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Number 7 may forever belong to Mickey Mantle, and “Super Joe” might always be Joe Montana’s handle. But don’t be shocked if “Mauer Power” one day becomes the standard by which all catchers are measured. Three batting titles, two Gold Gloves and an MVP award in the span of four seasons will do that. The top prep prospect just a few years ago, Joe has survived a career-threatening injury and his own press clippings to become a record-breaking backstop and a superstar in his hometown. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Joseph Patrick Mauer was born April 19, 1983 in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) Joe was the youngest of three brothers. Jake III and Billy are his older siblings. All had baseball in their genes.

To Joe’s parents, Teresa and Jake Jr., it seemed that all three of their sons were destined to star on the diamond. Jake was a baseball coach by profession. his dad and three uncleshad played professionally. Joe’s grandfather, Jake Sr., had also played pro ball. He was most similar to Joe in terms of skills and makeup.

And, of course Joe’s parents met on a baseball field. Teresa’s softball teammates dragged her to meet he future husband. They raised their sons in a home less than 20 minutes from the Metrodome.

Among Joe’s earliest memories was being handed a toy baseball bat by his dad and swinging it. The family joke was that he had a major-league stroke while he was still in diapers, and it’s not far from the truth. There is actually videotape of Joe—diapers visibly peeking out of his shorts—at the opening of some local batting cages.

Naturally, Joe grew up a Twins fan. In 1987, his father got three tickets to a World Series game against the St. Louis Cardinals. He took his two oldest sons and told the four-year-old he had to stay home. Joe locked himself in a closet until the two Jakes and Billy returned. He went wild when Minnesota won it all that season, and then did again in 1991.

One of Joe’s most exciting baseball moments as a fan came in 1996, when the Twins acquired veteran Paul Molitor. Like Joe, Molitor was a product of the St. Paul baseball youth leagues and an alumnus of Cretin-Derham Hall High School, where Joe would one day go. Although Molitor turned 40 that season, he led the AL with 225 hits and a .341 average.

Every year, the Mauer boys could be found outside throwing, hitting, running and fielding until the Minnesota winters drove them indoors. Then they would simply move their fun to the basement, where Joe delighted in being the runner in games of "pickle," or as they called it, "Hot Box."

Their dad gave them as much baseball tutoring as they could handle. When they had mastered ordinary pitching machines, Jake Jr. invented a new one, which dropped balls right into the strike zone. Joe’s quick, compact left-handed swing can be traced back to this homemade teaching item.

The Mauers excelled at four sports in all—baseball, football, basketball and hockey. (They also later became cut-throat tennis players and golfers). As they grew and joined youth leagues, they were in-season virtually all year long. In pick-up games, Joe was almost always the youngest player, yet often the first kid picked. He would soon tower over both brothers, growing to a height of 6-4.

When Jake, Billy and Joe weren’t playing or practicing, they headed to nearby Griggs Playground, where they often competed in all four sports during the course of a day. Joe liked to be in the middle of the action at all times, so on the diamond he gravitated toward pitching and catching.

Joe’s real hero in baseball—and everything else, for that matter—was Jake. He walked, talked and dressed like his big brother, who was a high school baseball star and later a two-time Division III All-American at second base for St. Thomas College in Minnesota. Jake chose St. Thomas so he could be near his little brother.

Joe enrolled at Cretin-Derham in September of 1997 and began working his way up the depth charts to the starting quarterback position. In the spring of 1998, he made the varsity baseball team under coach Jim O’Neill. Joe was a power-hitting catcher who threw darts around the infield and never seemed to get rattled by game situations. Over the next few years, he would become the star of the Cretin-Derham football, baseball and basketball teams.

In 1999, as a 16-year-old, Joe was selected for an 18-and-under international team. He helped the squad win a gold medal in Taiwan. He returned to St. Paul as a junior and led Cretin-Derham to the state championship in football.

In the fall of 2000, Joe put together another spectacular year as a senior quarterback. In the playoffs, he tossed seven touchdowns in one game. In the state championship, however, Joe failed to win a second straight title, completing just 14 passes and throwing a pair of ill-timed interceptions in a 24-14 loss to Eden Prairie.

