mauermorneauSeated in the front row of Torii Hunter’s retirement news conference Thursday — catching the 40-year-old Hunter by surprise — were both Joe Mauer and ex-Twin Justin Morneau. With Mauer and Morneau sitting next to each other, it felt like 2006 all over again, when they were roommates who routinely ate about 10 pounds of Jimmy John’s sandwiches (each) per week.

A ton has obviously changed since then. Hunter departed, then returned seven years later, and is now retired. Morneau and Mauer have both battled concussions since then, with Morneau moving on and Mauer staying in Minnesota.

Indeed, Mauer is perhaps the strongest link between three eras of Twins baseball: the good times of the mid-2000s, the rough times of the early 2010s and the hint of a rebirth in 2015. After the news conference, I talked to Mauer in a small group on a number of subjects. Here are some of the highlights:

On his relationship with Hunter: “He’s had a huge impact on me as a player and person. I first met Torii when I was 18 years old. He talks about how Kirby and Winfield took him in, well he was no different. He passed that along to me, and I try to pass that along to guys who come in, too. I wouldn’t have missed this day. I was joking around earlier, saying I was thinking I was coming here for (Hunter’s) two-year extension. But I’m happy for him and the place that he is as a person. I look forward to seeing his next move.”

On Hunter and leadership — both in 2015 and now that he’s gone: “It was fun for me to see him evolve as a player and a person. … (Paul Molitor) probably said it perfectly: It’s hard to measure things like leadership. We know in the clubhouse he was a huge addition for us, along with a lot of new members of the team this season. He’s a guy that’s tough to replace. I don’t know if you can use ‘replace.’ You just try to have guys pick up where we left off. … Torii is a unique personality. There are other ways to get his message across. I think I’ve found a way to do it in a different style, but there’s other guys who do it in the same way. We brought Ervin Santana in, and he helped out a lot with the pitching staff. Personality-wise, though, it’s tough to compare or say someone is going to have a personality like Torii’s because he’s one-of-a-kind.”

On the notion that the Twins could be interested in signing Morneau, a free agent: “I would welcome that. It was nice to see Justin, and I know Torii has impacted him in a huge way. Obviously Justin and I are good friends, and I would definitely love to have him back here. But he has to do what’s best for him.”

On what the Twins need to do to take the next step in 2016: “We just need to keep improving. We made it pretty interesting all the way up to the last weekend. I’m sure a lot of (the media) probably didn’t think we were going to have the kind of season we did.”

(At this point, I told Mauer directly: “I did not. Especially after that first week, I was saying all sorts of awful things about you”).

“Yeah, and see that’s the thing. Guys like Torii and other guys who have been around, they remind you not to panic. You just have to keep improving. I know I got the feeling back of playing meaningful baseball here late, and to have those guys experience that is huge heading into the offseason.”

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