The Twins winter caravan took a quiet detour Thursday morning, when Joe Mauer and Danny Valencia appeared before a group of 26 second-grade charter school students at the Mexican Consulate in St. Paul.
With the floor open for questions, one nervous youngster finally built up the courage to ask, "Is it really hard to play baseball?"
Valencia grabbed the microphone and said, "For me, it's really hard. For Joe, it's pretty easy."
Mauer could only smile. Easy? Last year was anything but.
In the first season of his eight-year, $184 million contract, Mauer was limited to 82 games and just 47 starts at catcher. He spent time on the disabled list with bilateral leg weakness and pneumonia, batting .287 -- 40 points below his career average -- with three homers and 30 RBI.
But with TwinsFest opening Friday, the old Mauer appears to be back. He's been at his offseason home in Fort Myers, Fla., regaining weight and rebuilding strength, determined to put the most frustrating year of his career behind him.
"Last year I was in rough shape," Mauer said, following Thursday's second caravan stop at Maynard's restaurant in Excelsior. "This year, I feel a lot better. I've still got a lot of work to do, but I'm looking forward to it."
Mauer wouldn't confirm a report that he's gained 30 pounds this offseason, but his face looked much fuller than it did last April, after he lost 15 to 20 pounds because of a viral infection.
"I'm at my playing weight right now," said Mauer, who typically plays at about 230 pounds. "And I'm actually trying to gain a little bit more before spring [training] hits because it comes off pretty quickly."
The real measure of where Mauer is at is strength. As he stressed last year, there's a difference between adding good weight and bad weight.
"I'm getting there," Mauer said. "I'm still two months from Opening Day. [Compared to this time last year], I feel 100 times better. You know, night and day. And I'm excited about that."
At TwinsFest last year, Mauer was only six weeks removed from arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. That's when Mauer first dropped hints that he'd be limited during spring training.
His goal was to be in the lineup for Opening Day. He made it, but two weeks into the season, he was on the DL.
"My workouts at this point were focused on rehabbing the knee, and I really didn't get to work on other things," he said. "Being a baseball player, with all the other movements you need to make, you need to focus on total body, and I'm able to do that now."
Mauer, who turns 29 in April, no longer looks like that fresh-eyed kid when he's out on these caravan stops. A few gray hairs have shown up near his famous sideburns. And perhaps it's because he just got engaged, but the female fans among the 200 or so at Maynard's, were less frenzied toward him than in years past.
Still, even if Mauer's popularity took a hit last season, he didn't face any hecklers or boos, as he and Valencia did a radio appearance and took more questions from the audience. Traveling in a black limousine bus, along with new Twins radio announcer Cory Provus, the group made one more stop in Rochester before calling it a day.
The caravan and TwinsFest have a way of recharging Mauer each year.
"You're in [the gym], you're working out, you're trying to focus on things you need to do, and you come back here and you see the excitement from the fans about the upcoming season," he said. "It kind of just fuels you even more heading into spring training."
Twins pitchers and catchers report in a little more than three weeks.
"It's pretty easy to get motivated," Mauer added, "especially after a year like last year."