.' He was mad therest of the night. I don't know if it's that he hates to lose money or that hejust hates to lose."

Mauer is widelyadmired in the Twins clubhouse for his even temperament, but his laid-backnature hasn't always served him well. "Earlier this year he was realtentative," says Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson. "In meetings withpitchers he'd say, 'I think we could do this or I think we should do that.'After a couple of those meetings, I said, 'Joe, I want you to be forceful. Ifyou want the ball in the dirt, tell them you want the ball in the dirt!' So inthe next meeting he said, 'If you get ahead, I want the ball in the dirt, andI'll block it.' I kind of sat back and giggled, because it was a totalchange."

"He isdifferent than last year, and that's good," says the Twins' ace, JohanSantana, who struggled with Mauer at times last season. "He is takingcharge more than in the past. He still has things to improve as far as knowingthe league, but as time goes on, he'll get better and better."

Grandpa Jakethinks his grandson will improve on the offensive side too. "When the Twinsdrafted Joe, I said he was going to be your next .400 hitter," he says."Maybe not this year, but when he develops, and he sees different pitcherscoming around and knows what the hell is going on, Joe Mauer is going to hit.400."

Thanks in part toJoe, Grandpa Jake may be around to see such a feat. While vacationing in FortMyers, where the Twins hold spring training, in January, Grandpa Jake missed atee time and complained of chest pains when he spoke with Jake Jr. When Joe andJake III, who were staying at Joe's condo nearby, found out, they brought overthe Twins' doctors, who persuaded Grandpa to go to the hospital. Within twohours Grandpa was undergoing emergency quadruple bypass surgery. "If ithadn't been for my grandsons, I would probably be passed away," saysGrandpa. "They gave me another life."

Mauer wasn'tthrough giving his grandfather moments to cherish. For this year's All-StarGame he flew Grandpa Jake and his girlfriend, Marlene Wardell, first-class toPittsburgh, put them up at the players' hotel and gave them unlimited use of alimo as well as a police escort to the game. "Grandpa always said he wantedto sit in the third row of Yankee Stadium with a cigar in his mouth watching usplay," says Mauer. "I tried to get him to New York last year, but itdidn't work out. The All-Star Game seemed like the next best thing."

Sitting behindhome plate in PNC Park, Grandpa Jake couldn't see beyond the infield, but itdidn't matter. "They were the best three days of my life," he says,still giddy a week later. "Seeing Joe come out of the dugout to get behindhome plate in the fifth inning, that was the highlight of the trip. I'm gettingto live my life again through Joe. And, boy, what a life it is."

SI.COM

Power rankings for the Twins and the other 29 majorleague teams at SI.com/baseball.

"I watch Joe, and I see myself so much, I couldcry," says Jake, now 75. "The way he is, that's the way I should havebeen."

"Offensively, he has no weaknesses," saysMaddon. "I think when God made his blueprint for catchers, he stampedJoe out."

PHOTOPhotograph by Ron Vesely HIGH-AVERAGE JOE
In addition to being one of the league's top defensive catchers, Mauer iswell-positioned to become the first AL catcher to win a battingtitle.
PHOTORON VESELY PHOTOTOM KIMMELL HOMEMADE
Joe was an SI FACE IN THE CROWD in 2000 (above), and the Mauers (from left,Teresa, Jake and Jake Jr.) are household names around the TwinCities.
PHOTOVINCENT MUZIK[See Caption Above] PHOTOERIC MILLER/REUTERS HEATINGUP
The Twins got off to a cold start, but Mauer's hot stick (.452 in June) helpedtrigger a run of .778 ball since June 8.
PHOTOVINCENT MUZIK[See Caption Above] PHOTOTOM DAHLINGOODCALL
Mauer's quick development allowed the Twins to pursue the deal that ultimatelylanded them the red-hot Liriano.

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)