FORT MYERS, Fla. – The first clue about Joe Mauer’s baseball future comes when he talks not about his contract or career, but his 4-year-old twin daughters. Emily and Maren are in Florida this spring, Mauer said, because “they’ll be in kindergarten next year, so they can’t come down here.”
That’s as opposed to their father, presumably. Maybe that’s a hint, maybe a guess, maybe a plan. The truth is, even Joe Mauer isn’t sure.
The Twins’ most senior player, a man who relies on continuity and consistency above all else, officially reports to his 17th Twins camp Sunday with questions swirling around him like swamp flies in the nearby Everglades, triggered by the expiration next October of his club-record, eight-year, $184 million contract signed in March 2010. Is this farewell? Will he be with the Twins next year? Will he even be a professional baseball player anymore?
“I get asked about this all the time,” Mauer says with his trademark shrug. “I honestly don’t know how to answer.”
And in the absence of definitive information, forecasting Mauer’s fate is a popular pastime, inside and outside the clubhouse.
“I don’t know why he would” retire, pitcher Phil Hughes said. “He didn’t look like he was slowing down last year.”
“I think Joe is going to be a lifelong Twin,” manager Paul Molitor said. “That’s my gut reaction.”
Mauer seems as afflicted by the attention as the uncertainty, but he admits to wondering himself.
“I was driving here today and thinking, ‘This is my 17th big-league spring training in the same building, the same clubhouse.’ It’s really kind of emotional, a sentimental kind of thing. I mean, it goes by so fast,” he said. “I won’t be here forever, I understand that. So I just try to enjoy the heck out of it. That’s what I’m going to do this season.”
And a year from now?
“If I can still contribute, I’m planning to keep going. I’d like that. I really enjoy playing this game, and I want to keep doing that as long as I can,” Mauer said. “To say, ‘Oh, I’m going to play just this year,’ or ‘I’m going to play three or four more years,’ I don’t have that answer. But if I’m feeling good and I’m having an impact, I want to play as long as I can.”
A year ago, many wouldn’t have given him a Joe Mauer rookie card for his chances of getting another contract. His career, once on a Hall of Fame trajectory, had derailed as his team did, too. His batting average, three times the highest in the AL, had sagged for three consecutive years, and when he hit .261 for a 103-loss team in 2016, whispers grew around the league that he was washed up, that the Twins were better off benching him and handing Miguel Sano his job at first base.
That’s why 2017 was so invigorating, both for Mauer and the Twins.
A playoff run was exciting, and Mauer relished being in the middle of it, savored the champagne poured over his head the night they clinched a wild card.
“There are a lot of ups and downs in your career, and as you get older, you really learn to appreciate those great moments,” Mauer said. “That’s why I’m not ready to say this is it, or this isn’t it. I’m having too much fun.”
Age also can send veterans like him, particularly those as accomplished but unfulfilled in the postseason as Mauer, on a last-ditch quest for championship rings. Carlos Beltran, for instance, capped a 20-year career last season by signing with the Houston Astros and winning the World Series title that had always eluded him.
A similar thirst afflicts Mauer, too, and for good reason. The Twins are 1-13 in postseason games since he reached the majors in 2004, losing the past 13. So yes, he wants to go out with some gaudy jewelry like Beltran.
Here’s the thing, though: If he’s going hunting for a title, he intends to bag one in Minnesota.
“We had some tough years, but things changed last year. We’ve got the talent to win, if we just get these guys some experience,” Mauer said of the Twins, who last year added 24 wins to their total from 2016. “I want to see this organization win, and I want to be a part of it.”
Can the St. Paul native and Cretin-Derham Hall product picture putting on another team’s uniform if the Twins don’t invite him back?
“No, not really, to be honest,” he said. “This is where I want to be. This is where my family is, where my daughters are growing up. I have no intention of going anywhere else. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that.”
It appears he won’t know for another seven months, though. Mauer, who turns 35 three weeks after Opening Day, said he hasn’t approached the Twins about a contract extension, nor have they called his agent. Derek Falvey, the Twins chief baseball officer, said he won’t comment publicly on potential negotiations with a player, but added: “I know what Joe has meant to this franchise, and I recognize where his contract is. Joe is as hard a worker as you’re going to find, and any conversations we have with him will be held with the utmost respect for him.”
That’s good enough for Mauer, too. He and his longtime agent, Ron Shapiro, have discussed his future, “but I just said I kind of want to enjoy this year and see what happens,” he said. “I’m not one to say I have to have a [new] contract, or make demands. I definitely still love the game, and I’d like to keep putting this uniform on. The Twins mean a lot to me.”
