It is early in the day, and Joe Mauer is on his way to the ballpark. He makes one stop on this sunny Friday morning, ducking his 6-5 frame through the door of Schmidty's Sports Barbers. Dressed casually in a T-shirt, jeans and Nikes, he settles into the chair near the window, beneath a framed version of his Twins jersey. The proprietor, John Schmidt, wraps a cloth around his neck and administers to Minnesota's most famous sideburns as they chat quietly of old friends.
In another city or setting, the brown hair drifting to the floor like confetti might wind up on eBay, but this is St. Paul, and the baseball field visible through the window is the Cretin High diamond where big-league scouts first spotted the owner of those sideburns, and the kid in the barber chair is a Schmidty's regular because of the price of fame, not because of the $17 haircut.
This summer, Mauer has transcended his already-sublime career arc to become one of the best and most popular players in baseball. After a back problem ruined his spring, he returned from the disabled list in early May and started swinging like a latter-day Ted Williams, flirting with .400 and displaying newfound power while eliciting ovations in Chicago's Wrigley Field and Milwaukee's Miller Park, as well as the usual marriage proposals at the Metrodome.
"He's on his way," said fellow Cretin alum, former Twin and baseball Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, "to becoming the most popular athlete in Minnesota history."
Mauer, 26, is the rare big-league superstar who started his career and achieved national stardom with his hometown team, creating a lifestyle as tart as it is sweet. Schmidty's is one of the few places in St. Paul where he can taste normalcy, where his sideburns are trimmed, not adored.
"We've had discussions about how he can come in here and be normal, and everything's like it should be," said Schmidt, who coached Mauer at Cretin-Derham Hall before taking over the barbershop. "I gave him a haircut right before he went over to TwinsFest this winter, and I said, 'You can sit here and everything's cool, and in a few hours you're going to go over there and it's going to be like 'Aaaaaaah!' That's got to blow your mind. It's like two worlds in the same city.
"Joe said, 'Yeah, it's different.'"
One time a kid spotted him at Schmidty's and started a cell phone tree, gathering all of his buddies outside the door, and Mauer shook their hands and took pictures with them, but most days he prefers the illusion of anonymity.
"Being able to do the things I've been able to do, sometimes people do treat you different," Mauer said. "I really appreciate the guys at the barbershop, and all my old friends, because they always treat me the same."
He shrugs, smiles. "The guys in the barbershop just know I'm not that cool."
• • •
It is early in the day, and Joe Mauer is on his way to the ballpark. On this sunny Saturday, he is heading from his St. Paul condo to the Metrodome just as two of his best friends, Tony Leseman and Kevin Salmen, settle into a booth at one of their favorite St. Paul joints.
Just about every patron at Shamrock's drops by to talk to Leseman and Salmen. Filled with sports fans, this is exactly the kind of setting that makes Mauer wary.
Salmen played football with Mauer at Cretin, then at the University of Minnesota. Leseman played baseball with Mauer at Cretin, and now lives with him. When Mauer began riding minor league buses between Elizabethton and Johnson City, Tenn., Leseman and Salmen were enjoying college life. "After he made it to the bigs, everything changed," Leseman said. "I'm on campus, hanging out, and I see these girls, cute girls, wearing Twins jerseys. They walk by, and I'm like, 'Mauer? Hey -- what are you doing wearing my buddy's jersey?' That didn't seem quite right."
Mauer is Minnesota's most eligible bachelor, and one of its most reluctant. He's single, friendly, worth millions and wary of any entanglement that might distract from his career or nudge aside his lifelong friends. His one publicized relationship, with former Miss USA Chelsea Cooley, "kind of bugged him, that so much was made of it," said his best baseball friend, Twins slugger Justin Morneau.
His family and friends didn't mind.
"We kind of liked hanging out with Miss USA," said his father, Jake.
"Where do you go from Miss USA?" Leseman said.
"He's gotta go for Miss World," Salmen said.
"She was a real nice girl," Mauer said. "I think we were at different places in our lives."
When Morneau won the American League Most Valuable Player Award in 2006, a few teammates credited Mauer with helping Morneau learn to stay in. Morneau says he taught Mauer how to go out.
"Let's just say we were good for each other," Morneau said. "I love it when I can get him to go out, because then everyone leaves me alone. He's such a nice guy, he never says no, so everybody can come up to him and he'll have a conversation. And around here, it's not just a conversation. Everyone has a connection. Everyone has a cousin who went to school with him or an uncle who played ball with his father."
Watching him navigate life as a star is like watching Jimmy Stewart star in "Transformers." "Joe Mauer is 'Shaft, 2009,'" Salmen said. "The ladies all want to be with him, and the men all want to be him."
• • •
It is early in the day, and Joe Mauer is at the ballpark. For someone who spends most of his time around the clubhouse, he's rarely visible. His locker in the Metrodome is in the back right corner, leaving him one step to the training room.
Morneau says Mauer sleeps up to 12 hours a night, sometimes waking just in time to drive to the Metrodome to begin a routine that will last 10 or 11 hours, flanking the game with weightlifting, stretching, hydrotherapy, ice treatments, film study and game-planning meetings.
