Remember when you didn't like Joe Mauer?

There's an interesting line that splits the heroes and the villains in baseball.  That line is marred - much like the chalk that lines the territory between fair and foul on a ball field - with the smudges of players crossing back and forth.  Even more interesting, this line is crossed almost without decision by the players.  The decisions on who lands on what side of the line and when are made by fans.  Casual observers and hard-core enthusiasts decide who becomes ally and who becomes foe.

Enter Joe Mauer.

There was a time when the kid from Minnesota could do no wrong.  Everything he touched turned to gold.  Everything he said was gospel.  The hometown guy who played for the small-market Twins was a superstar.  And for good reason.  He could play.

Mauer was one of those rare talents that translates almost instantly.  Not all first round picks make the Majors.  Heck, not all number one overall picks make the Majors.  Even the ones that do don't always pan out.  That's baseball though, right?  You roll the dice and take the best player you can.  In the Twins' case 12 years ago, that player was Joe Mauer.  That's right, 12 years have gone by since Minnesota reached out and selected an 18-year old kid from St. Paul number one overall.  A lot has happened in that time, but one thing is clear; It was the right pick.

The Twins finished the 2000 season with a record of 69-93.  It was rough for fans in the Twin Cities.  But there was light shining far away.  It was flickering the way only hope on the horizon can flicker.  That light gave hope that the Twins could be something more than a doormat.  That they could be meaningful despite their low payroll, dismal ball park, and their extreme north location.  That light that begot hope was named Joe Mauer.

The Twins sent Mauer to the Rookie League in 2001, and he made a quick and obvious impact - you know, to the tune of a .400 batting average over 32 games.  He rose through the Twins' minor league organization quickly.  Not surprising, really.  He was flat-out better than everyone else.  Prior to the 2002 season, Mauer was the 7th-best prospect in all of baseball.  He proved why at Single-A.  In 110 games, Mauer hit .302/.393/.392.  A catcher was hitting for such a high average and getting on base frequently all while calling games, handling pitching staffs, and quite frankly playing above average defense behind the plate.  He was sent to High-A in 2003 - the experts had moved him up to the fourth-best prospect in baseball by that point.  Mauer moved from High-A to Double-A by the end of the year.  He wouldn't know it then, but 2003 would be his last full season in the minors.

By 2004, Mauer was ready for Triple-A.  He had established himself as the best prospect in all of baseball.  Mauer played a whopping five games at the Triple-A level before making his Major League debut.  Mauer played 35 games for the Twins in 2004.  He hit .308/.369/.570.  That season would start a streak of nine consecutive seasons in which Mauer hit better than .285.  Of those nine seasons, his average would only dip below .300 three times.  Let that sink in for a moment.

Mauer was everything the Twins hoped he would be.  The fans in Minnesota loved him.  This local kid with the killer smile, the charm, and the good looks could play baseball too?  Mauer made four All-Star Games between 2006 and 2010.  He won the American League MVP in 2009.  And he earned himself a hell of a contract.  Yet, that contract - you know the one that set the Twins back $184 million over eight years - was discounted specifically for the Twins.  Mauer wanted to play in Minnesota.  It was a sign of good faith.

A funny thing happened in Minnesota.  The team got good.  The run started while Mauer was still tearing the cover off balls in the minors, but it carried on through his rookie season and beyond.  The Twins made the postseason in 2002, 2003, and 2004.  They had an off year in 2005, but they made the play-offs in 2006, 2009, and 2010.  That's five play-off appearance after Mauer was called up.  The team had exactly four appearances in the 30 years prior to Mauer's arrival.

Maybe it was Mauer's influence that helped the club get good.  Did the Twins know what they had in him early on and that caused them to start putting the pieces together to create a contender?  It's possible.  What we know is Mauer did nothing but hit and help his team win from 2004-2010.  But something happened in 2011.  Mauer was hurt.

In the offseason between the 2010 and 2011 seasons, Mauer had surgery on his left knee.  That surgery and the subsequent recovery led to other problems for Mauer.  As he tried to force himself back as soon as possible, Mauer overcompensated to protect his knee.  He caused fatigue in both his knees by doing this.  He hurt his back and his neck doing this.  It all added up to just 82 games-played in 2011 and the lowest batting average of his career.

But let's be clear about something.  Mauer's worst season was one in which he hit .287/.360/.368.  Those numbers get players to All-Star Games.  Those numbers get players $100+ million contracts.  You know what those numbers got Mauer?  Nothing but grief.  The Twins missed the play-offs in 2011.  They were a bad team that narrowly avoided a 100-loss season.  Mauer wasn't going to change that even if he was healthy the entire year.  Even if he hit .400 that season, the Twins would not have gone to the play-offs.  Yet, the way he handled the injury led many fans to essentially call Mauer soft.  They didn't like that he wasn't playing.  They thought he couldn't cut it anymore.  His contract was inflated.

Maybe you were one of those fans.  Maybe you looked at the 2011 season as Mauer's downfall year.  The hometown kid who could do no wrong suddenly couldn't do right.  But what did he do exactly?  Where did the vitriol surrounding Mauer in that 2011 season come from?  Perhaps it had less to do with Mauer and more to do with the Twins in general.

Minnesota had moved into a big brand new ballpark - Target Field - the year before.  They suffered losses both to free agency and injuries leading up and through the season.  The Twins went from a 94-win team in 2010 to a 63-win team in 2011.  A 31-win swing is tough to swallow.  Someone had to pay.

That someone was Mauer.  He took the brunt of the criticism for Minnesota's flaws.  He took a beating in the public eye.  And the bruises are still there.  Need proof?  Take a look at Joe Mauer's 2012 season.  Remember much about it without looking at the numbers?  How about his start to this season?  What's he been doing?  Prior to 2011, you'd have been able to at least give some quick summary of Mauer's accomplishments.  Not now.  He's out of the public eye for the most part.  As the fans go, so goes the media.

Mauer will likely find himself back in the public eye for the right reasons soon.  But the fall from grace (for no real reason) is astounding.  This is a guy who is a career .324/.404/.468 hitter.  He's essentially on his way to a Hall of Fame career, but people cast him aside like he was a flop.  Don't look now though people, Mauer is back.  He's hitting .342/.420/.490 (prior to last night's game) through the first 42 games this season.  He made his fifth All-Star appearance last season and is on his way to a sixth this year.

Mauer never really went anywhere.  He simply got hurt and had setbacks in his recovery.  This could be the year that brings him back into the living rooms of Americans across the country, but he should never have left.  Mauer has been both hero and villain in Minnesota.  He's back on the good guy side for now, but heaven forbid he get hurt again.

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3 Responses to Remember when you didn't like Joe Mauer?

  1. Why is this even an article? I never remember anyone disliking Mauer despite the Twins playing poorly

    1. Then your memory has faded my friend...



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