- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Torii Hunter headed west. The Minnesota Twins lived to tell about it. Just as they always do.
If there's any team in sports more used to answering questions about the men who aren't there than the Twins, we'd hate to see its alumni rolls -- or its trainers' room. But now, here we go again.
And this time, it's tricky. This time, the questions are about a man who's just about irreplaceable, a fellow named Joe Mauer. And what makes those questions tricky is that, for essentially this entire spring training, they've been questions without answers.
What we know is this:
The best catcher in baseball has barely made it onto the field all spring. He has seen more back specialists than at-bats. He has finally conceded that there's virtually no chance he'll be back on Opening Day. And nobody is saying what day, or month, he will return.
"We don't think it's a long-term problem," assistant GM Ron Antony said this weekend, as the Twins kept on doing what they do best -- pushing forward, no matter who's on the field and who isn't.
"It's not something we think is going to stretch deep into the season," Antony said at another point.
But how deep? How long-term? Don't ask -- because the Twins aren't ready to answer.
"We're trying to be very careful in not putting a timetable on it," Antony said, "because then [if something goes amiss] everyone panics. So we're optimistic that the treatment will take care of it and he'll be back out there. And we're looking at a 162-game season, rather than worrying about Game No. 1."
It's what they do. It's what they always do. But that doesn't make Mauer's absence less of a concern. And it doesn't make his condition less of a mystery.
After a spring filled with setbacks and visits to doctors from Florida to Maryland, at least there's finally a diagnosis: inflammation in the right sacroiliac joint, at the base of his spine. And it's now being treated with anti-inflammatory medication, Antony reports.
But ESPN injury guru Stephania Bell tells us that this is a condition that's extremely rare -- especially in men, and even more especially in an athlete who hasn't even started his season yet.
"Rare, huh?" said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, when we passed along that late-breaking medical bulletin. "Well, we've got that part down -- rare."
Hey, excellent point. The Twins are about as rare as any team in sports. They keep waving goodbye to the biggest names in franchise history. They keep playing baseball with payrolls about a third as large as the Yankees'. And they keep piling up one winning season after another, whatever it takes.
"What we do, first and foremost," said the senior position player on this roster, Michael Cuddyer, "is, we all buy into the system. And what I mean by the system is: just believing we can win, wanting to win, believing in your teammates. In this day and age, the way the money is, it's hard to get everybody on that same page. But just believing in your team and believing in each other can go a long way."
The Twins are the poster boys for proving it, too. But amid all the upbeat talk, amid the Twins' ever-present mantra of we-will-find-a-way positivity, you sense something else. You sense true worries about the well-being of a man who embodies what this franchise is all about.
Joe Mauer, after all, isn't just another name in the Twins' scorecard. He's a Minnesotan, a No. 1 pick in the whole country, a two-time batting champion, the centerpiece of what they do and who they are.
"And the thing is, he's a better person than he is a ballplayer," said coach Steve Liddle. "Talk about the complete package, he's got that sixth tool. He's got the heart and makeup part, too."
So while you still hear, out there in the baseball community, the usual how-come-he-can't-play-through-this grumbles, that's not where the Twins are coming from.
"I'm worried," said Gardenhire, "just because we haven't seen him on the baseball field. All the doctors are together on this thing, and they think they know how to get it straightened out. And that's kind of all we're looking for. But I just want to see that young man out there running around again -- for his sake, because he's going crazy. For our sake, we just want to see him back on the baseball field again. When we get him is when we get him."
With 99 percent of the injured players in sports, the only question you hear is: When is this guy coming back? But it tells you something, about both Mauer and the team he plays for, that this time, it seems different.
"A lot of times, when guys are injured, other players will go up to them and give them a [hard time] now and then," Liddle said. "But in this case, everybody is just genuinely, genuinely concerned about Joe. Nobody is sitting back, saying, 'Hey, when's he going to be back?' Everybody's just wondering how he's doing. It's not about us. It's about Joe, because he's such a tremendous person."
"He's baseball. He's what's good about the game," said pitching coach Rick Anderson. "I'll tell you, I wouldn't say this about anyone, but he's one guy you wouldn't mind your daughter marrying."
Unfortunately, though, this is no very special episode of "The Bachelor" they're living through. They're going to be forced to play a baseball season any minute now, whether Mauer is ready or not. And if they can play this season without him -- or any portion of it -- and not feel it, they're a better team than anybody suspected.
Ask yourself this: How many players alive, when you get right down to it, are more indispensible to their teams than Joe Mauer?
