Joe Mauer had a major announcement to make in the morning. Rumors were circulating that he would pick Florida State as his college choice. So I called his home number for an interview.
In his typical Gentleman Joe tone, Mauer apologized and asked if we could talk later. He was studying for a test.
True to his word, he called back later that night after finishing his homework.
That was 17½ years ago, and that memory remains fresh because that’s how I will remember Joe Mauer’s athletic career. Not the middle or the end, but its beginning stages.
I was hired by this newspaper in early January 2000 to cover high school sports. I learned during my interview about a talented multisport athlete at Cretin-Derham Hall. You’ll probably write a lot about him, someone mentioned.
Yeah, just a little.
Being assigned to chronicle Mauer’s high school athletic career still stands as one of the highlights of my writing career. Minnesotans love to debate whether Mauer ranks as the state’s best athlete ever. My slightly different view: He is the best all-around athlete that I’ve witnessed in nearly three decades of covering sports for newspapers in six different states.
And it’s not close.
As a senior, he was named Gatorade National Player of the Year in football. He was chosen all-state in basketball. And he was the No. 1 overall pick in the Major League Baseball amateur draft.
In an era of sports specialization, Mauer didn’t just play three sports. Some viewed him as the best player nationally in two sports and he could’ve played Division I basketball in his “third” sport.
“I loved every minute of it,” he said Monday at his retirement news conference.
He loved to reminisce about those days, too. Over the years, our conversations at spring training or in the Twins clubhouse often veered back to his high school career, specific games and players that he competed with and against.
In an interview seven years after he graduated, Mauer hadn’t forgotten that former Wayzata star Marion Barber III intercepted him three times in high school. Not just remembered, Mauer dissected each interception in specific detail.
“[One] was an out pattern to Tony Leseman,” Mauer recalled. “I was on the fifth step of my drop. I saw Barber make a break, so I tried to throw it low and away. He dove for it and was parallel to the ground. It was a pretty impressive play.”
Again, seven years after the fact.
Mauer’s laid-back, humble personality masked a fiercely competitive streak. His mom, Teresa, found him lounging on the couch at home the day of the football state championship game. She checked his pulse.
“I had to make sure he was still breathing,” she joked. “There were a lot of days like that.”
And a lot of memorable performances. Too many to list. He threw game-winning touchdowns, made game-winning shots and struck out only once in 222 career high school at-bats.
A few of my personal favorites:
Mauer passed for 327 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Wayzata in the big-school state semifinals as a senior.
In the semifinals of the state basketball tournament that year, he posted 25 points, eight rebounds and five assists in a loss to Osseo.
His finest baseball moment came in the state semifinals against Brainerd that year. He hit a game-tying three-run homer in the fifth inning, then pitched the final five innings to earn the win. He struck out nine, only allowed one hit and reached 91 miles per hour on the radar gun.
“That was the moment where I was like, ‘Wow, we’re watching someone develop into a pretty special deal,’ ” said Leseman, who remains Mauer’s closest friend.
Everyone knew it, especially watching him glide from one sport to the next. Football season would conclude and boom, he’s scoring 25 points in a basketball game. Basketball finished and boom, he’s hitting rockets to the gap in baseball.
He made everything look effortless. And he displayed no ego doing it. Just the opposite. His personality was so unassuming as a teenage prodigy that you’d have thought he was a backup on the JV team.
Mauer laid bare his soul at Monday’s retirement news conference in a way the public rarely, if ever, witnessed throughout his Twins career. Normally stoic, his emotions and tears came pouring out.
His legacy will be a matter of personal perspective. For some, the focus might be his MVP season. Or that sweet, perfect swing. Or his contract. Or his unfortunate injuries. Or that he was a genuinely nice and classy guy.
Me? I’ll always reflect back on the beginning, when I took a new job in a new state and had the good fortune to write about a kid who could do anything.