The conference call had begun, and a voice in New York was slowly and deliberately taking roll, making sure each major league team was connected, could hear clearly, and was ready to start. The 2001 MLB draft was about to begin, and the Twins still didn’t have an answer.
“Cleveland … ready. Colorado … ready. Detroit … ready,” the voice over the speaker phone squawked into a large, windowless conference room in the basement of the Metrodome, the volume cranked to be heard over the clatter of the stadium kitchen in the next room. Nearly two dozen Twins scouts and supervisors were gathered in the “dungeon,” as they called it, with white-erase boards lining the walls and scouting reports spread out on the table. Air conditioning sporadically kicked on to circulate the air, heavy with the smell of fryer grease.
Joel Lepel, the Twins’ Midwest scouting supervisor, walked into the room as the roll call neared its end, having just listened in on one final round of last-ditch phone calls. As General Manager Terry Ryan and assistant GM Wayne Krivsky walked in behind him, Lepel looked at scouting director Mike Radcliff, sitting at the head of the table in front of the phone, and shook his head. No deal.
“Take who you want,” Lepel said.
Radcliff looked around the room. He looked at Ryan, who had already given his blessing. He looked at the other assembled scouts, some who agreed with him, some who did not. “I know some guys weren’t sure what I was going to say,” Radcliff says now.
The roll call ended just after noon, and the disembodied voice on the line said the draft would now begin.
“Minnesota has the first pick,” it said, and then paused, waiting.
Radcliff leaned forward and hit the “talk” button on the speaker.
Joe Mauer stood impatiently in his parents’ bedroom. There was a party about to start downstairs in the Mauers’ St. Paul home, where a couple of dozen of his Cretin-Derham Hall teammates, mostly his fellow seniors, had gathered, and the 18-year-old ballplayer was eager to join them. They had to make this quick, after all, because they had an important baseball game to play that afternoon, the Section 3 championship against Woodbury.
They just needed to know what they were celebrating.
“We really didn’t know what was going to happen at that point,” Mauer said. “The Twins called right before the draft, like 10 [minutes] to noon, and said they were talking about an agreement with somebody [else], but we want you, and here’s [the bonus] we want you for. And my parents were like, ‘Well, that’s not what we talked about.’ And when they hung up, we just looked at each other. I was like, ‘So is that it?’ “
Just five miles away, the Twins were poised to make their selection, but there was no TV show back then, no pick-by-pick breakdown. Just a couple of years earlier, MLB and some media outlets had begun posting draft results on the internet, but until recently, most players didn’t know they had been drafted until their new team called to inform them.
“My agents, advisors at the time, had been talking to us that morning. They thought the Twins might still take me anyway. We just didn’t know,” Mauer said. “About 10 minutes after the draft started, [agents Ron Shapiro and Michael Maas] called back and said they hadn’t heard anything. ‘We don’t know what’s going to happen,’ they told us. And while we’re talking, Michael all of a sudden says, ‘Hey, it says on the internet that you were taken No. 1!’ And that’s how I found out. Just someone happened to see it online, while I’m standing in my parents’ bedroom.”
Mauer pauses at the memory. “It’s a little different today,” he said.
He’s absolutely right about that. In eight days, the Twins will exercise the overall No. 1 pick once again, for the third time in their history. The player they select surely will be watching the national TV broadcast, might even be in MLB Network’s Secaucus, N.J., studios to revel in his status. He’ll shake the commissioner’s hand, be interviewed by former ballplayers, and watch highlights of his amateur career.
But whoever the Twins choose, he probably won’t go 4-for-4 that day and lead his team into the state quarterfinals.
“That made the day perfect. We ended up 10-running them [in a 13-3 win] at old Midway Stadium and got to celebrate again,” Mauer said. “It was a lot of fun.”
Baseball still is for Mauer, and that’s one thing that hasn’t changed: Sixteen years later, he’s still in the lineup most days for the team that drafted him.
In fact, Mauer is one of the great success stories not only in Minnesota draft history, but of the draft overall. Of the 52 players who have been chosen as the overall top pick, only three, as measured by baseball-reference.com’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR), have had more productive and successful careers than the three-time batting champion, six-time all-star and 2009 Most Valuable Player: Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones and Ken Griffey Jr., the latter a Hall of Famer and the other two possessing Cooperstown-worthy résumes.
