Even After a Historic Career, Joe Mauer Leaves Us Wondering ‘What If’

Photo credit: Brad Rempel, USA TODAY Sports

In Joe Mauer’s farewell letter announcing his retirement, he presented a “what if” scenario that should resonate with Minnesota Twins fans.

After saying that the decision, which he pondered for well over a month after the season ended, was difficult because of his passion for baseball and explaining that the concussion he suffered on a routine play against the Los Angeles Angels in mid-May reminded him of the struggles he faced after his career-altering concussion near the end of the 2013 season, he concluded that the risk of another brain injury was not worth the risk of potentially ruining his life after baseball.

“The concussion I experienced that season not only changed my life professionally with a move to first base but changed me personally as well,” he wrote. “I am soon to be a father of three, and I find myself thinking about my future health and its impact on my family more than I had years ago.”

If the concern with the first concussion was that he would have to move to first base — meaning that he would not only have to leave his preferred position on the field — but also that he was unlikely to live up to the $184 million contract he signed four years earlier, then the concern with the second one was that a third might fundamentally alter his life. He missed 30 games this year due to the concussion he sustained on a play so innocuous that, in fact, a potentially injury wasn’t even considered at the time because he faced the symptoms days afterwards.

“After my concussion this season I found myself wondering about ‘what if’ situations,” he wrote. “If I were to continue playing this game I would want to do so without reservation, and I no longer feel that is possible. There is part of me that will always want to compete, but I have reached a point where my desire to play is outweighed by the possibility of another injury.”

The difficult aspect of a concussion is it is not like a broken leg or deteriorating knees. It’s obvious why a player’s career would be altered with a physical, visible injury like that. While “bilateral leg weakness” was an unfortunate label — Mauer likely had a knee or leg injury he tried to play through in 2011, the second year of his massive deal — it should be obvious why a 6-foot-5 catcher could not play through a leg injury while crouching behind the plate.

But the foul-tip against the Mets in August of 2013 is a common occurrence in baseball. The mask Mauer was wearing that day is supposed to prevent him from injury, and it’s hard to judge the speed of a ball that only travels a couple feet, if that, off the bat of the hitter — even it isn’t all that different than some of the balls that travel deep into the outfield or out of the park. It’s not like Mauer was injured by a second baseman trying to turn a double play, as Justin Morneau was, or had a player collide with him at home. It was a routine play that ultimately turned him from one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball history to a pedestrian-hitting first baseman for the next three years.

Somehow Mauer lost control of his narrative from that day forward as well. In an ideal world, he was supposed to be the superstar player that stayed in Minnesota — unlike Johan Santana, Torii Hunter, Chuck Knoblauch, etc. — because the Twins could sustain a larger payroll in their new stadium. “We’ve talked for a long time about the importance of Target Field,” St. Peter said. “It really puts the Minnesota Twins in a position to retain the talent that we work so hard to develop in the minor leagues.”

Photo credit: David Richard, USA TODAY Sports

Instead, he was labeled an albatross who did not allow the Twins to build a team around him. He was soft because he couldn’t play through bilateral leg weakness and wouldn’t return behind the plate after his concussion. He was a poor leader because he wasn’t as vocal as A.J. Pierzynski or charismatic as Hunter. This, of course, disregarded the fact that baseball had no salary cap and there were many contracts that were far worse than Mauer’s. That if he had gone behind the plate, he was likely to get concussed again sooner than he did. And that he and Morneau were celebrated for “speaking softly and carrying a big stick” in promotions for the team in the mid-2000’s.

Mauer did himself no favors by refusing to get out in front of what was going on — reticent by nature, he was not particularly gregarious with the media like Michael Cuddyer, Hunter or Brian Dozier. But somehow the idea that one of the team’s best players of all-time decided to stay home instead of chase championships elsewhere became a criticism, not a cause for celebration.

The team Mauer departs stands at a crossroads because Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton had poor seasons last year. Mauer’s job, had he returned, would be to hold down the leadoff spot until Buxton, or someone else, could replicate or surpass his .282/.351/.379 line from last season. He’d still lead by example, with his work ethic and ability to see the small things players did to help the team win on any given day. He could have tried to play as long as he could hit, which some players like former manager Paul Molitor are able to do into their 40s. But at some point, if the Twins correct their course, there could have been an awkward moment where he didn’t have have a role on the current team, but might on another one and would have retired a Texas Ranger. Or Baltimore Oriole. Or done a stint with the Chicago White Sox, like Morneau did.

Worse yet, the last memory of him could be a wild pitch that hit him in the head. Or slide where another player hit him with his knee. Or another dive after a foul ball that caused another concussion. Instead, it is of him donning the catching gear for the first time since 2013, which created an iconic image and a reminder of how long ago it was that he was at his best.

Photo credit: Jordan Johnson, USA TODAY Sports

We don’t hold it against Morneau that he had a stint with the White Sox. Or Cuddyer that he finished up with the Mets. Or Santana that he struggled in his 30s. We should remember Mauer at his best, and that he stayed in Minnesota to try to turn the Twins into champions once again. And, really, that he bounced back in his final two years with the team and had an impact on many of their young players.

Mauer ultimately wanted to win in Minnesota, which is something that should be cherished among fans — especially in a place where many of the best players pack their bags in the prime of their careers and head for larger, coastal markets. The “what if” scenario ultimately lands not with him, but with the team because they fell behind the sabermetric revolution, failed to develop players, especially pitchers, and instead of building a team around Mauer, saw the likes of Morneau, Cuddyer and many other core players leave while Mauer was still catching and hitting above .300 and getting on base 40 percent of the time.

Even though his playing days are done, Mauer has an opportunity to impact winning. He can take a role like Morneau, Hunter, Cuddyer and many ex-players have and advise the next wave of players. Perhaps one of them will become a star, and maybe they, like him, will decide to stay in Minnesota instead of chasing rings elsewhere.

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