Reporters are allowed in big-league clubhouses 3 1/2 hours before the game, and must leave an hour before the first pitch. During access time, Mauer will step quickly out of the back rooms to change the music on the sound system, or to retrieve something from his locker, but he doesn't stand still long, knowing that any sign of stillness will lead to interview requests. As his average hovered around .400 this summer, those requests increasingly came from people he didn't know.
At the end of a recent homestand, Mauer emerged from the trainer's room to a waiting group of reporters, managed a smile and said, "What's up, guys?" After a group interview, he turned and told someone, "I need to get on the road."
While Mauer has wearied of talking about himself, his teammates and family members treat him like the little brother he was in the Mauer house on Lexington, the little brother you tease because you can't beat him.
"Did you know he raps?" asked outfielder Michael Cuddyer. "Records his own songs. They're on his iPod."
"You should see him snap," said catcher Mike Redmond. "Everyone thinks he's always even-keeled, but I've always told him as he gets older he's going to get saltier. I'll hear him go in the room behind the dugout and smash a helmet, and I'll pump my fist and say, 'Yes!'"
"He probably won't want this out there, but he is a great dancer," said older brother Jake, and, indeed, Joe admits to mastering the moves to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" when he was young.
"He actually trash-talks me," Morneau said. "We'll be playing basketball, and he just knows he can beat you, and he can't help it."
• • •
It is late in the day, and Joe Mauer is leaving the ballpark. It is a Sunday night before a rare day off in the Twins' June schedule, and Mauer is driving an hour north to his cabin.
"I wanted this to be a special place where I could get away, and my whole family could enjoy themselves," Mauer said. "I wanted it to be something that would stay in the family forever."
Mauer's friends call it "the ranch," and say it's more mansion on the hill than little house on the prairie. Mauer spends as much time as he can there during the summer, with family and old friends.
"That place," said childhood friend Hart Smith, "is man-tastic."
The ranch features a movie theater, bowling alley, batting cage, hydrotherapy pool with underwater treadmill, an oxygen room, flat-screen TVs, a recording booth for his budding rap career, swaths of land for hunting and hiking and a pond good for fishing or hockey.
"I'm so proud of him, because he hasn't spent his money extravagantly on anything selfish," said his father, who is known as Big Jake to distinguish him from Grandpa Jake and Little Jake. "The only thing he's really spent much money on is the ranch."
Smith says the ranch might as well be a kids' clubhouse in the woods with a "No Girls 'Lowed" sign on the door.
"His brothers and friends bring wives up there," Smith said. "For Joe, it's just a place he can be himself."
Which is a pretty good someone to be these days. He's the only American League catcher to win a batting title, and he's done it twice. He owns one Gold Glove, two Silver Sluggers (awarded to the best hitter at each position in the league) and was just named to his third All-Star team. Despite missing a month because of injury, he finished second in the American League in All-Star votes.
Mauer honed his silky, inside-out swing in the garage and basement of the Mauer home, often using a device his father invented -- a series of pipes that drop a ball into the hitting zone, encouraging an efficient stroke. When Mauer's fame grew, that device became the Mauer QuickSwing.
"He wouldn't hesitate to come home from a football practice and go out to the garage and take 50 swings," Big Jake said.
Teresa said, "Then his brother Jake would finish his homework and go down there and say, 'I bet I can hit nine out of 10,' and they'd challenge each other."
"I was day care for those boys," Grandpa Jake said. "For nine years, every day in the back yard, I took those kids, and we played ball. I made him hit lefthanded. We used to tie ropes on their heels and ankles so they wouldn't overstride. When Joe was little, he wanted to swing like Kirby Puckett, but I taught him to keep that foot down, and now look at him."
Smith said: "When Jake and I were 11 and Crazy Billy was 9 and Joe was 7, we'd go down to Griggs playground and play home-run derby. The first summer, the older kids would kick butt, and we'd make Joe have to go get all the balls. The next year, Joe was 8, and he started to win.
"That's the way it's always been, though. I played hockey as a kid; the Mauers played basketball. So now Joe builds the cabin, and we go up there and play hockey, and all of a sudden Joe, who I didn't think even knew how to skate, is the best player on the ice. Which, again, is very annoying.
"Where you can get some guys mad, get them off their game that way, you get Joe mad and he'll just beat you worse, then skate by and tap you on the butt, like, 'You have no chance.'"
Mauer dominates in Ping Pong (left- and righthanded), bowling (left- and righthanded), golf, basketball (he was a standout in high school), football (he was the national player of the year and a Florida State recruit as a senior) and hockey.
"He's even good," said Salmen, "at splitting wood."
His only flaws as a baseball player before this season were his lack of durability and lack of home-run power, and he seems intent on eradicating both. Playing the most demanding position in the game, he has played in 63 of 66 games since coming off the disabled list and yet is hitting .381 with 15 home runs in 236 at-bats.
This is the guy who, in a recent conversation about golf, said, "I wish I could be good."
• • •
It is early in the day, and Joe Mauer is at the ballpark. He's stretching in the back room when his buddy Morneau emerges and tells you more about Mauer than he would ever reveal about himself.
