A lot has happened in Twins Territory since Joe Mauer debuted in April 2004. Three division titles. Three playoff sweeps. Three batting titles. One MVP. The end of the Dome and the beginning of Target Field. An 8-year, $184 million contract. Four-straight 90-loss seasons. Gardy was fired and Molly was hired and fired. Torii Hunter left and came back. A 59-103 nightmare in 2016. A surprise Wild Card in 2017. Through it all Joe was there.
Being on the fringe of the fringe of the Twin Cities sports media throughout his career, I crossed paths with Mauer several times. I began to observe him closely, especially later in his career. I even interviewed him twice. He was always polite and his answers were usually bland. That was him. He always stayed true to himself.
When he walked by me, he always made eye contact and said, “Hi”. He didn’t have to do that. Most players didn’t. That was him.
At first, I really didn’t buy it. His humility and simplicity had to be a front. After all, Joe is our LeBron. He was a celebrity in high school, drafted No. 1 overall by his hometown team. Anyone who was that young, famous and wealthy couldn’t possibly be this nice. How could he NOT be arrogant and entitled? A least a little. With Joe however, it was 100% real. That was him.
There is a segment of fans and a few in the media that never forgave Mauer for making all that money, especially after the Twins started losing in 2011. Because of injuries, particularly concussions, his skills eroded faster than we expected. He never made excuses or lashed out at his critics. He never changed his approach. He almost never swung at the first pitch. That was him.
During batting practice, the Twins often bring a child who is dealing with a chronic or sometimes terminal, illness down on the field to watch. Most of the players stop by to chat and sign an autograph. Mauer always spent a little extra time. He would often escort the child and their family back into the clubhouse. It was done quietly without cameras. That was him.
Joe Mauer didn’t have a season-long, overdone Derek Jeter-like retirement tour, collecting odd, but well-meaning gifts in awkward pre-game ceremonies. The Twins didn’t mow a No. 7 in centerfield and sell merchandise with a slick, “Farewell Joe 7” logo. Instead, he quietly came out in his beloved catchers gear one, last time. He soaked in the moment and emotionally thanked the fans. It was simple and understated. That was him.
The Twins have a new, 37-year-old manager, a forward-thinking front office and a lot of money to spend this offseason. Instead of attempting to hang on with a reduced salary and role or, doing the unthinkable and signing with another team, Joe did the smart thing. The practical thing. He retired. That was him.