ON THE RISE

After his senior football season, Joe was named National Player of the Year. He signed a letter of intent with Florida State, pending the 2001 baseball draft. At FSU, he would have followed in the footsteps of another two-sport star at Cretin-Derham, Chris Weinke, who had just won the Heisman Trophy after dabbling in baseball with the Toronto Blue Jays for several years.


 

 

 


Paul Molitor, 1999 Tradition

     
 

Joe’s senior baseball season was simply magnificent. He batted an even .600 with 15 homers and 53 RBIs. In a game against Washburn played in the Metrodome, Joe hit for the cycle—plus an extra triple for good measure—in a 20-0 blowout. Most of his offense that year came in the spring's first 11 games, when he slammed 10 homers. After that, teams wised up and stopped giving him anything to hit.

Cretin-Derham was in the midst of the postseason when the baseball draft was held. The gem was USC hurler Mark Prior, whom most scouts deemed major league-ready. The Twins wanted Prior, but they could not determine what it would take to sign him. Having been burned by other high-profile first-rounders—including Tim Belcher, Travis Lee and Jason Varitek—Minnesota set its sights on high school talent instead. The team decided to take Joe, the hometown kid, on the advice of scout Mark Wilson. In the 23rd round, Minnesota also selected Joe’s brother Jake.

Meanwhile, Cretin-Derham zeroed in on the state championship. Down 4-1 in the semifinals against Brainerd, Joe blasted a three-run homer to tie the game in the fifth inning, and then peeled off his catching gear and took the mound. He held Brainerd scoreless for five innings, striking out nine battersalong the way, until his team manufactured the winning run in the ninth inning. In the final, Joe went 3-for-3 against Mayo High in a 13-2 victory. The Mauers were doubly happy when Jake led St. Thomas to the NCAA’s Division III title.

After Joe inked a $5 million deal with the Twins, the Mauer boys made the journey to Elizabethton of the Rookie-level Appalachian League, where they played under Rudy Hernandez. Joe hit .400 in 32 games, while Jake struggled with a .155 average.

Joe attended his first spring training in 2002 and impressed all of the major leaguers on the big club with his skills. First baseman Doug Mientkiewicz took a ribbing every time Joe did something well, because he wore the same uniform number (16) Joe did in high school. Before Joe was reassigned, Mientkiewicz joked that he would not only put his uniform in Joe’s locker when he was called up, but his house keys and cell phone, too.

For the moment, though, Joe needed to get a couple of full seasons under his belt. He spent the entire '02 campaign playing for the Quad City River Bandits of the Class-A Midwest League. Joe hit .302 to finish in the circuit's Top 10 and was named Prospect of the Year. His numbers would have been better were it not for a hernia that required season-ending surgery in late August.

In 2003, Joe was promoted to Fort Myers of the High-A Florida State League. He tore up FSL pitching, batting .335 in 62 games. He soon earned a promotion to Double-A New Britain, where he hit .341 in the season’s final 73 contests. In all, Joe logged a .339 average with five homers and 85 RBIs. He also threw out half the runners who tried to steal against him. He led both of his teams to half-season titles and was named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year.

MAKING HIS MARK

The Twins decided that there was no sense keeping Joe in the minors any longer. They were coming off two Central Division championships and had a great young pitching staff that included Johan Santana, Carlos Silva, Kyle Lohse and Juan Rincon, as well as veteran Brad Radke. GM Terry Ryan and manager Ron Gardenhire believed Joe could handle these hurlers. Minnesota traded away incumbent AJ Pierzynski over the winter for three more young arms—Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser.


Mark Prior, 2001 Baseball America
     
 

Starting Joe as a 20-year-old went against baseball wisdom. Since the mid 1960s, only four catchers that young had been handed starting jobs—Ivan Rodriguez, Butch Wynegar, Bob Didier and Johnny Bench. But wi th a balanced offense anchored by Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones and Justin Morneau, all Joe had to do was stay healthy in 2004.

