Watching Joe Mauer become a lightning rod in Minnesota has been like watching a glass of milk become the center of a political debate.
A reminder: Joe Mauer was born in St. Paul. He struck out just once during a storybook high school career during which he followed the path of Paul Molitor, another St. Paulite who attended Cretin-Derham Hall.
One of the greatest high school athletes from any state, he declined a chance to play quarterback at Florida State to sign with his hometown team, the Twins.
He became one of the best all-around catchers of all time, became the first American League catcher to win a batting title, and won an MVP award just before the Twins opened Target Field. He won three Gold Glove Awards and finished in the top 10 of the MVP voting four times.
He will have his number retired by the Twins this weekend and could follow the lead of Kirby Puckett into the Hall of Fame, as a great player kept from traditional statistical milestones by ailments.
Somehow, Mauer became one of the greatest athletes in Minnesota history without ever causing any trouble. He never said anything controversial or selfish, never got arrested, was never tainted by scandal.
Cool story, right?
For a while, it was.
Mauer became a lightning rod not because of overt action, but because of money and injury.
When Mauer signed an eight-year contract worth $184 million and never again replicated his glory years, he became someone over whom sides were chosen.
One side: He’s a great Minnesota athlete and a nice guy limited by injuries. Leave him alone.
The other side: His salary is killing the Twins, he should give the money back.
Mauer’s legacy was hampered because he made the most money after he performed like one of the greatest catchers of all time, and because he participated in zero playoff victories.
He compares in many ways to Yankees star Derek Jeter. The differences: Jeter played on a team for which payroll was never a concern, and the Yankees won championships with Jeter in the lineup.
Both played premium defensive positions. Mauer hit .306 for his career; Jeter .310. Mauer’s OPS was .827; Jeter’s was .817. Jeter won five Gold Gloves, although more because of his fame than his fielding, and finished in the top 10 of six MVP votes, although he never won one.
Jeter never won a batting title; Mauer won three.
Had Jeter played for the Twins and Mauer for the Yankees, Jeter might have been considered a good-not-great player and Mauer a champion.
Instead, Mauer experienced the tortured bliss of playing in his home state while facing immense expectations. He never caused controversy; it came with the contract.