Monday, November 12, 2018

It's really the end: Joe Mauer announces his retirement

Cardboard-cutout Joe Mauer with me. 
I was just about done visiting with my parents in the Target Field concourse prior to the 2018 season finale for the Minnesota Twins. Naturally, the discussion of the day - and really the past week - focused on Joe Mauer. My often jaded and pessimistic mind went to this as I was about to leave:

"I hope he doesn't go 0-for-4 or something."

That prediction was actually pretty close, as Mauer went 1-for-4, but that simple statement didn't even come close to what was in store for Twins faithful that Sunday, Sept. 30, during the final game of the regular season against the Chicago White Sox. It was a storybook day for Mauer, one we all know now (though there were strong hunches then) was the final time he suited up in his Twins uniform to play a Major League Baseball game.

It still seems surreal that it's over.

This past Friday, news broke that Mauer has decided to retire, based on a note he wrote addressing Twins fans with a full-page ad in the local newspapers. In September, word got around with a couple weeks left in the season that Mauer was still deciding on this, with his eight-year, $ 184 million contract set to expire at season's end. He wanted to take some time after the season to make up his mind, officially.

But really, after all the pomp and circumstance during his final game, it would almost be awkward to have him return next season. And heaven forbid the St. Paul native and Cretin-Derham Hall grad choose to sign some one-year deal with another MLB club.

Mauer decides to call it quits
I was just like other Twins fans waiting to see when Mauer would make his announcement. The Twins already had a big personnel change with the firing of manager Paul Molitor at the end of the season and then the hiring of new manager Rocco Baldelli. But Friday I wondered aloud to my parents, asking when Mauer was going to announce his retirement. A few hours later, the answer was out there. I swear I'm not psychic.

The tributes and well wishes have rolled in for Mauer over the weekend, and he's set for an 11 a.m. press conference Monday at Target Field for the official announcement. Despite all the ups and downs of his career as an offensive catcher and defensive first baseman, with the concussions issues that went along with it, Mauer will go down as one of the greatest Twins to ever put on the uniform.

I've seen a few posts on social media from people saying they've never known a Twins team without Mauer. In my ripe old age, I can say that my memory goes back a bit further than that. Hello, days of A.J. Pierzynski with Tom Prince as a backup. Still, those other people have a point. Mauer made his major league debut with the Twins in 2004 and played for 15 seasons.

His career drips with success
One of the points that I don't think gets stated enough is the fact that he'll have played his entire career with the same ball club. Playing for his hometown team is just the whipped cream on top (I don't like cherries, so it's whipped cream.). It's a point I learned about early on in my sports fandom as part of my education learning about sports and how it's a business, too. My parents would tell me about players who played most of their careers with one team before going to another for a year or two at the end of his career. Today, it's not very common for a guy to stay in one spot.

Fans know the numbers and honors by heart by now. Mauer is a three-time Gold Glove winner, six-time All-Star, five-time Silver Slugger winner and an MVP as a catcher in unprecedented territory. The now-35-year-old gave up a football scholarship to play baseball and was selected as the first overall pick by the Twins in 2001.

He finishes his career with 1,858 games, 7,960 plate appearances, 6,930 at-bats, 1,018 runs scored, 2,123 hits, a .306 batting average, 143 home runs, 939 walks, 428 doubles, 30 triples and 923 RBI. As the negative nancies like to point out, Mauer had less success in the small sample size of 10 postseason games. The Twins never won a postseason series with Mauer on the team.

It's almost hard to pick out some of the memories of Mauer's career. He was a guy that wasn't known for hitting for power. He could give you an RBI double and could smack a base hit to left with regularity to drive in runs. He set a new high bar for catchers to produce at the plate instead of just crouched behind it. He hardly ever swung at the first pitch, and his watchful eye at the plate got him on base plenty of times.

A final season to remember
For the entire 2018 season there was speculation here and there about Mauer, since everyone knew it was the last year of his deal. The good news for fans as they could get distracted by some of the milestones Mauer reached this season, firmly setting his place deeper in Twins history.

He reached 2,000 career hits. He moved into third on the Twins all-time list in runs scored trailing only Kirby Puckett (1,071) and Harmon Killebrew (1,047). No Twins player has hit more doubles than Mauer, once he hit the 415 mark. He's second on the Twins all-time list in hits in between Puckett (2,304) and Rod Carew (2,085). He started on Opening Day for the 14th time, the most in Twins history.

The last home run Mauer hit for the Twins was a grand slam against the Yankees at Target Field on Sept. 11. When he hit it that night, I had a special feeling knowing that it very well could be the last home run for him. What a way to go out. And we thought it would be hard to top his pinch-hit three-run homer to deep center in a 5-4 victory over Detroit on Aug. 17. Both warranted curtain calls, which were very un-Mauer like.

Then there was the final series, a rare four-game weekend finale with a doubleheader on Friday against the White Sox to make up the last blizzard-out game from April. Mauer played all four games when in normal circumstances he might have played two. He went 2-for-4 in the first three games, getting ovations from fans for even the smallest feats.

Storybook ending in the finale
Sunday will always be such a special game. His two twin girls ran out to him at first base as part of the kids starting lineup. That was enough of a moment right there. Then more ovations and helmet tips each time he stepped to the plate. He grounded out to second to lead off the first and grounded to short to end the third. He hit a deep fly ball to center field in the 5th. I'm telling you the place would have exploded if he would have smacked that ball to the grass beyond the center-field wall.

He stepped to the plate in the 7th with anxious fans knowing this could be his final at-bat. So he hit a line drive to left field and hustled for a double. Because of course he did. The 0-for-4 was avoided.

Mauer's final hit.

Then in the top of the ninth with the Twins leading, there was a delay in the Twins taking the field. Mauer walked up the dugout steps and emerged wearing his catcher's gear for the first time since 2013.

There aren't many words to describe the moment and the lengthy ovation that followed as fans, teammates and the opposing dugout applauded No. 7. Mauer showed his appreciation through teary eyes and waves to the crowd. He caught one final pitch before being removed from the game. Straight-up chills.

And now he's retiring. The thing is, he can still play the game. His ability is there, and he loves it. But the risk of concussions is too much for him to continue when he's already had a great career and is a soon-to-be father of three. It's completely understandable and almost fitting that he's finishing his career now.

Maybe it will sink in one of these days that the Twins won't have one of their best players in the lineup anymore.

Cheers, Joe. Thanks for the memories.