- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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When Joe Mauer signed a massive contract extension with the Minnesota Twins before the 2010 season, it was praised as the sort of feel-good story you rarely see in baseball anymore. The Twins enhanced their longstanding reputation as the small-market team that could, at least until the Yankees' Brinks truck annually runs it over in the playoffs, win it all. And Mauer, a former American League MVP and three-time batting champion, was celebrated as a throwback star and native son who stayed home when he could've done a LeBron and chased more fame or money elsewhere. On Twin Cities sports talk shows, two of his nicknames are "Baby Jesus" and "St. Joe."
But Mauer's regard has taken a hit since he suffered what was initially called "mysterious bilateral leg weakness" in April, then didn't return to the injury-wracked Twins until June 17 amid questions about why his recovery took so long. The Twins were spiraling out of a Central Division race they were again picked to win. They've been losing more and more players to injuries as they go.
Critics accused Mauer of being soft, selfish and the subject of eye rolling even among his own teammates -- an insinuation that gained momentum last weekend, when the Twins' Jose Mijares dared call out Mauer about his pitch calling Friday. Seriously. Jose Mijares. An erratic reliever whose entrance into a game often puts the "e" in "eek!"
(Mauer acknowledged calling for six straight fastballs against slugger Prince Fielder, which irritated Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, but added, "You don't call it for down the middle.")
On Sunday, a poll on the Minneapolis Star-Tribune's website asked readers if Mauer should have volunteered to play first base rather than his preferred catching position now that Justin Morneau is headed toward neck surgery, and 97 percent voted yes -- another sign of the popularity hit Mauer has taken. When I did an internet search Monday to read the latest news on Mauer, the third-highest result was this doctored link (since changed):
Joe Mauer - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Joseph Patrick Mauer (born April 19, 1983) is a semi-committed, lazy Major League Baseball catcher for the Minnesota Twins. Mauer is regarded as one of the
So now he's Joe Mauer, Albatross?
What's the bright side? Only seven years on his $184 million contract to go?
"I know there's a lot of frustration -- the fans are frustrated, Joe's frustrated, believe me," says his older brother, Jake, who manages the Twins' Class A team in Fort Myers, Fla. "It may not always be obvious with Joe because Joe's a quieter guy. He doesn't say a whole lot. He keeps a lot of things to himself, even when negative stuff is being said. But he knows if you stay on an even keel, things tend to fall into place."
It would be easy to dismiss the tempest around Mauer as fan fickleness or the usual class warfare that pops up when an athlete chases or signs a fat new contract. The same disassembling is happening right now to more decorated franchise players, such as Albert Pujols and Derek Jeter.
But dismissing Mauer's changing regard as more of the same would wrongly ignore what Mauer has done to bring it on.
People who watch the Twins' catcher everyday wonder whether the 28-year-old Mauer gets and embraces everything that comes with the role of franchise player, something Pujols and Jeter have rarely been accused of sloughing off.
Nobody says Mauer is a raging egotist or a bad guy. But fairly or not, Mauer is starting to be seen as one of those players who stands for performance and not much else -- the same rap Mike Piazza, another sweet-swinging catcher, used to hear. Mauer is not a team spokesman who is at his locker every day, setting the tone for the Twins through thick and thin.
He's by far the Twins' most important player, yet he's never thrown off the feeling it would take a herd of wild horses to pull him out of the lineup. And that's a shortfall that doesn't sit well with a fan base that still venerates wall-banging gamers such as Dan Gladden, who was dirty laundry waiting to happen, or the late Kirby Puckett, the effervescent little center fielder who probably would've coined the phrase "Let's play two" if Ernie Banks hadn't uttered it first.
Part of the Twins' proud franchise identity is a whatever-it-takes ethic. Mauer's explanation for last week's four-game stretch in which he didn't start two games though he'd only been back a week -- "Remember, it's still kind of, not my spring training, but I'd caught two nights in a row," he said -- only caused more eye rolling.
"So what's different about Mauer and Jeter is not just Jeter has five World Series rings and Joe Mauer has two PlayStation commercials -- but make sure you say they're very good PlayStation commercials," says Howard Sinker, a former Twins beat writer who now writes A Fan's View, a blog for the Star-Tribune about watching games in Section 219 of Target Field. "The different issue here is Joe is seen as also falling short by the standards that teammates have set, and a previous generation of Twins established. There's definitely a growing impatience here. Gladden was [about] a .250 hitter but he has two World Series rings.
"I wouldn't say it's a full-scale revolt against Joe, by any means. He did get a smattering of boos when he came to the plate when he took a 0-for-4 the other day at home. But that's still rare. More than ever, what you are hearing in Minnesota now in conversation about Joe is the phrase, 'For $23 million a year, you'd think ' or, 'For $23 million a year, good god, Joe, step up. Can't you DH or play first base even if you're not 100 percent? The team needs you. Where's the urgency?' There's also a feeling of, 'Who's running this show?'"
Mauer's rarely explain/never complain approach didn't serve him well after he chose to rehab with his brother's team in Fort Myers, where Joe has a home, then to report straight to the big leagues. The Twins seemed to prefer he play a few more games at Triple A Rochester. Was Mauer flexing his superstar privilege?
"There was more made of that than there should have been," team president Dave St. Peter insisted in a phone interview Wednesday. "We just wanted him to see him get more at-bats. Whether he got that at Triple A or Single A was not so much the issue."
But you know how that goes, too: Mauer probably would've avoided the stay-cation charges if he wasn't hitting .195 with only three extra-base hits in the 12 games, six of them losses, he's been back. He could've defended himself by correctly pointing out other injured Twins commonly rehab in Fort Myers, too. But Mauer didn't.
Mauer has asked for patience. And that might sound reasonable in a vacuum. But not when cast against Morneau's begrudging admission just a few days earlier, on the day it was announced he needed neck surgery, that he'd been playing despite being unable to feel one of the fingers on his left hand since March. The shorthanded Twins are relying on numerous Triple A players right now.
Mauer -- an excellent all-around athlete who concedes he may have to change positions someday, but far down the road -- was slammed by local newspaper columnist Jim Souhan on Sunday for not volunteering to play first in Morneau's absence.
The next night, Mauer took grounders at first with a borrowed glove and started at catcher. But Mauer disputed Gardenhire's pregame contention that he only pinch hit the day before because of a stiff back, saying, "I don't know where that came from."
If you're keeping score at home, it now seems we have gotten to the point that nearly everyone is frustrated, hacked off or tired of talking about what's wrong with St. Joe -- including Mauer.
"Oh yeah. For sure," Jake agreed. "I don't know where the back thing came from and it sounds like Joe didn't either. It's like the 'bilateral leg weakness' diagnosis that appeared everywhere. We still don't know how it got labeled that or where that came from. His legs were just weak after he had surgery on his knee. But before long, we heard he had Lyme disease, that he might have Lou Gehrig's disease."
Mauer still has a long way to go before he's an albatross. But he's no man in full yet like Pujols or Jeter, either.
At this point in his career, what Mauer looks to be -- most of all -- is a star still grappling with everything that being a superstar means.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So now he's Joe Mauer, Albatross? What's the bright side in Minnesota? Only seven years on his $184 million contract to go?