The end (?) for Joe Mauer, the normal legend

On the way to Sunday’s Twins game with my brother, I mentioned something offhand, that I’m sure a lot of people were thinking on their way to Target Field: If this was going to be Joe Mauer’s last game, I was glad we were going to be there for it.

I have made as many Mauer jokes as anyone, all of them centered on his ability to be private in public: Joe is bland. Joe is boring. Joe is too decent and polite to be interesting. Back when the Twins used a scoreboard to show lightweight biographical facts about players, I remember Mauer’s biggest fear displayed as “disappointing his parents.” It all seemed too normal.

That was Mauer’s persona: normal. It never seemed forced or calculated or cunning, like it does with some athletes, especially the greats that want to come across as Everyman for marketing purpose. Mauer, who was inarguably great, just seemed normal. His defining characteristic was his lack of defining characteristics. He seemed exactly like the ten thousand other Minnesotans I’ve met, even though he’s been locally famous since he was a teenager. All my jokes were, really, a wish for intimacy, a desire to know Mauer’s genuine, authentic self: please, Joe, we want to know who you really are. Tell us what you’re really like.

I knew how good he was, the numbers spoke for themselves. It wasn’t until he signed his contract extension, and started becoming the subject of endless ill-considered and mean-spirited criticism, that I started really pulling for him. I felt protective of him, I guess, because it seemed so unfair that some people treated him so poorly – a sense of injustice that only multiplied when a concussion cut his catching career short.

As Sunday’s game wore on, I wasn’t surprised to find myself rooting hard for him to do something good on his last day, since it suddenly seemed so obvious that he would retire after the game. Unexpectedly, the Twins pulled out the stops to honor him; his twin girls were on the field pre-game, the scoreboard showed a few old favorite advertisements he’d done, and every time he came to the plate, he was greeted with a standing ovation.

He hit a couple of ground balls – more fodder for the critics, I squirmed internally – and when he came to the plate in the seventh inning, it was obvious that this could be his last time up. What if he struck out? One final at-bat, and it felt like it was a referendum on his entire career, and after all that had happened to him, the worst thing would be if the critics won, in the end.

When he lined the ball to left field, I was afraid it’d be caught. When it landed, and he rounded first base at speed, I was terrified he’d be thrown out. When he slid safely into second, I was overwhelmed by relief – he did it! – and then not properly on guard for the outpouring of emotion. The crowd was ecstatic. Mauer gestured to the dugout and the fans and touched his heart. Of course it was a double to the left-center gap. Could it be anything else? I had tears in my eyes.

I thought that was the end. I thought that the Twins would let him take the field in the ninth inning, then put in a defensive replacement, to give the fans one more chance to express their gratitude and appreciation. When the fans nearest the Twins dugout started roaring, before the ninth inning began, with the field completely empty, I knew I was wrong.

Players always want a chance to go out on top, and fans want that too, but in some ways Mauer’s goodbye was better. Alone on the field, with his catching gear on, behind the plate where he had always wanted to be. He fought back the tears, and won, sort of. The camera found plenty of fans who lost that battle. Maybe Mauer’s most impressive accomplishment was getting a bunch of stoic Minnesotans to cry in public. It was cathartic, it was heartwarming. He was happy, and knew we loved him; we were happy, and knew he loved us.

It occurred to me then that I’d been wanting Joe Mauer to show us who he really was for two decades, beyond the politeness and the respect and the niceness and the normality. I’m the same age as Mauer, give or take a year. My friends and I played every sport we could and went to Minnesota high schools and married Minnesota girls, and now we have kids and are dealing with oft-failing, creaking bodies and graying hair. Joe isn’t one of my friends, but he always seemed like he could have been, and like the rest of my friends it’s not so important who they claim to be as who they genuinely, authentically are.

What I had failed to realize until Sunday is that maybe the politeness and the respect and the niceness and the normality was Mauer’s way of showing us who he genuinely, authentically was, all along.

A September bushel of posts

Fall is right around the corner - where has September gone?

For the Star Tribune: the soon-to-debut Miami MLS team introduced its rather complicated name, and I wrote that names like “Inter Miami” make the league seem more fake, not more authentic. I previewed the NWSL playoffs, focusing on North Carolina and Portland, which thankfully turned out to be the right call. And I wrote about why I love the Champions League this year, and in general, since the soccer world’s biggest competition kicked off recently.

On the Minnesota United side of things, for 1500 ESPN, I graded the ten most important personnel moves of the MLS version of the franchise so far, a post that could have run to 20 moves and 2500 words, if I had the space. And, in an attempt to be positive, I wrote about the most positive thing I could think of: that the team even exists at all.

La Liga and MLS have one thing in common: they don't care about fans

When sports leagues do things that are barefacedly anti-fan, I get a little bit peeved. Enter La Liga and MLS, both of which are doing their best to make it hard on fans.

