The writing has been on the wall of the last week or so that we were entering the final days of seeing Joe Mauer as a big-league ballplayer.
The first layer of lacquer was applied to that narrative on Friday night, when manager Paul Molitor lifted Joe in the sixth inning for a pinch-runner, allowing No. 7 to doff his cap for the crowd before exiting the field.
The second layer was put on Saturday night when local photographer Brad Rempel — on assignment for USA Today — captured a photo of Mauer waving to the crowd as he exited the field.
The final layer was applied in multiple coats prior to, during and after Sunday’s game.
Prior to the game starting, Mauer posed for photos with his wife Maddie and twin daughters Maren and Emily right behind the TC logo near home plate. After doing his Sunday spot where he welcomes the Gillette Children’s Hospital patient scoring the game’s ceremonial first run, he went back in the dugout to prepare for the game to start.
The Twins do the “Perkins Kids Starting Lineup” every Sunday at home, with nine lucky kids taking the field — one at each position — during the National Anthem.
Eight positions were announced, but first base was left vacant until stadium announcer Rusty Kath said maybe there was someone who could fill in at the last second. The gate down the right-field line opened, and out sprang two adorable, energetic twin sisters — Emily and Maren Mauer.
Both stood with Joe during the Star Spangled Banner and then embraced him with a peck on the cheek and a big hug afterward in a moment that would warm even the coldest of hearts.
When Mauer led off the bottom of the first inning, both catcher Welington Castillo and home plate umpire Jim Reynolds vacated the dirt around the plate to let Joe take his time to soak in the moment, waving to the crowd before taking an extended version of his customary warm-up swings while T.I.’s “What You Know” — his walk-up song almost exclusively since the 2006 season — blared over the loudspeaker.
Later in the game — aptly enough, the seventh inning — when Mauer fought off a 3-2 fastball from White Sox reliever Juan Minaya, driving it into the left-field gap and hustling into second for a double, it felt like 2006 again. Again, Mauer took off his helmet for a quick tip to the crowd, but the best was still yet to come.
Max Kepler grounded out to short to end the eighth inning, and everything in the park came to a standstill.
Was Mauer coming out, just to be replaced at first base by Tyler Austin to get one last, deserved standing ovation?
What ensued was so, so much better.
As the music that typically played in anticipation of the closer entering the game, the song just sort of kept going. Curiosity filled the air, before public address announcer Adam Abrams boomed out the following line:
“Now catching for the Twins, number seven, Joooooe Mauer!”
…and as the “Back in the Saddle” by Aerosmith played over the loudspeakers, the place came unglued. Mauer caught one pitch from Matt Belisle, called time and headed out to the mound to give the reliever three years his senior a big bear hug before walking off to one more standing ovation as Chris Gimenez took over behind the plate.
Hollywood couldn’t have scripted it better, as it was truly made complete as the theme from “The Natural” played.
Again, nothing is set in stone, but man, it feels like this is it for Joe.
Perhaps White Sox play-by-play man Jason Benetti said it best:
“None of us gets to choose how we’re remembered on this planet. But in the game of baseball, every once in a while, a player so special to a town gets to choose how he walks off the field for a final time. If this is it for Joe Mauer, a fitting, touching and warm send-off on a chilly day in the Twin Cities.”
Joe’s potential retirement brings a lot of things into perspective for me. He debuted in April 2004 against C.C. Sabathia, Victor Martinez and the Cleveland Indians. Despite living up in Roseau in the far northwestern corner of the state, I was actually down in Minneapolis for a school field trip to the Guthrie Theater as part of the final month or so of my senior year of high school.
I didn’t get to see much of that first year of Mauer’s career; my cable company didn’t carry Victory Sports and Joe tore his meniscus in just his second big-league game. As a result, he was limited to just 35 games that season, including watching from the sidelines as Henry Blanco and Pat Borders filled in for him as the Twins dropped the American League Division Series to the New York Yankees in what would become a microcosm of Mauer’s career the rest of the way.
Mauer wasn’t healthy enough to play against the Yankees that time, and when he was, the Twins just couldn’t get over that hump.
Mauer’s playoff record was 0-10. Outside of 2009, he was never a power hitter. Sure he missed some games the rest of the way with injuries.
But if you’re left wishing he’d done more with his career, that says more about you than him.
There’s little doubt in my mind that Joe will be a Hall of Famer.
