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.