Side note: This is the first week of something new, in that the Star Tribune is going to post my column on Friday during the day, rather than waiting until Friday evening / Saturday to post it online. So far, the extra interest that this is garnering has been pretty nice to see.

A European Soccer preview for 2018-19

With the Premier League preview out of the way, I thought I’d preview the rest of European soccer for the year. The problem is that superclubs - Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain - dominate. So instead, I gave readers five other teams to watch instead.

(Yes, I am aware that this is a group that includes two near-superclubs, in Borussia Dortmund and Atlético Madrid, as well as an Italian powerhouse fallen on hard times. But bear with me. I wanted to make it relevant for semi-casual fans, rather than telling everyone to watch Atalanta and Real Betis.)

Minnesota United is in a month of upheaval

This has the potential to be a make-or-break month for Minnesota United, as the team clings to the fringes of the playoff race - and still traded its best striker, Christian Ramirez.

Earlier this month, I wrote for 1500 ESPN about the team’s road struggles, and how the team’s month-long road trip could derail its season.

Then this week, United traded Ramirez, a move that I just can’t understand. This has the potential to be a defining move for the front office and the coaching staff. Ramirez, of course, underlined the point by getting two goals in his first start for LAFC.

How European friendlies in the USA help build American soccer

I’m not sure I quite hit the point I wanted to make in this week’s Soccer Insider column. I was trying to connect the dots on something that someone involved with Minnesota United told me once, who I will now paraphrase: “You know, if you can afford to fly to London every week to watch Chelsea, or to Mexico City to watch Club América, you should definitely do that. But for everyone else, there’s a team here in town to support too.”

You can see Tottenham or AC Milan or Chelsea or whoever come to U.S. Bank Stadium, and my guess is that you’ll be left wanting something more. Something real. Something that matters.

I was at the Minnesota - Seattle game on Saturday night, possibly one of the best wins ever for the Sounders, definitely one of the worst losses ever for the Loons. You can’t tell me that didn’t matter. You can’t tell me that that kind of thing isn’t exactly the kind of atmosphere that people are really searching for.

Or, heck, maybe it’s just me.

The balance of Liga MX power moves north - and makes inroads into the USA

You can watch Liga MX on national TV in the United States now. In English. Club Tijuana and C.F. Monterrey have both sold their TV rights to FOX Sports, and so FOX is showing the games in Spanish on FOX Deportes, but in English on FS1 and FS2 (and on its regional networks in the southwest).

As Liga MX kicks off its year, it was a good time to preview the season - and about how Mexico is coming for soccer fans north of the border.

Soccer Insider: A 2018 World Cup Knockout Round primer

For the Star Tribune this week, I wrote about the knockout round of the World Cup, and the expected favorites.

Unexpectedly, the paper also asked to print my picks. I leave them for posterity here:

Quarterfinalists: Uruguay, France, Brazil, Belgium, Spain, Croatia, Switzerland, England

Semifinalists: France, Brazil, Spain, England

Final: France 1, Spain 0

(I also wrote about 100 words why each team would win in the final; I’m sure whichever unlucky soul had to edit it laughed bitterly as he had to cut it down for the actual space alloted, which was about 20 words per team.)

Eric Wynalda's free kick got U.S. Soccer rolling

I remember being unsurprised, when the United States got out of its group at the 1994 World Cup. I knew very little about soccer, but I’d seen the Olympics, and I was pretty used to Americans winning at everything. Plus, it wasn’t like the rest of the tournament was filled with countries with huge soccer reputations. Bulgaria? Norway? The United States was in a group with Romania and Switzerland. Who even knew they had teams?

Since then, of course, I’ve learned a lot about the history of American soccer. How the team qualified for the 1990 World Cup, but only as an accident. About how the United States got hammered at that tournament. About how everyone expected them to get hammered again in 1994.

Into this stepped Eric Wynalda, who even then was brimming with confidence. His free kick goal against Switzerland, in the first game of the tournament, not only earned the United States a 1-1 draw - it was what launched everything that came after. That moment was the beginning of pro soccer in the USA.

It's time to kill VAR before it kills soccer

I am not the first person to turn against instant replay, in soccer or anywhere else. A year or so ago, I was all in favor of using replay to help blunt the effect of refereeing mistakes on the outcome of games.

I was very wrong! It turns out that in soccer, just like every other sport with refereeing, introducing a video referee just doubled the number of chances refs had to screw up - all while also taking a huge part of the entertainment away from the game. Soccer needs to act fast, soccer needs to act now. Kill VAR before it kills soccer.

Portland has the best stadium in MLS

I recently turned in a draft of a book about soccer stadiums around the world, which needed to include an American stadium. I chose Providence Park in Portland, not because it’s the nicest soccer stadium in the United States, or the most comfortable, but it’s absolutely the best to watch soccer. This week’s Soccer Insider relates to my trip to Portland, and the goosebumps I got there.