When his twin 5-year-old daughters surprised him by joining Dad at first base for the national anthem Sunday, Joe Mauer and a ballpark full of fans shared a farewell moment that couldn’t be topped. But he did.
And when Mauer acted out the iconic batting-champ at-bat, patiently working the count, waiting for his pitch, and then lining a vintage opposite-field screaming line drive, even stretching it to a double on sheer hustle, he granted the wishes of thousands of Twins fans for one last baseball memory that he could never be improved upon. But he did.
Finally, as an announced 30,144 stood in noisy anticipation around an empty baseball diamond, Joe Mauer touched them all with a gesture so poignant, fans were openly weeping in Target Field — all that simply by wearing a chest protector. As Mauer climbed the steps out of the Twins dugout, the crowd realized he was wearing catcher’s gear once more, for the first time since concussions forced him away from the position that made him a Minnesota icon and an AL MVP.
“I’ve got a lot of emotions going on today, and I don’t think it could have gone any better,” Mauer said after the Twins closed their season — and he closed his 15-year major league career, perhaps — with a 5-4 victory over the Chicago White Sox. “You guys saw how important that moment was to me, just to have a chance to put the gear back on.”
It felt important to everybody. With the cooperation of the White Sox and the umpiring crew, the field was emptied after the final out of the eighth, and the Twins lined the top step of the dugout. After a pause while Mauer put his equipment on in the clubhouse, he emerged from the dugout and walked to home plate, seemingly buoyed by the supersonic roar of the crowd. He hadn’t worn the catcher’s gear since Aug. 19, 2013, the day one final concussion ended his catching career.
The ovation lasted for nearly five minutes, with Mauer wiping away tears and pointing to his heart as the crowd cheered. He walked toward the pitcher’s mound, then back to the plate, emotional but also uncomfortable in the spotlight alone. Finally, the rest of the Twins took the field, reliever (and close friend) Matt Belisle jogged in from the bullpen, and Mauer crouched behind the plate.
“I was just overwhelmed with joy to have an opportunity like that,” said Belisle, who had grown close to Mauer over the past two season. “I wanted to give the due diligence to wait as long as I possibly could. And just let it soak up.”
After Belisle threw a ball outside to Chicago second baseman Yoan Moncada, who had agreed not to swing, Mauer went to the mound and bearhugged Belisle as Chris Gimenez took his spot behind the plate. Mauer hugged his manager, Paul Molitor, coaches and teammates as he left the field, walking into Minnesota Twins history.
“It’s a one-run ballgame, and being a competitor, I wanted to respect the game,” Mauer said. “But I had an opportunity to do that and I didn’t think that was going to be a possibility ever. I’m glad I took that opportunity.”
So were his teammates.
“It was a great moment, and nobody deserves it more,” said pitcher Jake Odorizzi. “I can safely say there’s nobody I respect more in the game than Joe. It’s been a real pleasure.”
“It was emotional. It reflects what a lot of people feel regarding Joe,” Molitor said. “Gosh, he looks good in that gear. So it was good to see. … We pulled it off, and I thought it was beautiful.”
Mauer insists he hasn’t made up his mind about returning for a 16th season, that he will take at least a couple of weeks to let the emotions and the weariness of the season die down — “I’ll be driving [Emily and Maren] to kindergarten, starting tomorrow,” he said with a smile — but the final day of the 2018 season sure felt like goodbye.
“Either way, it’s a good decision, you know?” he said. “I can either play, or go home and be with my girls. I don’t think there’s a wrong decision there.”
Mauer’s record eight-year, $184 million contract has now expired, and the St. Paul native has to judge whether his desire to keep playing, through injury and endless hours of preparation and travel, has too.
Just in case, then, the Twins staged one of the most sentimental sendoffs possible. As the Twins took the field, with season ticket-holders waiting to greet them at each position, Mauer found his twin girls bouncing around first base, “bribed,” their father said, by their mother’s promise of a postgame gift.
Mauer received a long standing ovation as he came to bat in the first inning, and plate umpire Jim Reynolds stopped him to shake hands. Mauer grounded out to second in the first, to shortstop in the third, and flew out to left-center — on the first pitch, no less — in the fifth.
Batting with tears in your eyes isn’t easy, after all.
“There were some tough at-bats today, just with the emotions and trying to gather myself with everything that’s going on and the crowd. You probably saw me taking deep breaths; that’s kind of my mechanism to kind of lock myself in a bit, calm myself down,” Mauer said. “But to go back up there, that [final] at bat, I felt like I was locked in.”
He watched a 95-mph pitch from Juan Minaya sail wide of the plate. He fouled off one that Minaya tried to sneak inside, then waited some more. Finally, on 3-2, Minaya tried to hit the outside corner with one more fastball. Mauer whipped his bat at it and drove it, at more than 102 mph, into left-center field, a vintage Mauer line drive. He stretched the hit to a double, sliding into the bag a split second before the throw, then waved his helmet to the roaring fans.
“His at-bats were good as always, and it came down to that last at-bat. Patient,” Molitor said. “Take a borderline pitch and hit it the way he did, and hit a hustle double. Those are tough to script, and it was a moment that was meant to be.”
But what if he comes back next year? Will there be another farewell game?
“Next year at this time,” Molitor said resolutely and optimistically, “we’ll be preparing for our next game.”