Jim Souhan: Clueless Joe not cutting it any more

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 19, 2012 - 3:25 PM

It's past time for Joe Mauer to quit avoiding the burden of leadership.

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Minnesota Twins Joe Mauer worked through drills during the first day that pitchers and catchers reported for Spring training at Hammond Stadium, Sunday, February 19, 2012. (ELIZABETH FLORES/STAR TRIBUNE) ELIZABETH FLORES � eflores@startribune.com

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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When Bo Jackson captivated a previous generation, Nike built an ad campaign around the phrase "Bo Knows.'' It became a sensation.

"Joe Knows'' wouldn't work in Minnesota, not these days. Joe Mauer, who two years ago ranked as the most popular athlete in Minnesota history, demonstrated last year that he doesn't get it. As the Twins begin spring training, Mauer's obliviousness to the requirements of his position needs to be fixed every bit as much as his troublesome left knee.

In the past six months, I've spoken with dozens of key people working at all levels of the Twins organization about Mauer. Most expressed disgust or dismay over the way he conducted himself last season.

A few defended him, saying his primary problem is an inability to communicate clearly. None, at the point of our conversations, had directly told Mauer how damaging and infuriating his 2011 season was to his teammates, bosses and fans. All of them said they believed Mauer viewed criticism aimed at him as ignorant and irrelevant.

Joe doesn't know.

While he possesses a keen baseball intellect, Mauer has no idea how many of the people he sees every day viewed him last year, when he did nothing to dissuade the belief that he was more concerned with minor or invisible injuries than the fortunes of the franchise paying his $184 million contract.

He didn't notice that some of the teammates who slapped him on the back were also befuddled by his demeanor, and it's hard to tell whether he noticed that he has alienated fans who not so long ago viewed him as the ultimate Minnesota sports hero.

While Mauer spent hours virtually every day in the workout and training rooms, he seemed to be more focused on the process than the goal, which was getting himself back on the field as quickly as possible to help an injury-riddled team.

While Mauer worked with masseuses and strength coaches, the specter of a $184 million franchise player lying in the back room getting massages while his teammates were failing on the field strained the clubhouse atmosphere.

Whether Mauer had anything to do with their mindsets or not is difficult to ascertain, but Joe Nathan and Michael Cuddyer, two long-term Twins who had spoken of wanting to end their careers in Minnesota, left in free agency, and a group of young players the veterans nicknamed "The Fun Bunch'' seemed pleased to draw a big-league paycheck regardless whether the Twins won or lost.

Whatever his physical ailments, Mauer's problem in terms of conducting himself like a franchise player is that he has trouble believing he's that important. Those who defend him say he doesn't want to be treated any differently than a utility infielder.

In other walks of life, he'd be described as humble and down-to-earth. As the most important and best-paid player on an ambitious team, he fails to grasp that he is a symbol and a competitive fulcrum, a player whose performance and attitude affects everything from season ticket sales to clubhouse unity to the front office's long-term planning.

Mauer has a few confidants and supporters in the organization. They say his injuries were real, that he worked maniacally to overcome them. Members of the organization have pushed him to be more available for interviews, so he can present his side of every story. In sports journalism, access often blunts criticism.

However this season plays out, Joe needs to know.

He needs to know that he's not just another player, and that the invisible ink on his $184 million deal requires much more from him than workouts and shrugs.

One of the most famous videos of Mauer shows him as a toddler, whacking a ball off a tee at a St. Paul playground.

The swing hasn't changed. Everything around him has.

Joe should recognize that he's the richest athlete in state history, a man who can elevate or doom the team he cheered for as a little boy.

If he hasn't figured that out by now, the question is, will he ever?

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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