Photo credit: Brian Curski

Joe Mauer remembers his first career hit — a liner on April 5, 2004 against the Cleveland Indians. “Rafael Betancourt. Opening Day 2004. Right up the middle,” he said. “That was another good day.”

That was almost exactly 14 years before he’d hit No. 2,000: a ground ball up the middle against Chicago White Sox reliever Aaron Bummer that scored two runners.

Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario, the 3 and 4 hitters, stranded him after striking out. He stood at first momentarily — having already tipped his hat to the crowd and received congratulations from White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu and Twins first base coach Jeff Smith — then progressed towards the dugout not exactly sure what to do next.

“That was probably the most awkward I’ve ever been on a baseball field,” Mauer said. “I didn’t know what to do. I definitely really appreciated the ovation from the fans.”

He meandered about halfway to the dugout, waved at the fans once again, and then proceeded forward to receive hugs from teammates Byron Buxton, Max Kepler and Eduardo Escobar as they entered the field.

“That was awesome, it really was,” he said. “Leading up to it, I didn’t think it was a big deal, but I got emotional. It was fun to see the fans, the boys at the top step and my family there, too. I’m glad I got it done tonight and it didn’t linger on too far.”

His mother and father were there. So were his grandmother and grandfather, as well as his wife Maddie.

“Everybody was here,” said the St. Paul native and Cretin-Derham Hall grad. “I think grandma and grandpa have seen all of them at home. Just the support here, growing up here, I got a lot of texts before the game from a couple guys I hadn’t even heard from in a while saying they were rooting for me. It means a lot.”

Rod Carew and Kirby Puckett are the only other players to reach the 2,000 career hit marks in a Twins uniform, and only seven players in franchise history have done so — including Harmon Killebrew.

“Two of my heroes right there. To be mentioned with those guys and Harmon early in the year with those starts, it means a lot to me right now. And not just to me, the organization. To be mentioned with those guys is pretty special.”

A lot has happened since Mauer had that first hit.

He has converted from a catcher to first baseman after suffering a career-altering concussion in 2013. The Twins went from the team to beat in the AL Central to a perennial doormat. He had only three MLB hits the last time the Minnesota Timberwolves last played in a playoff game — his career basically spans their entire playoff drought, which was snapped on Wednesday.

“He’s been through a lot through his tenure here and most of it has been really, really good,” said Twins manager Paul Molitor, who has 3,000 hits to his name. “But as we’ve seen over the course of the last season and the early stage of this year, he’s got a lot of baseball left. He’s playing at a very high level and coming out of the catcher’s role and transitioning to first base and reaching this milestone. Couldn’t be more happy for him.”

Mauer is batting .412/.545/.529 in 10 games this season. He leads the majors in both average and on-base percentage. He’s 35 and hit .305/.384/.417 last season, but hit .267/.353/.380 in the three years before that — all taking place directly after he suffered the concussion that prompted the move to first base.

It took him 3,064 at-bats in 827 games to reach the first 1,000 hits, and 3,419 at-bats in 915 games to reach the second. He’s in the midst of the final year of his eight-year, $184 million contract that pays him $23 million per year. Once on a surefire Hall of Fame trajectory, he’s no longer certain to be enshrined in Cooperstown.

“You do the math of the percentage of players who are in that category versus the people who have had a chance to put the uniform on and it’s fairly low,” said Molitor, referring to the 286 players who had 2,000 hits before Mauer. “You start finding yourself in categories and rising into areas that few people get a chance to experience. He said out there and I know he truly believes it — ‘we’ve got bigger fish to fry’ as far as what we’re trying to accomplish here.”

Mauer said that his teammates pitched in and bought him a bottle of wine to celebrate the occasion. Molitor hasn’t gotten him anything yet.

“The only time I got somebody something was when my buddy (Milwaukee Brewers teammate) Robin [Yount] got 3,000,” said Molitor. “But I got time — he’s gonna be around for a while.”

For how long is the question. When he reached 1,000 hits he was a 27-year-old catcher in his prime on a team that won 94 games. Now he’s the veteran on a young team looking to make the playoffs for the second year in a row, ideally as the AL Central champion, but more likely as a Wild Card team.

Last time his contract was up, in 2009, the idea was he’d be the lynchpin in a championship team that could be built out with increased funds from a new ballpark, and we all know how that turned out. Now we’ll see if he can be a steady-hitting first baseman when Buxton, Sano and company are at their best and ready to make the Twins the team to beat in the AL Central again.


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