Morneau says Mauer has two goals. "He wants to win the World Series," Morneau said. "And he wants to become one of the best to ever play the game."
That first desire could alter Mauer's sweet, hometown story. His friends and family members say he never talks about money, only about the opportunity to win. His current contract expires after the 2010 season, the Twins' first in new Target Field.
Morneau said Mauer's decision whether to re-sign with the Twins will be affected by the front office's aggressiveness, either during the offseason or at the trading deadline.
"We've been so close at the deadline so many times," Morneau said. "If he feels like we're content being that team that is just good enough not to lose, but everybody is going to have to have a career year for us to scrape into the playoffs, I think that's going to affect his decision a lot.
"It's frustrating going out every day and hearing that 'We want to win a World Series,' and then not seeing more aggressiveness. I think something like that is going to affect his decision more than the value of the contract. We've already got all the money we're ever going to need."
"Isn't that why you play?" Mauer said. "To win championships? If I hit .250 and we won the World Series, I'd be happier than anyone."
• • •
It is early in the day, and Joe Mauer is at the ballpark. It is a blistering Tuesday afternoon in Milwaukee, and as he takes extra swings in an anteroom by the visiting clubhouse in Miller Park, his parents tailgate amid thousands of Brewers fans in the parking lot.
Big Jake looks at the sun, inhales the smell of roasting bratwurst and says, "Isn't this what baseball is all about?"
His mother says that Joe's famous calm is often a facade. "He's got a long fuse," Teresa said, "but you don't want to see it run out."
When he was in middle school, Mauer often wrestled with his brothers. One afternoon, Bill angered Joe and Joe flashed what his brothers call "the look." Bill sprinted upstairs to the only room in the house with a lock -- a bathroom with a stained glass window on the door. He slammed and locked the door, then exhaled.
Joe smashed his hands through the window and grabbed Bill.
"I remember one time," Teresa said, "when Joe was 5 or 6, and Billy made him mad, and I had hold of Joe, with both arms around him, and he was just focused in on Billy, like a laser. He was growling."
"Of the three," said the boys' grandfather, "Joe was the mean one. The other boys wanted no part of him."
• • •
It is early in the day, and Joe Mauer is at the ballpark. He has left the visitor's air-conditioned clubhouse at Miller Park to chat in the dugout before the game. The dugout feels like a convection oven. Mauer is not sweating. He does just about everything calmly, coolly. Walks. Talks. Dresses. Considers. The only time he seems to be in a hurry is when the public closes in. He sprints in and out of the Twins' dugout, at home and on the road, so he won't have to explain to screaming fans why he can't sign 3,000 autographs.
Morneau worries that Mauer's popularity in his hometown will chase him to a larger market, where he might become more anonymous away from the ballpark. Playing in his hometown, Mauer says, is all he's ever known. "I was drafted by the Twins. This is all I have to go on, about being a big-league baseball player, is playing at home.
"It gets a little crazy at times, but I've tried to manage it as best I can. This is my sixth season, and I know what to expect, at least."
Mauer is a modern-day Peter Pan, still the nice kid from down the street who plays ball every day, even as his friends move on. Morneau lived with Mauer until Morneau got married. Leseman moved in, and now he's getting married and moving out, and will be replaced as Mauer's roommate by another old buddy, Larry Nava.
"It's nice to have a friend living there, someone who can take care of the place when we go on a 10-day road trip," Mauer said. "These guys are my best friends, and I trust them more than anybody. They're like my brothers."
His friends say that Mauer has found a few places he can eat without causing a riot. "If I keep to the same spots, it's fine," he said. "Most of the people that come up are just genuine fans, and that's always nice to see. Just going grocery shopping, though, that can turn a 20-minute trip into a 45-minute or an hour conversation. It's little things like that. All the encounters I've had have been positive, though. I think it's pretty neat."
When he does date these days, he usually relies on his friends to set him up. He wound up with Miss USA because of an old minor league teammate. "It's tough to meet people for the right reasons," he said. "But I'm still young, and I'm having fun. It will happen when it happens. I can imagine settling down. It would have to be the right person, though. I'm not a guy who's an all-night partier. I like to go out and have a good time once in a while, but I'm more of a homebody. I'm a little more low-key than most guys who are in the big leagues."
• • •
It is early in the day, and Mauer is about to leave for the ballpark. He is sitting in the corner chair at Schmidty's, glancing at the Cretin baseball diamond he and Paul Molitor made famous among generations of baseball scouts.
"If you want to build your organization around a player who provides leadership, stability and represents your club in the highest possible fashion on and off the field, I don't know how many guys out there can match Joe," Molitor said. "To have all of that, and have that guy be playing in his hometown, while your franchise is preparing to go into a new ballpark, and he's your cornerstone player? That is an amazing and rare thing."
Above Mauer's freshly trimmed head is his jersey, and an old Sports Illustrated cover he signed: "To Schmidty's: Thanks for making me look good."
These days, Schmidty's might have the easiest job in America.
Jim Souhan is a sports columnist for the Star Tribune. You can reach him at 612-673-4503.