Joe Mauer was leading off the 10th inning on Friday night in Seattle. He sliced a fly ball to left that Wladimir Balientien pursued clumsily and allowed to fall for a double.

The Minnesota folks who hung with this West Coast game until midnight were no doubt divided at that moment:

There were the fans pumping a fist toward the television and saying, "Atta boy, Joe," and there were the fatalists moaning, "Oh, no, Mauer got a double. Now, we'll never sign him."

Baseball's descent from the national pastime to relying on regional appeal -- as with basketball and hockey -- has left the grand old game with a fan base that can be rather dimwitted.

There's the smug minority that think it's all about make-believe statistics, and there is the obtuse majority that looks at a 162-game baseball schedule through the same lens as it does a 16-game NFL season.

Those are people with baseball observations that are neither bright nor original, and yet they have an urge to express them in BlogWorld or in calls to radio shows.

A couple of months ago, this crowd was insistent that Mauer was an injury-prone singles hitter and in need of a position change for the Twins to get much more out of him.

Five weeks after Mauer's return to the lineup, the mantra has changed: The Twins messed up by not signing Mauer to a long-term contract last winter, with two years left on his deal from February 2007. They will never get a deal done with him now and it's inevitable that Mauer will be with the Yankees or the Red Sox in 2011.

This angst over Mauer's future with the Twins is premature by six months, minimum.

Sad to say, the Twin Cities sports media also has embraced Mauer's contract situation as an important topic. Last week, we received the bulletin in the St. Paul Pioneer Press that it would've been less costly to sign Mauer last winter than it would be today.

You wonder where those insights were in April when Mauer was rehabbing his sore back.

Nothing has changed with the Twins and Mauer. They signed him to a four-year, $33 million contract before the 2007 season, with full awareness they would be required to come up with an extremely lucrative extension before the 2010 season.

The Mauer paranoia among the masses is fed by the departures of Torii Hunter and Johan Santana after the 2007 season. There were these differences:

• The Twins would have made a strong effort to sign Hunter in the winter of 2006-07 if they wanted him long-term. Instead, the Twins picked up his $12 million option for 2007, he turned 32 in July and the Twins made only a token effort as the center fielder left for the Angels' huge contract.

• The Twins offered Santana a four-year, $80 million extension, on top of the $13 million he was due for the 2007 season. Remember, Johan was not on the market, and the Twins had $93 million sitting there.

Santana said no thanks, as much because he wanted to pitch under brighter lights as the promise of greater millions. He was 28, a superstar in his prime, and the Twins felt they had no choice other than a trade.

Did they turn down a better trade with the Red Sox? Perhaps, but remember that Boston was not as enthusiastic about ponying up a six-year, $138 million extension as were the Mets -- and any deal needed Johan to waive a no-trade clause.

Bottom line: The Twins don't have as much blood on their hands over the departures of Hunter and Santana as many perceive. And Mauer's situation is different than Hunter's -- and, hopefully different than Santana's.

Mauer turns 27 next April, remains in his prime and plays the most important position on the diamond. That separates him from Hunter in two categories.

What could separate Mauer from Santana is Joe's view on wanting to stay with the Twins.

If he wants to be here long-term, his agent, Ron Shapiro, will give the Twins a huge number but one they can gulp down and an extension will be signed in the offseason.

If Joe would like to try it somewhere else, maybe laid-back L.A., then the Twins are out of luck.

Either way, all this premature moaning is a waste of angst.

Patrick Reusse can be heard 5:30-9 a.m. weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP. •