There is a cover from a Baseball America edition framed in the dining room at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, Fla. It is from June 2001 and a wide-eyed Joe Mauer takes up most of the page, wearing a crisp white uniform with “Raiders’’ in blue script across the front.
“HOMETOWN HERO’’ is the big headline, with the subhead “Twins Make Local Product No. 1.” The Raiders were Cretin-Derham Hall, of course, where Mauer was a three-sport star.
This was the era when there was no limit on the overall money a team could spend on draft choices. The Twins were ridiculed for taking Mauer over Southern Cal pitcher Mark Prior, allegedly because Joe was cheaper.
Point A: Mauer had the option of playing football at Florida State as the nation’s No. 1 quarterback recruit, and he didn’t come cheap — a $5.5 million signing bonus.
Point B: General Manager Terry Ryan was stating the truth in saying the 18-year-old catcher with an amazing ability to hit a baseball was the Twins’ top-rated player in the draft.
Prior was phenomenal for the Cubs in 2003. Then, he ran into a series of injuries and last pitched in the big leagues in 2006.
Twelve years later, Mauer is ready to make his 14th Opening Day start on March 29 in Baltimore. Nine of those were at catcher from 2004 to 2013, and this will be his fifth at first base.
The one Opening Day that he missed was in 2009, as he was recovering from a back problem. He returned on May 1 and put together a season that was unfathomable for a catcher:
A third batting title with a .365 average, 28 home runs, 96 RBI, and 27 of the 28 first-place votes in winning the American League’s MVP award.
Mauer would turn 27 early in the 2010 season, and he also could become a free agent at the end of the year. The Twins were opening Target Field, and baseball fans back home celebrated when it was announced in Florida in March that Mauer had agreed to an eight-year, $184 million contract that would start in 2011.
That start coincided with rough times for the Twins and often for Mauer, and he became the favored whipping boy from a disillusioned sporting public, and also took many shots in the local media.
He had a good year in 2012, getting 545 at-bats with a .319 average, and then was doing well in 2013 until short-circuited with a serious concussion. That moved him to first in 2014, and the averages went down and the power production remained minimal.
Always a proponent of soft-spoken clichés, Joe became more reticent with the media. If you saw him at all when the clubhouse doors were open, you could get a smile in a brief conversation but there didn’t seem to be much joy.
Out of nowhere, the Twins rose up in 2017 to make a serious push for a wild-card spot, and Mauer took a lead role in the post-victory celebrations as the distributor of game balls.
He would put two baseballs in his back pockets, and say: “Lot of candidates, boys, lot of candidates’’ — saying it so regularly that it became a battle cry for the 2017 Twins.
Sometimes, the recipients were obvious, but he also would pick out a long reliever who got the Twins out of a mess in the fifth, or a staff member. Carlos Font, then in media relations and also the Spanish interpreter, received a game ball for doing such a fine job in translating the scouting report for starter Adalberto Mejia after one of the lefty’s better efforts.
Finally, after a big game for Joe, he awarded the first game ball, took out the second, looked around and said, “The heck with it; I’m keeping this one.”
By all accounts, St. Paul Joe was looser than ever in that clubhouse, even back when he was hitting .365 and was high on the list of the most popular players in baseball.
Reporters have been able to observe that all through this spring training — so much so that both for attitude and alliteration, I have declared that for Mauer, entering the last season of that celebrated contract, there’s only one acceptable moniker:
He’s “Jovial Joe,’’ with 1,731 games played, 1,986 hits, a career average of .308 and on-base of .391, and a ballplayer who has lived up to the highest standards for a No. 1 overall selection and a hometown hero.