Unfortunately, this proved problematic. On April 7, Joe tore up his left knee going after a foul pop. He returned to the lineup in June, but the Twins shut him down in mid-July after swelling returned to the damaged joint. Henry Blanco kept Joe’s spot warm as the Twins won the Central again, but they fell to the New York Yankees in the playoffs. Joe finished with a .308 average and six home runs in his lost season.

Joe returned to full health in 2005 and hit well enough to occupy the third slot in the order for most of the year. He finished the year with a .294 batting average with 26 doubles and nine home runs in 489 at-bats. He proved his legs were 100 percent by swiping 13 bases in 14 tries. Joe helped the pitching staff to a respectable 3.71 ERA, but Minnesota’s hurlers did not always get the support they needed. The Twins finished third in the division behind the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians with an 83-79 record.

In 2006, the Detroit Tigers surprised everyone by sprinting to a big lead in the Central. The Twins, in turn, found themselves in an eight-way scuffle for the Wild Card. Where they would have been without Joe is hard to imagine.

Two months into the campaign, Joe had the highest batting average in the majors, hitting above .350. On June 26, he had his first five-RBI game. The next day, he postd his first five-hit effort. Earlier in the year, he had reached based four times in five straight games.

Instead of cooling off, Joe continued his torrid pace, flirting with .400 heading into the All-Star break. As the September stretch run began, his average was still hovering well above .300, and he remained in the league lead in front of Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano and Miguel Tejada. Joe went 2-for-4 on the final day of the season to squeak out the batting title. He ended the year at .347. Better yet, the Twins caught and passed the Tigers, who had to settle for the Wild Card.

It was a remarkable year for Minnesota baseball, and it could have easily ended with a World Series appearance. While the Twins were matched with the Oakland A’s in their half of the Division Series, the Tigers were busy ambushing the heavily favored Yankees on the other side of the draw. Perhaps the Twins were guilty of look ahead to an ALCS showdown with Detroit, because they could not solve Oakland’s pitching.

The A’s took Game 1 against Johan Santana and won Game 2 when Torii Hunter turned a single into a home run with an ill-timed dive in centerfield. In the finale. Dan Haren limited the Twins to three solo homers in an 8–3 win. Joe was a disaster at the plate, failing to score or drive in a run in three games.

Though disappointed, Joe could take considerable pride in becoming the first AL catcher ever to win the batting crown and the first major league backstop since Ernie Lombardi during the World War II era. Having claimed all season that the bating title was far from his mind, Joe sheepishly admitted he had been a nervous wreck in the waning days of the 2006 campaign.


Johnny Bench, 1972 Topps
     
 

That winter, the Twins signed Joe to an extension that ran through the 2010 season. Minnesota missed the playoffs in 2007, partly due to a nagging left quadriceps that hampered Joe through the campaign. He played in only 109 games, and his average dipped to .293. His injury basically reduced him to a singles hitter with some extra-case pop. But there seemed little doubt that we would eventually begin to hammer home runs.

That didn’t happen in 2008, but no one was complaining. Joe won his second batting title and his first Gold Glove. He also started the All-Star Game for the first time.

In a down year for AL hitters, e copped the batting crown with a .328 average, adding a career-best 84 walks and 85 RBIs. The Twins finished out of the money again, however, so a silver bat and fourth-place MVP finish did little to ease his pain during the off-season.

That pain included a kidney problem that required surgery in December and an aching back that plagued him during much of spring training in 2009. Despite the fact he spent April on the DL, Joe looked stronger and locked in once he returned to action. He homered on his first swing of the season and went on an historic tear, finishing with 11 homers and 32 RBIs in the month of May. The circuit clouts confirmed what everyone had been expecting—Joe’s sweet swing had finally started producing big-time power.

Joe kept the Twins in playoff contention throughout the season. Rehabbing from the early injury actually helped him work through a long campaign. Forced to strengthen his abdominal muscles in April, Joe was still rock-solid in September, when most catchers begin to unravel. That proved crucial to the Twins, who were without the services of Justin Morneau during the season’s last three weeks. During that time, Joe walloped the ball at close to a .400 clip. Minnesota won 17 of its last 21 games and streaked past the Tigers in the standings to capture the division crown.

