Joe Mauer has two older brothers: Jake by four years and Billy by three. “Joe was the younger brother we put in the outfield when Bill and I had games,’’ Jake said. “Then, Joe played shortstop – all over, but mostly shortstop. The catching came later.’’
Jim O’Neill was the baseball coach at Cretin-Derham Hall. “Joe was a kid we had seen at grade school games, playing in the neighborhood,’’ O’Neill said. “When the freshmen get here, we ask, ‘What position do you play?’ and Joe said, ‘I’m a catcher.’
“I explained our situation and Joe said it again: ‘I’m a catcher.’ ‘’
The situation was this: Cretin-Derham Hall had won back-to-back state championships. And several players from those teams were seniors in 1998, including Nick Birk, the catcher.
“I told Joe and his parents, ‘If Joe wants to catch, we’re going to start him on the freshmen team and if anything happens, he can move up,’ ‘’ O’Neill said. “The ’98 team won another state title – went unbeaten, in fact. Nick was very good as our catcher, and Joe stayed on the freshmen team.
“I’ve always been amazed by Jake and Teresa, his parents. Talent-wise, Joe should have been in our lineup in ’98, but Joe had a great time playing with his buddies, and his parents never said a word … never said, ‘How can you not have our son on the varsity?’
“I can tell you: It would take some rare parents that wouldn’t be asking that question today.’’
Mauer was the Raiders’ catcher for the next three seasons, of course, and they won another state title when he was a senior in 2001. What came to mind quickly for O’Neill in a conversation on Monday morning was Mauer’s game against Brainerd in the state tournament:
Mauer in 2001. (Carlos Gonzalez photo)
“We were playing at Midway Stadium. Joe hit a three-run home run to put us ahead in the fourth. Then, we put him on the mound in the fifth, and they had a radar reading on the board there. And the first pitch from Joe registered 92 [miles per hour].’’
That was the same time that the hometown Twins were making Mauer the No. 1 overall selection in the major league draft.
“There was a young scout who lived in California and worked for the Angels who had been watching Joe,’’ O’Neill said. “The day after the draft, he still was there, watching us take batting practice.
“I said, ‘Why are you here … the draft’s over?’ And the scout said, ‘I want to watch that swing a few more times. Then, if I ever see it again with another high school player, I’ll know that we want him.’ ‘’
There’s a high level of probability that Joe Mauer is the greatest high school athlete in Minnesota history: No. 1 selection in the baseball draft, No. 1 quarterback recruit in the nation with a commitment to Florida State, and a terrific and tall guard on a Cretin-Derham Hall that lost to Osseo in the state semifinals.
“Best basketball game I ever saw a high school player play was Joe against Mo Hargrow and Highland Park,’’ said John Tauer, now the University of St. Thomas basketball coach. “Joe had 31 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, and didn’t miss a shot – free throw or from the field.’’
How unusual is it for the best all-around athlete in a school – much less a state – to insist that he’s a catcher?
“From what I’ve seen, it’s pretty rare,’’ O’Neill said. “I think with Joe and athletics, he liked being in control, without being loud about it. Catcher, quarterback, a basketball player with the ball in his hands.
“I think Joe also was smart enough to realize that a catcher who was a lefthanded hitter would be prized by scouts and major league teams. Again, without being loud about it, I’m sure playing in the big leagues was on Joe’s mind from the time he was catching for our freshmen team.’’
Of all the scenes from Sunday at Target Field, starting with the little girls running like junior Olympians to their father at first base, the most-revealing for me was Mauer’s emotional bond to being a catcher … to “putting on the gear again,’’ even if it was for a single pitch.
Catchers are a different breed. There are few with the 6-foot-5 frame of Joe Mauer, and none with the Mauer-like ability to put a bat on a baseball, but my observation is it gets into an athlete’s soul – like goaltending in hockey.
The fierce foul balls off a mask (that did in Mauer as a catcher), the aching backs and knees, the bruised and broken collarbones … all of that, and many catchers still have to be dragged away, a Bobby Wilson, a Chris Gimenez, and name your Molina.
Joe was one of ‘em and, even with an extraordinary ability to hit and to throw and to receive that separated him from the pack – we saw on Sunday, he always wanted to remain a catcher, the man in the gear, the ballplayer in control without being loud about it.
Five years at first, but Joe Mauer remained a catcher in his soul.