It's a fascinating question. But luckily, our friends at Baseball Prospectus tried to answer it recently. They cranked out a list of the 10 most irreplaceable stars in the game. Mauer was the only American Leaguer on it -- and also the only catcher.
So how irreplaceable is he? Let's just count some of his many irreplaceable traits:
• He has won two batting titles in the past three years. All the other catchers since World War II have combined for zero batting titles.
• He led all catchers in the big leagues last year in batting average (.328), on-base percentage (.413), hits (176) and runs scored (98).
• He's an on-base machine. His .429 on-base percentage in 2006 was the highest by an American League catcher in 71 years. And his .399 career on-base percentage is the highest by any catcher, period, since Mickey Cochrane retired in 1937. (Minimum: 2,000 plate appearances.)
• Meanwhile, behind the plate, Mauer caught 1,203 innings last season. That was the second most in the AL and fourth in the big leagues.
• And, maybe most revealing of all, over the past three years, the Twins have gone 41 games over .500 (211-170) in games Mauer started -- but two games under .500 (52-54) when any other catcher started.
So any more questions?
"Everyone wants to talk about Joe Mauer the hitter," Anderson said. "But I talk about what he offers behind the plate. He's a big, big reason our young pitchers have been so good."
A few days ago, for instance, Anderson and the Twins' Opening Day starter, Scott Baker, were dissecting Baker's roughest outing of spring training. Baker admitted he knew exactly what his big problem had been -- pitch selection.
"He said, 'It was my fault. But I'm just so used to never shaking off Joe and going with what he puts down,'" Anderson reported. "And that's the case. They just feel like Joe has such a good feel for it, they go with it."
For two years now, Anderson has even stepped aside and let Mauer do his Jason Varitek impression, by running the pregame meetings in which Twins pitchers go over how to pitch the opposing hitters.
"I just stay out of it," the pitching coach said, "and let him handle it."
So it's a big hit for any staff to lose its catcher. But it's an even bigger hit when you're talking about a staff in which the entire rotation has combined for as many career wins (86) as Vicente Padilla.
Obviously, we need Joe Mauer. But at the same time, we believe we can go out and compete. You can't replace him. We know that. You can try and patch it with a Band-Aid, but you can't replace Joe Mauer. So there's no sense in trying. You just do the best you can with what you have.
”-- Twins right fielder Michael Cuddyer
The good news is, the Twins have tremendous faith in the intelligence, professionalism and leadership skills of Mike Redmond, who will be Mauer's primary replacement. The bad news is, Redmond turns 38 in May, and hasn't started 75 games in any season of his career.
So a lot is dangling in the balance here as this team holds its breath, waiting to see if Mauer's new medication turns him back into himself.
One of the unspoken issues, of course, is Mauer's future earning power. Even though he won't even turn 26 until next month, Mauer's free-agent Powerball payday seemed to be approaching, only a year and a half away.
Now, however, is it even safe to assume he'll be able to hold up as an everyday catcher through the life of his next contract? Tough question. And it's one the Twins -- and the rest of this sport -- will be thinking about long and hard over the next two seasons.
But that's an issue for another time and another place. Right now, the Minnesota Twins just need to get through another challenging baseball season. And, as always, the thought of that doesn't appear to terrify them.
"Obviously, we need Joe Mauer," Cuddyer said. "But at the same time, we believe we can go out and compete. You can't replace him. We know that. You can try and patch it with a Band-Aid, but you can't replace Joe Mauer. So there's no sense in trying. You just do the best you can with what you have. But I think that will to win, that desire to win and that thought process we have here goes a long way in helping us do that."
The Twins definitely have had a lot of practice perfecting the art of doing without and winning without. They've been doing it, Cuddyer said, for the 12 years he's been in this organization -- whether that meant trying to survive without Terry Steinbach and Ron Coomer, or Brad Radke and Corey Koskie, or Johan Santana and Torii Hunter.
But this time, they're telling themselves, it's different. At least this time, if the doctors have this right, they have to make it work only for now, not forever.
"With Torii and Johan, they weren't coming back," Liddle said. "But this guy, he is coming back. We've just gotta do our part and pick up the slack until he comes back. That's all."
But to pick up this slack, Liddle said, "We're going to need a strong chain, not a strong rope. A rope isn't going to be enough for this guy."
Then again, this is the Minnesota Twins we're talking about. So they've pulled that chain before. It's what has made them who they are -- the most resilient chain gang in sports.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
14hMatt Walks, ESPN.com