BALTIMORE – When the All-Star Game came here to Camden Yards in 1993, Cal Ripken Jr. recalls the event as being “special — and stressful.” The Hall of Fame shortstop batted only .229 in the season’s first half with the Orioles, and he believes the prospect of playing in the Midsummer Classic in his home park was the reason why.
“It put a lot of pressure on me,” Ripken said. “I don’t know if it was conscious, but I desperately wanted to play in that game.”
Ron Gardenhire believes history repeated itself, 21 years later. Joe Mauer’s two-month slump — the three-time American League batting champion hit only .271 before suffering an oblique injury on July 1, and struck out at a pace nearly twice his career average — might have been triggered, the Twins manager said Friday, by the prospect of playing in the All-Star Game at Target Field.
“He was pressing. There’s no doubt, before the All-Star Game, I think he was pressing,” Gardenhire said as the Twins opened a four-game series in Ripken’s old park. “It’s the first time my career as manager here that I’ve seen Joe Mauer really want something bad. That was the All-Star Game, and I really think that played a part in it.”
Gardenhire said he realized what pressure Mauer was under when he broke the news to Glen Perkins, another Minnesota native, that he would be representing the Twins at Target Field. Perkins seemed as relieved as excited, Gardenhire said, and he believed Mauer felt the same.
“I don’t think he would ever admit to it, but in my opinion, it definitely [affected him],” Gardenhire said, adding that he felt it was “part of the problem,” but not the entire problem. “He wanted to be a part of that thing, and I think he pressed a little bit.”
Gardenhire is right: Mauer doesn’t buy his theory. Injuries and some bad luck are to blame, the Twins first baseman said, not his desire to join the AL All-Stars for a seventh time.
“I don’t know about that. I definitely wanted to make the team, [but] I don’t know if that had anything to do with my first half,” Mauer said before the Twins lost to the Orioles 9-1 Friday night. “I had back spasms early, and it just seemed like when I started swinging well, something like that popped up this year. I don’t think it was any added extra pressure.”
But in his manager’s view, Mauer’s bounce-back stretch this month only emphasizes the point. “There’s a definite difference in his whole makeup right now,” Gardenhire said.
That’s as opposed to the guy who kept swinging and missing in the season’s first three months, a total of 61 strikeouts for a player who had never whiffed more than 89 times in a season.
“We’ve never seen Joe swing and miss. I think it was in his mind. It was something he wanted desperately,” Gardenhire said. “There was a lot of pressure that we can’t feel. A lot of pressure that everything was put on his shoulders. You have to live with that, and believe it or not, he is human. I saw frustration in him that I hadn’t seen in a long time.”
The frustration crested when Mauer suffered the oblique injury July 1, ending any hope of somehow making the American League roster for the July 15 All-Star Game. But Mauer still had plenty of duties that weekend to keep him busy. He had agreed to act as the “ambassador” to the game, and he made public appearances at events around the Twin Cities throughout the event’s three-day schedule.
“I was disappointed, definitely. But I was more disappointed with how I was playing,” Mauer said. “Struggling through nicks, and got kind of beat up early in the season. It’s been a frustrating year, but as of late, it’s pretty good.”
Actually, Mauer is in the midst of a 1-for-18 skid again, but in his first 13 games back from the injury, he batted .340 with a couple of home runs, a .456 on-base percentage and a .574 slugging percentage.
“He’s hitting now. It’s just my opinion, I don’t have anything to base it on,” Gardenhire said. “He just had to refocus and breathe. ... He’s had a little bit of a break, and fresh hands, as they say.”