Take a look at his contemporaries via JAWS — a metric devised by Jay Jaffe, which seeks to find out how players compare to their peers as far as Hall of Fame cases are considered:
This is a mix of the player’s career and peak seven-year WAR totals, and it pretty clearly shows that Mauer belongs in Cooperstown.
Beyond that, my personal contention is that no position is more undervalued by what it brings to the table than catcher. When considering the best catcher of all-time has 75.2 WAR while the best center fielder is 156.4 (Willie Mays) and the best shortstop is 130.9 (Honus Wagner), it’s easy to concede I’m perhaps half right, with the other half being that catcher is just an extraordinarily hard position to play, too.
Saying Mauer could have done more is like not appreciating Superman in his time. Yeah, he was a great journalist, but you’d have appreciated him more if you knew what he was doing when you weren’t watching.
“Sometimes we lose touch with the people side of the athlete that we cheer. I think the person side of Joe was on full display today”
Joe Mauer was everything you could want to be growing up as a kid in Minnesota.
He’s the local kid who hit it big. He worked hard and earned a contract we’d all dream of signing. He was briefly linked to Miss America, but settled down with the girl next door. They have two beautiful daughters with another child due just before Thanksgiving.
Joe played his career deserving of the front page, and lived his life so it never turned up on the back page. He wanted nothing to do with the limelight, and even to this day has kept his intentions mum on whether he’s going to return for next year.
To hear teammates and coaches talk about Mauer is to think he was the Mother Teresa of the big leagues. Potentially slight hyperbole aside, it’s impossible to hear someone utter a negative word about Mauer.
Manager Paul Molitor has spoken of Mauer in glowing terms from day one when he was hired prior to 2015, and that continued on Sunday when I asked how he ranked the day’s events compared to other things he’d seen on the baseball field.
His answer did not disappoint:
“Those moments are tough for me because I think with your experiences seeing various things that happen, we always say that the game waits for no one. Players pass through and they make an impact. From Joe’s girls early on in the game, to every time he stepped up the steps into the on-deck circle, it was tough to contain your feeling. I just tried to contain my feelings. I just tried to soak it all in the best that I could. It meant a lot to me to be in that position managing Joe the way I have and to share that today.
“I don’t know where I rank it with other things. I was in the on-deck circle when Robin Yount got his 3,000th hit and that was really hard for me to watch video of him and try to prepare to hit. It was just one of those things where Joe held it together. I was glad we saw the emotion. Sometimes we lose touch with the people side of the athlete that we cheer. I think the person side of Joe was on full display today.
Molitor said he spoke to Renteria prior to the game, and worked out a situation where Mauer could catch a single pitch without it affecting the game too much.
“Rick was fantastic,” Molitor said. “I told him I didn’t want to disrespect the game or the integrity of winning and losing. Talked about the concept uncertain of what it was going to be, seventh, eighth or ninth, depending on how things unfolded. But it would be a one-pitch scenario and we were going to try to throw a ball as best we could and it worked out.”
The immenseness of the moment wasn’t lost on Molitor whatsoever, though he was part of the faction who knew what was going to happen but had to stay mum about it.
“Joe kind of agreed to do it but we knew it was more about how people would respond to it than Joe,” Molitor said. “For Joe, it’s never been about Joe. And for his teammates, I think it’s the same way. We didn’t really spread it around too far about how the end of the day should come for Joe. It might’ve spread a little bit this morning and then when he went in and put the gear on, people began to understand what was going to transpire.
“Just watching him come through the tunnel and up those steps made it worthwhile. I know we put a lot of thought into it. I couldn’t be any happier it went in that direction.”
Molitor was also able to relate — on a small scale, anyway — the pressure that Mauer carried as a representative of his home state 162 times a year on the baseball field.
“I never once did not realize the burden that he had to carry. Athletes, you’re asked to separate some of those things and go out there play and we all get that. He put himself in a position at the right time of his career to sign a beautiful contract and they did what they needed to do at that time to keep him around. People expected a lot of that particular negotiation and rightfully so. I think he has responded.
“He has given everything that he possibly could. Overcame some hurdles physically. He had to make the transition to the new position. But he never shied away from that responsibility or that burden. He was always willing to face the music and meet it head on and that’s part of the respect that we have for him.
