Absent some memorable postseason heroics — and sorry to say, that category hasn’t applied in Minnesota for decades — there could hardly be a better, more sentimental goodbye for a longtime ballplayer than the heartwarming spectacle of Joe Mauer crouching behind the plate Sunday.
But what if it wasn’t goodbye? One prominent observer of the Twins hometown hero believes it would be a mistake for Mauer to walk away at the tender young age of 35. Of course, he might be biased.
“I think he’s still got more, I really do,” said Jake Mauer, father of Sunday’s honoree. “He can still hit and play pretty good defense. … We’ll see.”
Joe Mauer has said he realizes that making such a drastic decision while still winding down from the grind of 162 games and the disappointment of yet another season spent miles from a pennant race would be a mistake. So even as he acted all Lou Gehrig on Sunday, thanking the fans and his teammates and shedding a few tears on the field, he still reserved the right to go Bartolo Colon on his career.
“I want to give myself some time to decompress and really make a good decision,” he said Sunday, still occasionally choking up as he spoke. “Emotions are all over the place. I just want to give myself the chance to step away for a second.”
He has plenty of elements to consider. A year ago, the Twins qualified for the postseason, albeit a very brief one commensurate with their not-exactly-dominant 85-77 record, and Mauer enjoyed a renaissance season, his best since concussions bruised his brain and his career. No wonder he flatly stated a week before spring training opened that “I’d like to keep going. I really enjoy playing this game, and I’d like to keep doing that as long as I can.”
But as September dawned, Mauer was reminded of those words. His reply: “A lot can change in six months.”
And you only had to look around the clubhouse to see his point. The Twins were a wreck, with projected stars Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano lost to injury and ineffectiveness, and the Indians several laps ahead in the standings. Some of his closest friends, Brian Dozier and Eduardo Escobar, had been traded, and many of his new young teammates were strangers.
Worst of all, Mauer’s rejuvenation seemed a one-year blip. His batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage each declined by about 30 points; he started only 85 games at first base, and his WAR of 1.5 (down from 3.4 a year ago) ranked just 11th on the team. Most alarming, he suffered another concussion and missed a month.
That doesn’t mean he has nothing to offer, though. “He still takes the best at-bats on the team,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “The ability to work a count and to be comfortable hitting with two strikes, the ability to spoil pitches until you get one you can handle — he’s a professional hitter.”
Even that ability showed signs of erosion this year, though; Mauer batted only .215 with two strikes, and his two-strike on-base percentage was a career-low .265.
Still, though, Molitor said he has no doubt that Mauer can be a contributor to a winner next year, and “it’ll be a huge difference for any manager to lose a player and a person like that. … I told the players [Saturday], ‘We’ve all learned something from Joe Mauer.’ It might be different, person to person, player to player, but he teaches life lessons by the way he lives.”
The Twins never meant for Sunday’s farewell-ish moments to shove him out the door, bench coach Derek Shelton said. “It’s up to him, and I really hope he comes back. He’s not done. He doesn’t have to be retired if he doesn’t want to be, and we talked about that” when they planned his sentimental one-pitch return to catching, Shelton said. “Next year, we plan to play meaningful games in September. If he’s part of it, that’s great. If not, this was one hell of a sendoff.”
Cleveland (91-71): The Indians dominated the AL Central, going 48-27 against the other four teams, and finished 13 games ahead of the second-place Twins. They are well set up for the AL Division Series against Houston with starters, Corey Kluber (20-7, 2.89 ERA), Carlos Carrasco (231 strikeouts, 3.38 ERA), Trevor Bauer (221 strikeouts) and Mike Clevinger (3.02 ERA) in the stable.
Detroit (64-98): Avoiding 100 losses seemed to be seemed to be the Tigers’ lone accomplishment, but first-year manager Ron Gardenhire said: “Our record doesn’t indicate how many games we’ve been in. We’ve had chances to win … That’s called the learning process of figuring out how to win those games.” Losing star first baseman Miguel Cabrera in June because of a ruptured biceps didn’t help.
Chicago (62-100): Manager Rick Renteria suffered through another rebuilding season, admitting, “It’s been a lot of ups, a lot of downs — probably more downs than ups.” The White Sox lost 100 games for the first time since 1970; they struck out a major league record 1,594 times; and Michael Kopech, the team’s No. 1 pitching prospect, had Tommy John surgery after a brief major league stint.
Kansas City (58-104): The Royals had the majors’ second-worst record to Baltimore, but like Gardenhire, manager Ned Yost put a positive spin on it. “I think we’re making progress,” said Yost, who will remain in the job he has held since May 2010. “I like the fact that the kids made the big jump like they did.” Kansas City might have an ace in waiting in 23-year-old righthander Brad Keller.
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