So does his family, though. Road trips are becoming more difficult for Mauer, because the 4-year-olds hate it when he leaves. Their well-being, and the time away from them and his wife, Maddie, that comes with a baseball career, will be a consideration. His brother Jake, the Twins’ Class AA manager at Chattanooga last season, weighed similar circumstances this winter, and decided to give up baseball in order to be with his children.
“I’m happy for Jake. He made the decision for his family,” Mauer said. “That wasn’t lost on me.”
About that contract ...
It might be Joe Mauer’s least favorite interview topic, so much so that he defensively reduces any mention to a generic shorthand in conversation, the term “deal” preferred over “contract,” the number 184 standing in for the staggering bottom line: $184 million. The most handsomely paid player in franchise history squirms at the mention of his colossal compensation, grows mortified at the thought that fans might think he is greedy and objects to the notion that his paycheck in any way defines him.
“I know I get labeled with that, but I’ve never played because of money. When I walk in here, it’s about the game, it’s about winning,” Mauer said. “There’s a lot more to me than 184. That number will always be linked to me, I understand that, but the guys in here would tell you they don’t pay much attention to it.”
He knows that his social-media-fueled critics do, though, and always have, even before concussions forced him to give up his natural position behind the plate. And he understands that the topic will be brought up more than ever this summer.
Mauer can truthfully explain that he simply benefited from baseball’s modern compensation system, and that he signed, back in the spring of 2010, a contract that reflected the acknowledged market value for a young, three-time AL batting champion fresh off a league MVP season for a perennial division champion. He couldn’t turn it down — the players’ union wouldn’t have allowed it, for that matter — and … who would?
Would it be difficult to accept a salary smaller than the $23 million he makes annually? Mauer makes a face at the question. He wants what’s fair, nothing more, he says. He understands baseball’s economics and his place in it.
And the number that really mattered, Mauer insists, wasn’t the breadth of his big contract, but its length. Eight years in all, cocooned in a no-trade clause that guaranteed that Target Field — which was about to open when he signed — would be his home past his 35th birthday.
“Being here for eight years, that was more important to me than what everybody else focused on,” Mauer said, using another euphemism for his salary. “To know I would be home and be surrounded by the people who are important to me, that was the best part of the deal. I know other people look at it differently, but I can’t help that.”
Desiring a contract is one thing. Earning it is another. And Mauer believes he’s in better position to do that than ever before.
He hit a team-best .305 last year, with an .801 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. He racked up 44 extra-base hits and 71 RBI. It was his best season since 2013, a career resurgence, in fact, that changed some opinions about how long he can contribute.
While Mauer is reluctant to talk about it — yes, another difficult topic — that comeback year might not be a coincidence.
The six-time All-Star catcher was struck on the top of his helmet by an Ike Davis foul ball Aug. 19, 2013. The incident ended that season for Mauer and, he concedes, might have afflicted the next two or three.
“It was tough. I realized that you don’t really know how bad it is sometimes, even when you’re cleared to play. I had kind of accepted it as my new normal,” he said of the concussion symptoms that kept returning even years later. “Like, you don’t know why you’re struggling so much, because you’re putting in the work. There are so many unknowns that you’re not prepared for.”
Mauer recalls accepting an invitation to a Wild game shortly before spring training in 2014 — but he stayed only “about two minutes,” he said, because he became overwhelmed.
“Just all the sounds, the ice, how bright it was, I just turned right around,” he said. “It was a scary thing. You think, ‘Is this how it’s going be the rest of the way?’ ‘I’m a dad now, is it going to be like this in 10 years? Or 15?’ You just don’t know.”
But time has healed his brain, and calmed his fears. He found treatments that worked, and “I feel like I’ve been getting better and better. It takes time, more than you ever realize.”
Molitor played 15 seasons for the Brewers, and he took for granted there would be a 16th. But when Milwaukee offered him a contract that guaranteed him only about one-third as much as the Toronto Blue Jays were willing to pay, he reluctantly left the only team he had known.
So the Twins manager is looking on with interest, but also plenty of empathy, as his team’s senior player enters the final year of his contract.
“That’s going to be something where it probably swirls in his head from time to time,” Molitor said. “I’m curious about it, to some degree, about how he feels about it today.”
Everyone is curious, Mauer knows. He shrugs again. It’s going to be a long year of answering the same question, he seems to say.
“I try not to think a lot about it. I just want to play the game,” Mauer said. “People worry about way too many things out there. I’m more worried about who’s on the mound every night and what I can do to help the team. I’m really looking forward to this year. I really believe I’m going to have some fun this year. I think we all will.”