“Putting into words, it’s just one of those things where you just talk about the man. I try to imagine his circumstances he got pre-draft coming in as the No. 1 pick and the expectations and hometown and getting hurt right out of the chute and having to overcome that and then turn into one of the best players of his generation. The consistency in which he went about it. The resume is impeccable. The fact that he’s held up the integrity side of it with the community involvement, his family and his commitment to helping when he can, understanding the pedestal that athletes have.
“It’s just been a package the Twins have been blessed to have. To have a local guy come out and be the player and the person he is for this franchise.”
Belisle could barely contain his enthusiasm for getting the chance to pitch to Mauer in the ninth inning, and was smiling ear-to-ear for the entire few minutes he addressed the media.
“Awesome? Yeah, that’s an understatement,” Belisle said. “Very emotional. When he approached me about this a few days ago, it was something that I was just really blown away with humility, to have an honor bestowed on me in that regard. So, of course, I told him, ‘If you want to do this, I’m in your corner like cast iron, I’ll do whatever you want. It doesn’t matter, and that’s for life.’ When he came to me yesterday and said we’re going to do it, I said, ‘OK, let’s roll.’
“I didn’t know how it would play out there, with the length of time, given the hugs and all that, I just wanted to do my best to make it about him and have it as special as it can be. I’m at a loss for words on the idea that he came to me and said I wouldn’t have anybody than you throw it. I don’t know what to say about that.”
In reality, Belisle was the perfect choice. At his age, it’s very possible he was playing in the last game of his big league career besides, but he also understood how to let the moment breathe, because Mauer didn’t come out of the dugout right away and both he and Trevor May were warming to work the ninth.
Neither budged until long after Mauer took the field, giving him plenty of time to soak in the moment before getting down to business with Yoan Moncada announced as the next batter.
For as well as Belisle handled the situation, he gave no indication that he was doing anything but also soaking in the moment.
“I don’t even remember (hearing) the music,” Belisle said. “I was just trying to think about him; that’s all I was thinking about. I was just overwhelmed with joy for him to have an opportunity like that. It was about him, it wasn’t about me.”
So how did he keep it all together?
“I don’t know that I necessarily did,” Belisle admitted. “I don’t know what it looked like, but I’m not sure I did. I certainly made it exciting in the ninth there, to give up the double. But I was holding back some stuff. I had to self-talk to myself and take a deep breath and maybe not show a few of the tears that were trying to pop out. Because we’ve established a relationship over this short year and a half, two years, that is a pretty tight bond. And the respect level. When you’re asked to do something like that, it was just an honor that I cannot articulate well right now. I was a little taken away.”
In the end, though, Belisle couldn’t stop emphasizing just how special he felt the moment was, and how proud he was to be a part of it.
“Just special,” he said. “I wanted to give it some time. There were some people I knew that wanted to line up, to make sure they were in the dugout to see it. So I wanted to give the due diligence to wait as long as I possibly could. And just let it soak up. It was pretty cool for everybody. I think everybody in here could say it was a great moment.”
Mauer met with the media in the Sid Hartman room at Target Field following the game, and it was easy to see what the final game meant to him. With equal parts elation, sadness and relief, he took a handful of questions before again embracing his wife and daughters, who piled on top of him like one might expect 5 1/2-year-old kids to do.
Here are some snippets on what Mauer had to say:
On his emotions following the game:
“It’s tough. It’s been a roller coaster day emotion-wise. Just driving to the park and going through, trying to get ready, and people coming up to you that you might not see for a few months or whatever. Just the personal conversations you have with people you see day after day. Trying to hold it all together and trying to get my body ready to get out there and play, and finish off the season.
“I thought I had it going pretty good, holding it together. Then my two girls ran out on the field and I lost it there for a moment. That was a cool moment. I didn’t know that was going to happen. I guess my wife bribed them with a new toy if they were to go on the field and stay out there for dad. I appreciate that.
“It was just a day of ups and downs. The crowd’s reaction, and just the reaction of the other players. … I have to thank Rick Renteria and his staff for being so accommodating for what happened. It was a one-run ballgame. Being a competitor, I want to respect the ballgame and let it play out the way it is. But to have the opportunity the opportunity to do that … I didn’t think that was going to be a possibility ever. I’m glad I took that opportunity. But yeah it was a roller coaster of a day, trying to have good at-bats after those warm ovations from the crowd. I don’t know who wrote up this day — well, I know who wrote up today — but I’m definitely very thankful for it.”
