FORT MYERS, FLA. - General Manager Bill Smith offered a pen for Joe Mauer to use in signing his enormous contract to stay with the Twins through the 2018 season. As he did so, Smith notified the audience at Monday night's event that this was the same pen Mauer had used to sign his first contract with the organization in 2001.

Joel Lepel, now the Twins minor league field coordinator, was the Midwest scouting supervisor in those days and had the players use this pen for all of his signings.

Later, Smith was being interviewed on the Twins radio network and was asked for a look at the suddenly famous pen. As it turned out, Lepel wasn't exactly wielding a gold-plated Cross when signing players.

John Gordon, the voice of the Twins, looked at the skinny, beat-up writing instrument and said: "Does it say Hampton Inn on it?''

Smith laughed and said: "We are who we are.''

Not anymore, Mr. Smith.

The Twins officially left the ranks of feisty, mid-market underdogs and became major players in the major leagues when Mauer used Lepel's relic to sign an eight-year, $184 million extension that shattered any previous Twins expenditure on a contract by more than $100 million.

The public and the media had been hearing for so long about this ballclub as a low-revenue enterprise that both entities were having a difficult time getting their arms around the idea of the Twins as big spenders.

On Monday, the national baseball media was suggesting that Mauer had passed on tens of millions by signing now rather than waiting for free agency.


Mauer missed the first month of 2009 with a back problem, then put together five months of spectacular productivity. It would have taken a similar year -- a level of greatness not guaranteed even from a potential Hall of Famer -- for Mauer to do better than $23 million per annum from any team, Yankees included.

There was no discount in this deal. Agent Ron Shapiro kept a client in his preferred location while getting him a superstar's deal, an exacta that has become Shapiro's trademark.

There was also concern from the media and the fans that Mauer's ransom of $23 million will make it impossible for the Twins to surround him with the talent to challenge for a championship of North American baseball.

"How can they win with one player taking up 25 percent on the payroll?" was the clichéd question.

This is based on the theory that Jim Pohlad and his brothers are near a payroll ceiling with the current $97 million for 2010. It's an erroneous theory. The Pohlads agreed to the Mauer contract with the understanding a $120 million payroll is not that far down the road.

The Twins aren't going to keep every popular veteran. Not even the Yankees do that.

You're not going to keep a 32-year-old for huge dollars when a potentially better player is ready to break in. Even Mauer could have to make a concession to progress by 2011, when the stupendous prospect, Wilson Ramos, figures to arrive in Minnesota.

How about it, Joe -- 20 games in left field, 20 as the DH, so Ramos can catch 40 games, as well as serve as the righthanded DH?

"That young man hits a baseball as far as anyone I've ever seen," Tom Kelly said last week, and he was talking about Ramos, not Mauer.

Kelly admitted in this conversation that Ramos was among several players and pitchers in the minor league camp that had piqued his optimism.

That's another reason for this Tuesday morning in March to be the best moment in the franchise's 50 years to be a Twins fan.

The Pohlads spent for winter acquisitions and for assets such as Denard Span and Nick Blackburn. They have allowed the front office to spend for international prospects, adding to minor league talent that has impressed Kelly, noted as a tough critic.

The Pohlads have spent an extra $40 million to make Target Field more spectacular. And now they have committed $184 million to Mauer, the most spectacular asset of all.

They didn't get Mauer below market, and they aren't going to pay him $23 million a year and then not try to win.

Stop fretting. Enjoy the best time there's ever been to be a Twins fan.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP. •