Joe Mauer entered the 2010 season as Minnesota’s most popular athlete, and in a landslide. He was coming off a near-unanimous MVP selection in 2009 and a third American League batting title in the prior four seasons.
The Twins, headed into Target Field, came up with a P.R. triumph in mid-March, when Mauer agreed to an eight-year contract extension that would start in 2011.
Mauer’s swing that was grooved for power to left-center had produced 28 home runs in five months with the Metrodome as his home yard in 2009. As it turned out, those same drives were reaching the warning track in the new stadium.
There was grumbling over his lack of home runs and the penchant for having days off. It increased in volume when Mauer was given off the Sunday before the All-Star Game, then headed to Los Angeles to start that highfalutin exhibition.
On the morning of July 20, Mauer was batting .297, with four home runs and 40 RBI and had started 77 of 93 games.
There was an overcapacity crowd of 40,745 at Target Field that night. The opponent was Cleveland. Mauer had an RBI on an infield roller and a bloop double (his 28th) entering the seventh. The Twins had four straight singles to score two runs and tie the score 3-3. There was one out with Denard Span on second and Orlando Hudson on first.
I was freeloading with friends in seats behind the Twins dugout. The crowd cheered as Mauer stepped in to face lefty Rafael Perez. He tried to bunt for a hit and was thrown out by catcher Carlos Santana.
“What was that!’’ hollered … well, everyone.
Mauer’s crash-and-burn in 2011 was when his favorite-son status went kaplooey. Yet, I contend the real momentum for this started with The Bunt — a bad idea and a lost ballgame on what was supposed to be a perfect night in the new ballyard.
Note: Joe batted .378 in 54 games from July 21 to season’s end. If he can do that for a couple of months this summer, and add in playing every day, all will be forgiven.