A fan standard: Blame the 'face of the franchise'

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 30, 2014 - 8:26 AM

See that guy playing first base? Tall and lean, textbook swing, a former MVP who signed the richest contract in team history by far, then promptly got hurt? The face of a franchise that hasn’t won a title since the early 1990s, and hasn’t lived up to its promise lately, the guy who’s paid like a slugger but has the approach of a singles hitter, always drawing walks to pad his precious on-base percentage rather than driving in runs?

Yeah, let’s let the bum have it. Boooooo. We want a winner, and it’s all Joe’s fault we don’t.

Make that Joey’s fault. Joey Votto. Who’d you think it was?

“Even with as great a hitter as [Votto] is, some people [in Cincinnati] feel like there should be more there,” said Mark Sheldon, a onetime Twins beat writer who now covers the Reds for mlb.com. “There’s a subsection of fans who limit their view to the holy trinity of stats [batting average, home runs and RBI] and say he’s not worth the money.”

Sound familiar? Maybe it’s just the fate of highly paid first basemen who get on base a lot, but Joe Mauer, like Votto, is the clay pigeon of Twitter and talk radio, with disgruntled fans unloading both barrels of vitriol. A St. Paul native, Mauer may be the most popular current Twins player, but it’s entirely likely he’s the most unpopular, too.

“He’s the face of the franchise, and we haven’t done enough winning lately,” Twins President Dave St. Peter said. “Unfortunately, he gets more than his share of the blame for that.”

It arrives almost daily during the baseball season, in the form of tweets, online comments, e-mails and on-air screeds, some of the criticism reasoned and lucid, much of it bitter and overwrought. One commenter insisted last week, for instance, that the Twins’ rebuilding won’t be successful until Mauer is simply waived.

The venom is a function of the social-media climate that encourages outrage and antagonism from anonymous critics, and it’s too ubiquitous for Mauer and his family to tune out. “I’m under strict instructions not to read newspapers, not to listen to talk radio,” said Teresa Mauer, mother of the All-Star. “That’s how I deal with it.”

Mauer tries to take a more sanguine approach. “I’ve been around enough to know, no matter what you do, there’s always something. All you can control is yourself,” the former No. 1 overall draft pick said. “You go out there and you work hard and do the right things. “

Of course, not all criticism is unjustified, and even Mauer admits he has given the anti-Joe crowd some ammunition. For one thing, Mauer has been injury-prone throughout his career, starting with the meniscus tear he suffered in his second big-league game in 2004. He has caught more than 120 games only once, while missing a month with a strained quad in 2007, and an inflamed sacroiliac joint in 2009.

Then there was the so-called “bilateral leg weakness” in 2011, an ill-defined injury that left fans frustrated, particularly when it coincided with a 99-loss season. Mauer’s team-record contract is a common concern, too, a $184 million deal that pays him $23 million a year, a sum that many suspect inhibits the Twins from spending more on improving the team. Mauer’s agent, Ron Shapiro, warned his client that the salary spike would widen fans’ emotional strike zone.

“I talked to him about it, but Joe is a sensitive human being. He could not help but feel some of the barbs, but he knows his job is to perform on the field,” Shapiro said.

Mauer’s even-keeled demeanor probably fuels some of the critics, St. Peter said, “because he doesn’t let many people see how much the losing eats at him. We see what it means to him, but he doesn’t have a woe-is-me personality, [and] he’s not throwing equipment” in disgust.

But the biggest target on Mauer’s résumé comes via his approach at the plate, a fact that seems counterintuitive for a three-time batting champion. But Mauer never has driven in 100 runs in a season, and only once has he hit more than 13 home runs, facts that some fans have difficultly jibing with his $23 million payday.

“People see how big he is, what a great athlete he is, and they think he should hit 30 home runs a year,” said Phil Mackey, who hosts a daily sports-talk show on 1500 ESPN radio. “He’s being paid like Albert Pujols, so they want him to hit like Pujols. But if Pujols was a catcher, he wouldn’t have put up the numbers he did.”

Mauer’s forte is hitting to the opposite field, drawing walks, getting on base for those behind him. He has never been among the top 10 RBI men in his league, and last season he had only 47. Part of the reason was the .192 batting average of leadoff hitter Aaron Hicks, providing Mauer fewer chances to hit with runners in scoring position, but it’s also true that he batted an anemic .239 in those situations, worst of his career.

Mostly, though, Mauer may be the naysayers’ best target simply because he’s the biggest one.

“Twins fans are angry about the last three years, but they don’t know why they’re mad,” Mackey said. “I hear, ‘Well, he should have stepped up.’ But it’s like blaming LeBron James for the Cavs not winning the [NBA] title in 2007, when his best teammate was Larry Hughes.”

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