On if a terrific ending to 2018 will factor into his ultimate decision to return for 2019:
“Like I said, I’ve got a lot of emotions going on right now. I don’t think today could have went any better to script. But going into this, and how this all came about was that there were some rumblings about a month ago that my dad had mentioned something to my wife Maddie — didn’t want to talk to me about it — about if there was an opportunity for me, given where we were as a team, to go out there and catch one pitch. That it would have meant a lot to him. Maddie kind of sat on it a little bit. A few people throughout the organization were kind of mentioning something like that.
“But it wasn’t until Friday, when Mike Herman caught me when I walked in and was trying to get me to do something like that. I was like ‘No Mike, I can’t do it. I can’t do it.’ Then Nate Dammann, our bullpen catcher and one of my closest friends, and Derek Shelton pulled me into Hot Rod’s office and asked about the possibility of making it happen. Hearing what they had to say and how much it would mean, I think they knew how much it would mean to be but maybe not to other people.
“I think they convinced me it would be OK. So that was Friday before the doubleheader. After that conversation, I had to go find a room and just be alone, because I started welling up. I was trying to hold those emotions in. I think you guys saw how important that moment was for me just to put the gear back on. I feel like I’m talking in circles here. But given where we are as a team and having that opportunity, I just couldn’t pass it up.”
What kind of agreement was there with the White Sox to allow this to happen, like not swinging:
“I’m glad you brought that up. That was my first response, ‘You know my wife might kill me if I go back there and they swing.’ That’s the thing. She was so behind it and I’m so thankful for that. But that was my first question to Derek and Nate. I said if I’m going to do this, they have to be on board and take. That’s a risk, and I made the decision five years ago, and I wanted to honor that for my family and myself too. I can’t thank Rick Renteria and the Chicago White Sox enough for agreeing to that and letting me have that moment. It meant a lot.”
What did you and Belisle say to one another:
“Well, that’s the thing. After that conversation with Derek and Nate, I gathered myself a bit and had a question I wanted to ask. I said, ‘Jeez, who have I caught on this team?’ Gibson was the only guy that I’d caught on the staff from what I recall. But playing with Matt over the last couple years, and the amount of respect I have for him and how he goes about his business, and the player and person he is. … I wanted him to share that moment with me.
“We’ve become pretty close. I told him after that I wished I’d been able to play a lot more years with him; he’s about as good as they come. I was able to share that moment with him, and Chris Gimenez coming back taking my spot? I couldn’t think of a better guy to do that too. He’s up there at the top of my list of teammates as well.”
How much of a relief was it not to take an 0-fer on your last day, and what was that last at-bat like:
“There were some tough at-bats today. Just with the emotions and trying to gather myself with everything that’s going on in the crowd. Like I said, it meant a lot to me. You probably saw me taking deep breaths; that’s kind of mechanism of trying to lock in a little bit and calm myself down. I actually thought the third at-bat might be my last one, so I swung at the first pitch. It took me a long time to listen to that I guess, after all the recommendations over the years. But no, I was glad I had the opportunity to go back up there. That at-bat I felt I was locked in, and I’m glad I was able to find the barrel.”
What made you try stretch it into a double:
“That’s just the way I play the game. I saw he was moving a little to his left, and in a one-run game, I’m trying to get into scoring position. Gotta keep playing the game.”
Did your teammates know about you catching beforehand:
“No. We tried to keep this as tight-knit as we could. When we first decided to kind of do it on Friday … I wanted it to be a surprise for my dad. He kind of had the idea and told my wife, but told her ‘Don’t tell Joe.’ I just thought the less people that knew about it, the better. I think if I started telling people about that, I probably would have let more emotion out too. So just a few people knew; a few people that were really close to me that I revealed it to, but not too many.
“It was unbelievable. I came in right before I went out there. I got my bag — Hot Rod knew, our clubhouse manager — and I brought my gear from home. I guess I should tell the story about that. I haven’t opened that bag since 2013. I had the idea, when I was done, that I was going to put it in a shadow box. Put it at home, display it somehow. But for whatever reason, that just didn’t happen. I knew exactly where it was, I just never opened it. So I picked it up — actually last night I went in for the first time — and I put it on over my clothes and started getting emotional. So I brought it in, put it in the back of my trunk and told Hot Rod about it. He went out there and grabbed it sometime during the game.
“I was able to put my gear on at my locker. That’s kind of when it all came out. I was able to get out there and have that moment, and I’m just thankful it happened that way.”