Yet the “Matt Christopher Sports Classic” quality to Mauer’s career-long tenure with his hometown team has largely obscured a few facts about that draft choice: It almost didn’t happen, the Twins were roasted by critics and scouts when it did, and it probably wouldn’t happen today.
“The timing of it all is pretty remarkable,” Radcliff said. “To have a kid this talented, from right down the street, enter the draft in the one year we happen to have the top pick — you could never plan that. You couldn’t imagine it.”
A lot of people at the time couldn’t imagine the Twins choosing Mauer, though. In most baseball drafts, there isn’t a clear-cut top pick, and the Twins say there isn’t one this year. There was in 2001, though.
Mark Prior was a righthanded pitcher at Southern California, and had dominated collegiate baseball like few before him. He led the Pac-10 in win, strikeouts, ERA and opponent batting average, and amassed a host of national player of the year awards, including USA Baseball’s Golden Spikes. He was mature on and off the mound, “about as much of a sure thing, no-brainer as any pitcher you’ve ever scouted,” Radcliff said. “He had near-perfect mechanics, his fastball and breaking ball were both strikeout pitches, the best in years. People were saying he could be in the big leagues in about five minutes, and he almost was.”
Prior was such a certain star, though, he and his father believed he should be paid like an established one. A San Diego native, Prior hired Tony Gwynn’s agent, John Boggs, as his unofficial “advisor” (since amateurs technically were not allowed to employ agents), and Boggs let it be known that Prior wanted a major league contract and a spot on the 40-man roster, not a standard minor league deal that most draftees sign, and he expected it to guarantee him far more than the $7 million that the Marlins had given high school pitcher Josh Beckett two years earlier.
“Early on in the process, they let us know that they were looking for $10 million and probably more,” Radcliff said, “and they really didn’t want us to pick Mark.”
Undeterred, Twins scouts began compiling information and comparing notes. Ryan sat in on almost every scouting meeting that spring, and he ended nearly every one by going around the room again, reviewing the various opinions about the No. 1. Any new tidbit or daily report was discussed and incorporated; Radcliff estimates the Twins analyzed the top candidates several dozen times.
They attended nearly every one of Prior’s 18 starts for the Trojans (he went 15-1) and looked in vain for flaws. While in California, most of the Twins’ supervisors and cross-checkers also drove across town to see UCLA’s ace, Josh Karp, who briefly broke into their top-pick consideration. They investigated Dewon Brazelton, a hard-throwing righthander at Middle Tennessee State. They fell in love with Mark Teixeira, the Georgia Tech third baseman who everyone agreed was the draft’s top collegiate hitter.
“That’s what you normally do up high, take college hitters. You can project them. They’re pretty close to risk-free,” Radcliff said. “Teixeira looked like the safest bet. He stayed in our top three all spring.”
Through it all, there was Mauer, his case growing stronger and stronger as he kept improving. The Twins’ first-look reports dated back three years, and included his summer playing for the U.S. Junior National team after his sophomore season, invaluable exposure to higher quality pitching and competition than was getting in most high school games. Mauer batted over .500 his senior season, and legendarily struck out only once in his four Cretin-Derham Hall seasons.
That he was a local kid made for convenience — the Twins scouted Mauer’s football games, too, and Radcliff recalls attending a CDH basketball game — but the Twins insist his evaluations had nothing to do with his address. They glowed because of one unmistakable factor.
“The swing. It’s the best swing I’ve ever seen by an amateur. Smooth, technical, balanced — an almost perfect baseball swing. I didn’t see Ted Williams, but I’ve never seen anybody square the ball up every time he swung, like Joe did,” Radcliff said, recalling the reports he filed. “On top of that, he was athletic and a catcher with a double-plus arm, double-plus glove. ARod [received] the highest number I’ve ever put on a high school guy overall, but Joe’s swing graded higher.”
The Twins weren’t the only organization salivating over the teenage prodigy, though. Mauer was also the top-rated prep quarterback in the nation, the only athlete ever to win USA Today’s player of the year honors in two sports, and football recruiters swarmed St. Paul to seduce him. Scholarship offers came in by the bunches, but Mauer had a firm criteria that eliminated all but a few: He wanted to play baseball, too.
