Patrick Reusse: Taking Mauer instead of Prior was a decision to be applauded

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 24, 2009 - 5:59 AM

Many complained when the Twins took Mauer instead of Mark Prior. We were wrong.

Mark Prior

Photo: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images

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Twins catcher Joe Mauer is so popular in his home state that there are ruffed grouse that will not leave him alone.

"Joe was in his deer stand the other day and this grouse started flapping around him,'' his mother, Teresa, said. "Eventually, the grouse landed in his stand and wouldn't leave. Joe didn't know what to do.''

Mauer was conducting his pursuit of venison with a bow. He said a couple of deer appeared but not within shooting distance. Why not a firearm?

"No way ... we don't want Joe in a tree with a gun,'' Teresa said.

Fear of having a three-toed catcher? His mother nodded and said, "That's it.''

For now, Mauer's a three-time batting champion, and no other catcher in the 109 years of the American League can claim one. Think about it, Joe: You have three batting titles at age 26, and the remaining 11 decades worth of regular AL catchers have zero.

"It's very hard to get my head around that one,'' said Mauer, and then added: "When all is said and done, I want to be looked at as a great teammate and a great player.''

Mauer has worked rapidly to build such a legacy, and another stride was taken Monday when it was announced that he had gained a landslide victory as the Most Valuable Player.

He joins Mickey Cochrane (1934), Yogi Berra (1951-54-55), Elston Howard (1963), Thurman Munson (1976) and Pudge Rodriguez (1999) as the sixth individual AL catcher to win an MVP in 79 seasons of the award.

Certainly, Mauer's ability to gain 27 of 28 first-place votes -- and to do so three years after teammate Justin Morneau was voted the MVP -- gives lie to the idea that ballplayers stuck out here on the prairie don't get proper attention.

This is an award for all Twins followers to celebrate, and also for tens of thousands to feel foolish.

There were those of us who suggested the Twins had erred by not selecting Mark Prior, the Southern Cal pitcher, over Mauer, about to graduate from Cretin-Derham Hall High School, with the first selection in the 2001 June draft.

We accused the Twins of choosing to save money with the local kid, rather than accede to Prior's enormous demands. Terry Ryan, then the baseball boss, said this was erroneous -- that the Twins took Mauer because they saw him as the best player in a high-quality draft.

It is a tribute to Mr. Ryan's class that he doesn't ask, "What do you think of Prior versus Mauer now?'' every time that we run into him.

Prior had early success and flamed out with shoulder problems. He won his last game in the big leagues Aug. 5, 2006. On that day, Mauer was hitting .365 on his way to a first batting title. And .365 is what Mauer batted this season in winning his third.

You betcha, we members of the draft-Prior crowd were morons, although no more so than the naïve media types and masses of civilians insisting the wise course for the Twins was to move Mauer from behind the plate.

This was an overreaction to injuries that cost Mauer most of his 2004 rookie season and a hunk of 2007. He also had a back problem during the last offseason, and it took until the end of spring training to find the proper treatment.

The "Move Joe'' crowd was in its glory during Mauer's April absence. Then he showed up in the Metrodome on May 1, hit a home run on his first swing, and put up gaudy numbers while serving as an ironman catcher.

What people always have missed during their lobbying for Mauer's transfer was the fact productive hitters -- the Craig Biggios -- that changed positions in their 20s did so because they were mediocre catchers.

A baseball operation would have to be run by rockheads to move a great catcher -- and Mauer is that -- as long as his skills behind the plate remain near their zenith. This is the game's most important playing position, and the Twins are blessed with the game's best.

And one more thing: Joe Mauer officially became an MVP on Monday precisely because he's a tremendous catcher with large offensive numbers. Put him somewhere on the field less vital, and he gets beat out by one Yankee (Mark Teixeira) and maybe a second (Derek Jeter).

Patrick Reusse can be heard 5:30-9 a.m. weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP. • preusse@startribune.com

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