Joe Mauer is a first-ballot Hall of Famer!
I admit that, when it was announced on TV, such was my excitement that I stood up almost involuntarily, like someone had hit a deep fly ball to left-center. I’d been tracking the public ballots for weeks, like a lot of Twins fans, but I was very nervous for the announcement; the type of Hall of Fame voters who don’t want to reveal their ballots were also, probably, the type to look down their noses at Mauer’s candidacy.
His value was obvious, but the pitfalls of his Hall of Fame candidacy were also obvious - the concussion that cut short his catching career, his five unremarkable years as a first baseman, career numbers that were light if you compared him to anyone but other catchers. And so, like almost everyone prior to this year’s process, I expected him to have to serve a sentence in purgatory - two or three or four years, atoning for the sin of getting a brain injury, before finally joining the Hall.
Like almost all Minnesotans, I was - and am - a huge Mauer fan, a fandom that was shot through with protectiveness as Mauer’s career proceeded. After the brain injury, I was ready to argue on Mauer’s behalf at any moment; after his final game, one of my overriding feelings was a huge feeling of relief.
So let’s start with that caveat, that I’m thrilled for Mauer, and desperately wanted him to get the call. But I also think it’s interesting to look back and try to figure out why there seemed to be so many people that were, somehow, anti-Joe.
It would be wrong to say that Mauer wasn’t properly appreciated while he was playing. Plenty of smart baseball writers insisted on his greatness throughout his career - Aaron Gleeman of the Athletic is chief in my mind, but there were many others. Mauer did not go unnoticed or even unappreciated locally; he was the most popular Twins player for at least fourteen consecutive years, and possibly one or two before he even made it to the major leagues.
When the crowd at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony in July is 85% traveling Minnesotans, I think this may end up being more obvious.
I heard his former teammate Glen Perkins, on Michael Rand’s podcast, say that Mauer’s was a story that scriptwriters couldn’t write. That’s not true; what is true is that they wouldn’t, because it’s hackneyed. Local boy, kind and polite to everyone, great at every sport he tries, grows up and becomes a Hall of Famer, all while courting no personal criticism? If you weren’t writing it for serialization in “Boys’ Life,” in the year 1923, it’d be rejected out of hand.
That said, Mauer certainly came in for criticism, but he’s not exactly unique in this. I’m old enough to remember that many of Minnesota’s best-loved athletes - Kirby Puckett, Kevin Garnett, Kent Hrbek, et cetera - were widely criticized while they were playing. But Mauer was the first to do it in the era where every critic had a comments-section and social-media megaphone, and where responding to the critics - even to belittle them, to point out how foolish they were! - was its own form of amplification.
I really don’t think there were more people calling Mauer a selfish singles hitter than there were calling Garnett overpaid and unable to deliver in the clutch, or making fun of Kirby and Hrbek for failing to conform to society’s fitness expectations; it’s just that we could hear more from the critics in real time, and their criticisms were delivered into our media feeds, even if we weren’t the type to listen to fan call-in shows on the radio.
But there definitely were a few critics, and I think the reasons for this boiled down to a few things.
First, Mauer was quite guarded, throughout his career, though by all accounts this is a true expression of his self rather than any calculated attempt at self-mythology. He’s not a larger-than-life figure. He seemed to live like how you and me actually live, rather than how we would have lived if we were perhaps the greatest athlete in state history.
Just for fun, I’m going to rank the greatest Joe Mauer personal “controversies” that I can remember:
He used “What You Know” by T.I. as his walk-up song for his entire career. This may be the single edgiest thing he ever did, using something wilder than the theme from “Sesame Street” for his at-bat music.
He was rumored to be dating Miss USA, early in his career. (Eventually he married a girl he went to high school with, because of course he did.)
He lived in a messy apartment with Justin Morneau that had a vending machine in the basement that dispensed Bud Light. A beer! (Morneau was quoted as saying it had root beer, for Joe, which was probably entirely accurate.)
If you think that these are not controversies… that’s exactly the point.
At any rate, Mauer was so relatable that he effectively became unrelatable; his total indifference to fame was at odds with anything fans could quite understand, and was probably something that you had to grow up famous to fathom. He naturally gave himself the privacy that so many other famous people claim to want.
It’s telling that, as popular and as good as he was, he never really became a pitchman for almost anything; his mom was a bigger commercial personality than he was. He legitimately did ads for milk. Anytime Fitness did a campaign in which all they could think of to highlight was the jokes about how boring he was. There was no sizzle to sell, just steak.
