Joe Mauer’s Jersey Retirement is a Reminder of His Greatness, the Limitations of One Player

Photo credit: David Berding (USA Today Sports)

Byron Buxton wore No. 7 at multiple stops in his minor league career, including at Cedar Rapids and Chattanooga. Upon arriving in Minneapolis in 2015, he chose 25 because it added up to seven.

No. 7, of course, was being worn by teammate Joe Mauer.

Mauer said it was assigned to him when he was playing Rookie Ball in Elizabethton. He wore 6 and 16 at Cretin-Derham Hall, and a slew of different numbers as he climbed the ranks in the minors. He never wore 7 in any sport growing up.

“I got to Elizabethton just excited to get my career started. I walked into the clubhouse and it was just hanging there,” said Mauer. “I ended up hitting .400, which was great. My buddy Justin Morneau would tell me ‘You’re crazy if you don’t pick it again.’”

The number will forever be his now, on a plaque next to World Series manager Tom Kelly and Minnesota Twins greats he admired while growing up in St. Paul: Bert Blyleven, Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Tony Oliva, Rod Carew and Harmon Killebrew. Denny Hocking wore it before him, Greg Gagne donned it on the 1987 and 1991 World Series teams and longtime Twins coach Scott Ullger had it in 1983.

But it will now be forever his.

Blyleven, Hrbek, Oliva and Carew were on hand for his retirement ceremony, along with other star teammates including Johan Santana, Torii Hunter and Joe Nathan. Justin Morneau gave a speech honoring Mauer’s career. Killebrew’s son and Puckett’s children were there as well. There was also a video tribute to Jackie Robinson, who’s No. 42 is retired throughout baseball. Johnny Bench was the most notable non-Twin in attendance. T.I. gave him a shoutout on the big screen.

“It was beautiful,” said manager Rocco Baldelli. “It’ll be a night that everyone in attendance will remember forever.”

Mauer choked up when talking about his former teammates and his family, as well as when the video board showed him in his catcher’s gear during the final game of his career last season — a singular moment that recalled his peak years before the concussions that resulted in his move to first base.

Photo credit: David Berding (USA Today Sports)

They played the old Head & Shoulders commercials that recalled a time when he had flowing hair. There were also the famous Kemps ads with his mother, Teresa, and the “Well Played, Mauer” campaign. The childhood videos of his him playing on little league fields in St. Paul and with his brothers Billy and Jake on Lexington Parkway were reminders that he is “One of Us.”

Mauer’s story is almost cinematic, but also a reminder of the ephemeral qualities of greatness. He reached the majors in 2004, three years after he was drafted No. 1 overall, but was limited to 35 games due to injury. His Hall of Fame case was developed in his peak years, from 2006-13 when he hit .327/.410/.473, won three AL batting titles and made six All-Star teams. But his detractors came out in droves during the “bi-lateral weakness” season in 2011, and were amplified in the three years following his career-altering concussion in 2013, when he hit .267/.353/.380 and was making $23 million a year.

“The fans — they played a huge role in my career as well,” Mauer said in his speech. “Their cheers made me feel alive, and their disappointment pushed me to work harder.”

He appeared to be bouncing back in the final two years of his career, hitting .305/.384/.417 in 2017 and .282/.351/.379 in his final season. But when he walked out in the catcher’s gear in his final game, it created cognitive dissonance. It was almost as though Mauer was dressing up as Joe Mauer, the player in his prime. A player not far removed from being named AL MVP in 2009, when he hit .365/.444/.587 line and 28 home runs.

The year that set up the infamous eight-year, $184 million contract.

People outside of Minnesota always seem puzzled why fans here aren’t pulling for Mauer. He’s homegrown. He could have left for Boston or New York. He has 2000 hits and could be a Hall of Famer.

The contract always comes up, but Mauer made $218 million over the course of his career and his production would have been worth $307 million on the open market. It’s just that players are a bargain when they are young and on rookie deals or in arbitration, and tend to sign contracts that are great during their prime years in their late 20s and early 30s and can become an albatross as they enter their 30s. Unfortunately, people’s last memories of players tend to be when their skills have diminished and their contracts become an albatross.

Photo credit: David Berding (USA Today Sports)

People outside of the Twin Cities are also less likely to watch every game, so they weren’t watching him every day during the lean years, and aren’t inundated with sports talk radio and columns targeting Mauer. His move to first base also highlighted the weaknesses in his game, namely his lack of power in his later years and his tendency to hit into the shift at times resulted in groundouts to the second basemen or lineouts to the left fielder.

It’s odd that in the Moneyball era, where on-base percentage became more valued, Mauer was always knocked for lacking power despite his .306/.388/.439 career line. It’s also peculiar that at a time when the danger of concussions became more understood, there was a group of people who seemed to dismiss his head injury as the cause of his lack of production. And while Target Field was supposed to be built around Mauer and Morneau, the 2014 All-Star Game in Minnesota was the first one after Mauer’s concussion and Morneau was no longer his teammate.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Mauer was great in three of the first four years of his contract. He hit .317/.400/.447 from 2010-13, and that’s including the bi-lateral weakness year. But the 94-win team that traveled from the Metrodome to Target Field with him in 2010 slowly left him as the years past. Michael Cuddyer, Denard Span, Nathan and eventually Morneau were dealt or left in free agency. The minor league system wasn’t developing pitchers, and prospects like Aaron Hicks were mishandled.

Statistically, Mauer is the third-best player in Twins history, behind Carew and Killebrew, but ahead of Puckett, Blyleven and Brad Radke. He didn’t have the postseason success that Puckett, who he says was his favorite player growing up, had — although that is a product of the team around him, especially in the Target Field era.

Even if he hadn’t been concussed, one player can only do so much. A catcher who hit like Mauer is a unique piece to build around, not a panacea for a total system failure. The best thing about the current era is that Buxton, who looks like the next superstar, is currently surrounded by a strong supporting cast — many of whom are players his age.

Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler are already signed. The key will be making the right decisions around homegrown players like Eddie Rosario, Jose Berrios and Miguel Sano, as well as players who arrived from outside the system like Jake Odorizzi and Marwin Gonzalez.

The team fell apart before Mauer’s concussion, and one player can only do so much. With Buxton, the key will be enticing him to stay. And if he does, making sure they’re in a window to win as soon as he signs.

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