Absence, injury, perception will be hard for Mauer to beat

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 10, 2011 - 2:04 PM

Whether his body is betraying him, or his pain tolerance has dropped, the hometown hero is hurting.

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Joe Mauer

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Fifteen months ago, we celebrated a Minnesota version of the royal wedding. Joe Mauer lifted the veil on Target Field, everyone cheered, and anyone who might have objected to the marriage between the state's most popular star and most beautiful building seemed happy to forever hold their peace.

Weeks after signing the biggest contract in franchise history, Mauer christened the new ballpark with three hits, and somewhere a sculptor must have started chipping large sideburns into the statue that should one day stand outside the gates.

Fifteen months later, Mauer is preparing to return from a long and mysterious stay on the disabled list. He could be back next week, catching at Target Field, only this time he might need earplugs to match his shin guards.

These days it is difficult to speak to a sports fan in the Twin Cities without hearing Mauer's toughness questioned. You can find members of his own organization who privately express frustration over his prolonged absence.

While his undermanned team built the worst record in baseball and his replacements struggled to hit the ball out of the infield, Mauer slowly worked his way into catching shape, at times complaining about fatigue, yet simultaneously insisting that he intends to remain at the most draining position in baseball.

In 15 months, Mauer, a polite St. Paul kid who chose to play for his hometown baseball team rather than sign a football scholarship with Florida State, the only American League catcher ever to win a batting title, a former Most Valuable Player, and a star player who chose to remain in Minnesota rather than pursue free agency, has become a target of the kind of verbal abuse formerly reserved for J.R. Rider, Brad Childress and April hail.

Mauer defended himself to me in a recent interview, arguing that he has worked diligently to rehabilitate his various injuries, that he risks further injury if he returns too quickly, that he will only hurt his team by playing hurt.

Some members of the organization questioned whether Mauer worked hard enough or devoted enough time to baseball activities to prepare himself for the season, and whether he is willing to play at 80 percent health when his team needs him.

Those close to him have questioned whether his offseason knee surgery and rehabilitation was handled properly by the team, saying that finding his legs weak in April caused Mauer to become cautious, even paranoid, about playing with pain.

Whatever the causes of his two-month stay on the disabled list, Mauer is left with problems of fact and perception.

Mauer must play nearly every day, and produce at an All-Star level, to justify his $23 million salary. While he proved to be a durable catcher in four of the previous five seasons, his prolonged stay on the disabled list this season and the vague nature of his injuries have evoked memories of 2005, when Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek and outfielder Torii Hunter told me that Mauer would need to become tougher to be an effective big-league catcher.

Mauer responded to that challenge by becoming the best catcher in the game, signing his gargantuan contract and eliciting expectations that he would fulfill the mandate of a franchise player.

He played hurt for much of 2010, underwent knee surgery in December, and played in nine games this April before going on the disabled list because of injuries described as "soreness'' and weakness,'' all while Rajon Rondo played with a dislocated elbow, Dirk Nowitzki won with a 100-degree temperature, Josh Hamilton recovered from a broken leg and dozens of hockey players gritted their remaining teeth to skate through the pain.

Mauer's convalescence has created two almost equally troubling possibilities. Either his body is betraying him, or his tolerance for playing with pain is diminishing.

Either way, the kid who had a chance to become the most popular athlete in Minnesota history will return to Target Field with much to prove to the team that pays him, and to fans who wonder why the franchise player didn't rush to help his franchise.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. jsouhan@startribune.com

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