This extended to his on-field behavior. He may have been the most even-keeled player in baseball history; I cannot remember him yelling at an umpire, or slamming his bat, or doing anything that betrayed understandable human emotion. Ever! While we were shouting and screaming in the stands, he had the tightest leash on his behavior of any athlete I can remember.
This is good! This is a positive! And yet it was just entirely unrelatable, entirely at odds with any feelings that fans were having while watching the games.
That’s something we haven’t encountered before. His complete relatability ended up feeling unrelatable.
The second thing was the impossible level of expectation that we all had for Mauer, by the time he reached the major leagues. He was legendary by the time he graduated high school. Bobby Bowden wanted him to come to Florida State and play quarterback, which was a shock, inasmuch as the idea of Bobby Bowden even knowing that Minnesota had high school football seemed impossible.
It bears repeating that he was the national player of the year in both football and baseball, and he was all-state in basketball. He has to be up there in any discussion of the greatest high school athletes of all time - not just in Minnesota, but anywhere.
Then the Twins drafted him - the serendipity of this seemed foreordained, in the end - and he went to rookie ball and hit .400, as an 18-year-old, and the hype train’s brakes were officially removed. By 2004, he was the top prospect in baseball. He was still just 21.
I mean this sincerely, and without hyperbole: at that point in his career, “first-ballot Hall of Famer” was at the very least near the midpoint of our expectations for his baseball career.
I can’t quite describe his 2009 season, except that he’d already won two batting titles, his career on-base percentage was just a tick below .400, and yet we were all still waiting for a true breakout year. For a two-time batting champ, a two-time All-Star and Gold Glover who’d finished in the top six in the MVP voting twice!
He turned 26 - the age he should have been breaking into the majors, traditionally - and he hit 28 homers, led all of baseball in batting average and on-base percentage, and led the AL in slugging percentage and OPS. As a catcher! Nothing like that had ever been done!
Honestly, we expected more of that sort of thing. That season cemented his Hall of Fame case, in the end, but we expected a career arc more like Mike Trout - not just great, but superlatively so, that Mauer would end up as inarguably the best catcher in baseball history and perhaps go down as one of the game’s all-time greats, up there with Mays and Ruth and other one-named stars.
This is ridiculous, and yet it seemed not only possible but probable, given what we knew about Mauer. That he ended up merely becoming a first-ballot Hall of Famer, rather than inarguably the best catcher to ever play baseball, was - not a letdown, of course, but rather perhaps less than our greatest, most unrealistic hopes.
The third thing was his contract, which needs to be seen less in regards to his value and more in regards to Twins fans’ relationship to the team, especially during his career. The Twins paid him $218 million over his career, and probably got much, much more value than that from him - especially since to have lost him, to a bigger-spending team, might have been an existential crisis for the franchise.
That said, Twins fans have grown used to being told that the team doesn’t have enough money. It’s happening again, right now, a real throwback to the 1990s and 2000s; back then, it was supposedly the Metrodome that was causing financial problems. Now, it’s the team’s lack of a TV contract.
This has had two effects on the fanbase. The first is that nobody named “Pohlad” will ever be entirely popular with Twins fans, no matter what happens, not unless they start trying to make up the frugality of the past forty years with outlandish spending.
The second is that fans - having been told there’s not enough - begin to turn on anyone who gets anything at all.
It happens in every sport. An underrated benefit of salary caps, for owners, is that not only do they save money - they get the fans mad at the people on the payroll, instead of the person signing the checks.
Baseball doesn’t have a salary cap; the Twins could have paid Mauer $50 million or $100 million a year, and it wouldn’t have made a difference to anyone that didn’t have the last name “Pohlad.” But the team’s owners were happy to put out a meager buffet, and then let the hungry seize upon the person who was closest to being fed properly.
That’s the third reason, the one that still seems to burn the brightest for many of the critics: Twins ownership was happy to let those critics hate Joe instead of them.
In the end, we know that those critics are still going to be out there, probably forever. If they managed to go throughout Joe Mauer’s career - an local boy, humble and impeccably behaved and by all accounts just plain nice, playing the most physically demanding position in baseball while also being the hardest hitter in the big leagues to get out, remaining true to his small-time St. Paul roots even as he could have stretched for fame or gone someplace with brighter lights and better weather - without being anything but pleased about it, then let’s be honest: nothing, absolutely nothing, could ever make them happy.