“There were some colleges that said, we really want you but we can’t do the dual thing. Well, that’s not going to happen. Baseball had to be in the equation,” Mauer recalled. He narrowed his choices to the University of Miami, which had just gone 11-1 in football, won the Sugar Bowl and finished ranked No. 2; Florida State, which had just lost the national championship game and Heisman-winning quarterback Chris Weinke, a fellow Cretin-Derham Hall product; and Minnesota, the hometown university eager to keep him in town.
His visit to Tallahassee made up his mind: He’d be a Seminole. “To be honest, [coach] Bobby Bowden and [offensive coordinator] Mark Richt were really big in my decision,” he explained. “And I wanted a college experience. Minnesota would have been fun, too — I would have played with [Gophers running backs] Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney — but Florida State and Tallahassee just felt right. I was very impressed. I could see myself enjoying that.”
As his baseball games continued to be scouted by all 30 teams, though, it became clear he had a tough choice ahead. He and his family ultimately decided that if he was chosen among the top five picks in the MLB draft, and received an appropriate contract, he would give up football.
“When I was being recruited, Bobby said, ‘I want you to be a Seminole, but I’m going to go out and recruit quarterbacks.’ I said, ‘You can get whoever you want, but if I come down there, I’m going to play.’ He liked that,” Mauer said.
When he was drafted by the Twins and chose to turn pro, Bowden wrote him a letter of congratulations.
“He was so terrific. He told me he’d hold on to my scholarship, like he did [for] Chris Weinke,” Mauer said. “When we spoke on the phone, he said, ‘Boy, I wish you the best of luck. I’m happy for you. But I hope you can’t hit a curveball.”
Turns out, he could. Mauer said he still occasionally wonders where a football career might have led. But he knows he made the right choice, even if he took grief from rabid Seminoles fan Doug Mientkiewicz for years.
“I had some really good options. But I always wanted to play baseball and make the big leagues,” Mauer said. “I couldn’t put anything ahead of that.”
That’s not, however, what he told the Twins.
With their draft board narrowed to three — and really, two, once Teixeira broke his right ankle when he caught his cleat during a slide, costing him more than two months — the Twins turned to the only part of the draft more difficult than identifying the best player: Signing him. There were no limits to signing bonuses in those days, beyond what an owner was willing to pay, and the cost of top picks had escalated rapidly in the 1990s. The Yankees stunned the industry just three years earlier by paying Michigan quarterback Drew Henson $17 million to give up football.
Most teams at the top of the draft liked to informally agree to a figure before taking a player, a procedure that had become far more difficult as salaries inflated. By now, it had become routine for negotiations to drag on until the final minutes before MLB’s signing deadline three months after the draft, with some players choosing to turn down offers and enroll in college.
The Twins knew that danger well. Their only other overall No. 1, righthander Tim Belcher in 1983, had refused to sign what he (and his young attorney, Scott Boras) considered a below-market contract, only the second time in the draft’s history that a team failed to land their player.
“We knew the history,” Radcliff said. “It was important that we not get shut out, but that’s true every year.”
There were other considerations, too. Twins’ owner Carl Pohlad felt an obligation, he told his employees, to hold the line against rapid salary inflation, that he owed it to the industry not to be part of what he considered an increasing threat to the game. It’s also true that the Twins were busy lobbying the state legislature and local government for a new stadium, and though they denied that it was a consideration, headlines announcing a $10 million contract to an amateur player may have derailed the Twins’ position that they were a frugal, if underfunded, organization.
Still, the Twins tried to open negotiations with representatives of both Prior and Mauer, and there was a feeling that the Twins would choose whichever one agreed to a contract. It became apparent rather quickly, though, that it wasn’t going to happen.
Ryan’s talks with Prior got off to a bad start when the pitcher’s father, Jerry, was insulted at the notion that the Twins might have other players, and in particular a high school catcher, rated roughly equally to his celebrated son. The elder Prior blew up at Twins officials during one meeting.
“He said, ‘What do you mean ‘if’ we’re the best guy? We’re obviously the best guy. There’s no doubt we’re the best. What are you talking about?’ “ Radcliff recalled. “He thought we were absolutely nuts to think someone else was Mark’s equal.”
Those phone calls grew increasingly contentious, especially as it became clear that the Twins’ intention was to spend closer to the $3 million Boggs negotiated from Texas for Adrian Gonzalez, the previous year’s No. 1, than Prior’s eight-figure ambitions.
