The home clubhouse at Target Field was cold and largely empty Friday, except for a sideburned, lefthanded-hitting catcher who had just completed his latest muscle-building session designed to help him forget the 2011 season.
Joe Mauer, wearing a Gophers sweatshirt and gray sweatpants, summoned a handful of reporters -- no cameras, please -- to the ballpark to let those interested know that he's healthy, stronger and already looking ahead to 2012.
And when he says healthy, he means healthy.
"Here I am. I'm healthy. I'm happy," Mauer said. "I can rule out crazy things I've heard like Lyme disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus. I think we've heard it all. I don't have any of those things."
Mauer said he wanted to talk because he's had time to reflect on last season and think about things he wants to do differently in the future.
"I'm getting really excited for next season," he said. "I've recovered from pneumonia [which ended his season in mid-September]. I think you might be able to tell I've got my weight back. I've been working out for a couple of weeks. ... Everything looks good, and I should be ready to go Day 1 of camp."
Mauer has spent the week working out at Target Field. It's been almost a year since he had left knee surgery, which in retrospect is when his 2011 season began to go haywire.
Unable to condition properly, Mauer said he tried to make up for lost time and failed. He appeared in just 82 games, and his .287 batting average, three homers and .360 on-base percentage were career lows.
Fans looked at his stats, looked at the $23 million he made last season and seethed. Even some teammates wondered about his willingness to play injured and his work ethic
"At times. I think what surprised me a lot was a couple things out there questioning my work ethic, and that bugged me a little bit because I think guys who have been around know how hard I work and how much time I put into what I do," he said. "So that's one thing that frustrated me a little bit."
It didn't help that Mauer came down with pneumonia in September and wound up on the disabled list for the rest of the season. He visited Mayo Clinic in Rochester after the season to get the go-ahead to resume workouts. He said he's back up to his playing weight of 225 pounds and wants to report to camp at 230.
"I don't think anybody took it harder than me," Mauer said of 2011. "That's the thing. I was not a happy person last year. I was angry. I was frustrated, ultimately because I couldn't get out on the field and help my team. It's not a fun feeling coming to the park knowing you're not feeling good and that you're trying to battle every day doing the best you can."
Mauer was asked if he feels pressure to live up to expectations of fans and teammates.
"I don't think anyone has higher expectations than myself," Mauer said. "Obviously my biggest goal coming into 2012 is just to stay healthy. I think when I'm on the field things will take care of itself."
Mauer said he's not image-conscious but realizes that he should have done some things differently last season, especially when it came to articulating his health issues. He talked for 33 minutes Friday -- one of the longer media sessions of his career -- and sounded determined to be more upfront.
"I just feel that, and I've told people in the organization this, if I'm not out there playing, the fans should know why," Mauer said. "People are going to have their own opinions and you can't control that. As long as my family, my friends and the organization know what's going on that's what's important to me. You can't control what someone thinks."
Mauer, along with Twins strength and conditioning coordinator Perry Castellano, traveled to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where they spent a week learning about training techniques and nutritional adjustments that could help Mauer be in the best shape possible by the time pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 18. And even if Justin Morneau winds up being the designated hitter a significant amount of time, Mauer wants to be behind the plate as much as possible and only play first to keep his bat in the lineup on the days he needs a break from catching.
General Manager Terry Ryan, who walked into the clubhouse about halfway through Mauer's session, said he was pleased with the catcher's condition.
"The best barometer is the player himself," Ryan said. "If he feels good, then I feel good. You can talk to all the medical people you want; talk about what he's had and what's he's gone through and experienced, but if you ask the player and he tells you that he feels good, that gives you a pretty good sense things are going right."
Mauer said he accepts his role as a team leader, and toward that end has been in touch with free agent Michael Cuddyer about re-signing with the team. He's checked in with Denard Span, who told him he's feeling good after missing a large part of last season because of postconcussion syndrome. He had dinner last week with Justin Morneau.
On Saturday, Mauer will be host of a charity bowling event in Little Canada. Next week, he will head back to Fort Myers to continue workouts. He plans to reach out to new Twins teammates Jamey Carroll and Ryan Doumit in the near future.
And he will continue to build sweat equity as he distances himself from the most controversial season of his career.
"I'm excited," he said. "I feel good. Just getting after it in the gym. Once January comes around, more baseball activities. Throwing hitting, things like that. And it's exciting."