Joe finished the season with career-highs in homers with 28 and RBIs with 96. He won the triple crown of percentages, leading the AL with a .365 batting average, .587 slugging average and .444 on-base percentage. He walked 76 times and struck out only 76 times. It was one of the best seasons ever by a backstop. No American League catcher had ever hit for a better average.

Unfortunately for the Twins, the Yankees were able to muzzle Minnesota’s scrappy offense in a Division Series sweep. Missing Morneau was a killer, but the Twins also hurt themselves by being over-aggressive on the basepaths. In the end, New York was able to pitch around Joe, and Minnesota just didn't have the bats to make the Yankees pay.

After the season, Joe captured 27 of the possible 28 first-place MVP votes in the AL balloting, putting a mile between himself and New York‘s Mark Teixeira and Jeter, who finished a distant second and third, respectively. Miguel Cabrera drew the remaining first-place vote.

Scribes were quick to note that Joe could leave the Twins for free agency following the 2010 season, although his agent was already in conversations with the team. With other clubs likely to offer him a long-term deal for $20 million-plus per annum, the question was whether Minnesota could even afford to sign him. It turns out the club couldn't afford not to. During spring training, Joe signed an eight-year extension worth more than $180 million.


Joe Mauer, 2006 Topps
     
 

The Twins fielded another quality lineup in 2010. Besides the production from the team’s core players, key contributions came from unexpected places, including Carl Pavano, Jim Thome, Jon Rauch and Delmon Young. Joe’s numbers were solid as usual, but he experienced a mysterious power outage. At the beginning of September, he still hadn’t reached double figures in home runs. The Twins, however, maintained a slim lead over the second-place White Sox in the Central.

For all the excitement Joe has created in the Twin Cities, he remains a remarkably level-headed guy. What you see on the field is what you get off the field. He hangs out with his family and high school friends. He likes to bowl, play video games and watch DVDs. In other words, he’s boring. Joe's teammates love him, but he is not exactly their first choice for wingman on a boys’ night out.

That’s fine with the Twins. In the crowded and competitive AL Central, a hard-hitting catcher with his head in the game 24-7 is a godsend—and could easily make the difference between fourth place and first.

JOE THE PLAYER

Though he has drawn comparisons to Mike Piazza and fellow MVP Ivan Rodriguez as a hitter, Joe is different from both. He looks for pitches to drive the other way, but he can yank the ball down the rightfield line if worked inside. He stays on the ball a long time, making him a threat to hit .300 every season, and helping him stay out of prolonged slumps. He’s at his best when he goes right back up the middle.

Joe’s power surge in 2009 has added a frightening new dimension to his offensive prowess. That is particularly considering that his stellar walk-to-strikeout ratio has remained better than 1:1.

Joe often recognizes pitches as soon as they leave a pitcher’s hand. As a young hitter, he still gets fooled, but rarely by the same pitch twice. He knows the strike zone, he’ll take a hittable pitch to wait for a better one, and he’s not overly aggressive.

Behind the plate, Joe is a good handler of pitchers and frames pitches well. He gets low in his crouch and moves easily from side to side, which enables him to block deliveries in the dirt easier than other catchers. And even as a 20-year-old, he was not afraid to trot out to the mound when he was crossed up on a sign. Joe’s arm and accuracy are already above average, and his quickness and overall athleticism make him hard to bunt on.

On the basepaths, Joe can steal a bag or go first to third, although he sometimes gets a little too adventurous. He is an accomplished bunter and will happily leg out a hit when the defense was playing too deep.

Joe has an advantage as an American League hitter. In the NL, a catcher has to rest on the bench. In the AL, he can get his at bats as a DH. With everyone keeping an eye on the knees and back—and envisioning a future move to first base—the more rest Joe can get at this early stage of his career, the better.

 


Joe Mauer, 2009 SI for Kids


 

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