Meanwhile, the Twins were having much more pleasant conversations with the Mauers. Ryan and his staff visited the family’s St. Paul home several time, and Joe’s mom, Teresa, even offered homemade cookies. But the answer was pretty much the same: No.
“He had the leverage of that Florida State scholarship, and he had a sharp agent who knew how to negotiate,” said Radcliff, now the Twins vice president of player personnel. “They weren’t giving us any discounts.”
During the final weekend before the draft, Ryan tried to increase the pressure, but neither side capitulated. The Twins called Brazelton’s agent, and let that news leak, in hopes of gaining leverage. The night before the draft, a phone call with Jerry Prior devolved into an angry shouting match when Prior suggested other teams might pay $20 million for his son.
“I think they expected us to drop a big number on them at the last minute, and we weren’t going to do that,” Radcliff said. “Mr. Prior was yelling, “You don’t have enough money to sign us! Don’t take us! If you pick us, you’re going to regret it!' "
On the morning of the draft, Ryan, Lepel and area scout Mark Wilson drove over to the Mauer house once again; the teenage target of their mission hadn’t even gotten up yet. But they went away disappointed again. Another series of phone calls to all parties, just minutes before the draft was to begin, also produced nothing. The Twins were going to make a baseball decision, not a financial one, and they left it up to their top scout, Radcliff, to choose the player he preferred.
So Radcliff leaned into that speaker phone and said in a firm voice, “The Twins select Joe Mauer, catcher, St. Paul Cretin High.”
The reaction was, to put it mildly, mixed. Many Minnesotans expressed pride and excitement, and a school assembly at the high school roared at the news. Mauer held a news conference with Ryan, who brought a Twins jersey with his name and No. 16, his high school number, on the back.
“I look down and see ‘Twins,’ and I can’t believe it,” Mauer said.
But around the country, the Twins were frequently portrayed as fools, too cheap to take the best player and too infatuated with a good local story. Jerry Prior ripped the Twins after his son was chosen No. 2 by the Chicago Cubs, mocking that “whenever I think of Minnesota, I’ll think of Jesse Ventura and Terry Ryan.”
Scouts approached Radcliff and other Twins employees at tournaments and said, “Man, I don’t understand that pick. How could you not take a lock?” he said. “I always said, ‘No, this is the guy I really wanted.’ That wasn’t easy when Prior was winning 18 games for the Cubs and our guy was in Class A.”
Star Tribune columnist Dan Barreiro wrote that, “Please don’t pretend the Twins took the player they thought to be the best player. … Understand that money is the one and only reason the Twins went the direction they did.” And national columnists were even more harsh.
A month later, Ryan and Shapiro agreed to a $5.1 million contract for Mauer, a record for the franchise that stood until Byron Buxton received $6 million in 2012. A few days later, Prior signed a contract with the Cubs that gave him a $4 million signing bonus, plus a $10.2 million, five-year major league contract. It appeared to be a bargain when he reached the majors the following May, and struck out 147 hitters in just 116 innings.
A year later, Prior was starring in the NL playoffs. He won twice and appeared to be pitching the Cubs to the World Series in Game 6 of the NLCS before fan Steve Bartman famously got in the way of a catchable eighth-inning foul ball, sparking a Marlins rally. But Prior’s career was derailed by a series of shoulder injuries and other ailments, and though he tried several times to come back, he never pitched a big-league game after 2006.
Mauer? “Two days after I signed, I’m standing in Elizabethton, Tenn., thinking about how I gave up a chance at the Orange Bowl for this,” he joked recently of his rookie-ball days. “But I love this game. I’ve never had any regrets.”
The Twins certainly don’t either, but it’s interesting to consider how things might have played out today. The player’s union agreed during 2011 collective bargaining to a salary scale for draftees, with a maximum bonus allotted for each pick. The Twins can pay next week’s first pick no more than $7.77 million, for example, and their other first-day picks, Nos. 35 and 37, are capped at $1.9 and $1.8 million.
Under that system, with negotiation largely not a consideration, would the Twins still have taken Mauer? Or would Prior have joined a pitching staff that already had Brad Radke and Johan Santana?
“I can’t say what would have happened,” Radcliff said. “I know we had [scouts] that were just as adamant about Prior as everyone else. Who knows? All I know is, I picked the guy I wanted. I was at peace with it then, and you have to say it worked out pretty well.”