Mauer continues to grow as leader
Young catcher quietly in control as responsibilities increase
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It wasn't exactly an outfit that Joe Mauer would typically wear, let alone to a hockey game.Donning a black tuxedo with a tall black top hat made it difficult for the normally low-key Mauer to blend in with the sea of people at the Excel Center for the Minnesota Wild game. But being that it was New Year's Eve and he promised Justin Morneau that he would dress up for the party the two were hosting together for a group of friends after the game, Mauer somehow was convinced to wear the get-up, bowtie and all. "There would have been no chance of that a couple of years ago," Mauer said, with a laugh about his outfit. "It took Morny awhile to talk me into it. I guess I'm just a little more reserved than most." The Twins All-Star catcher has been a standout on the baseball field for as long as many people can remember, but when it comes to those things off the field, the St. Paul, Minn., native would rather just shift the spotlight elsewhere. It's definitely become a more difficult task as Mauer's role with the Twins continues to grow -- along with his success. But the goal of his teammates and friends has been to find ways for the player to not totally shy away from public life. The first few seasons he was with the Twins, Mauer said he spent his nights at home in his condo in St. Paul, trying to avoid the attention. But it was in 2006, when he began rooming with Morneau that Mauer said he really started to discover life beyond the baseball field. "I think we were good for each other," Mauer said. "I'd get him to stay in a few nights and he'd get me to go out, which I never did before. It made for a pretty good balance." The two are no longer roommates, with Morneau and his fiancée Krista, having bought a home in nearby Mendota Heights, but the camaraderie has continued. And it's become a sort of daily challenge for Morneau to slowly ease Mauer out of his shell. The first baseman feels he has succeeded -- well, at least a little bit. The recent outfit at the hockey game he feels was a start. But when asked if Mauer has become less quiet away from the field than he still is in the clubhouse or in interviews, Morneau couldn't help but chuckle and say, "No."
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"He's just not outspoken," Morneau said. "But at the same time, he draws respect and guys look up to him too. He's just a good example of doing well and setting an example with your actions."Mauer, who turns 25 in April, is entering his fifth season with the Twins. Despite all of his experience in the big leagues, he's still one of the younger players on the club's roster. But age hasn't prevented the team from looking to him as one of their leaders. "He's definitely become much more comfortable in his role," right-hander Scott Baker said. "When he's behind the plate, you just feel like he's in control of the game and what he's trying to do. And it seems he's only getting better everyday. I don't know how much better he can humanly be, but he's doing a pretty good job so far." Mauer may be growing as a leader, but it's unlikely he'll ever completely shed that humble persona. The soft-spoken catcher admits that the quietness has always been a part of his nature. "Going back to high school, I was pretty much deathly shy," Mauer said. "Senior year, I started to get a little more comfortable with talking more. I started getting a lot more media because of football, basketball and baseball. Each year, I think I got a little more comfortable with it. I still don't like it a whole lot. I just like just getting out there and playing the game." Mauer's love of baseball has been with him ever since he first started swinging the bat in the backyard with his two older brothers, Jake and Billy. Both played in the Twins' organization too, calling it quits before either reached the big leagues. But unlike their little brother, neither ever had to endure the kind of attention focused on the youngest Mauer. Not only was the 6-foot-5 catcher the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 Draft, he was selected by his hometown team. Along with the pressure to live up to expectations on the field came the constant strain for Mauer of being the "local boy-turned-star" in the public spotlight. It's something that even Morneau, a former American League MVP, can't completely understand at times. "It's hard to imagine, but being in that position leaves a lot of stress on him," Morneau said. "When you're in that spot, you're always thinking, 'You have to live up to this,' but [Mauer] doesn't have to be perfect. The thing is, people are going to love him no matter what he does." Just how beloved the catcher is in Minnesota was captured in one of the Twins' most recent commercials. The spot featured pitcher Pat Neshek, also a Minnesota native, talking to a group of kids from his old high school. Instead of wanting to know about Neshek, every question was focused on Mauer -- with the girls gushing about the catcher's "good looks and sideburns."
For Mauer, the spoof was entertaining -- if a little bit uncomfortable -- considering that once again the spotlight was on him."It was pretty funny," Mauer said with a bit of a sheepish smile. "Pat liked it, which was the biggest thing." That aw-shucks nature is a staple of Mauer's demeanor around his teammates and the Twins coaching staff. Except for last season, when an injury-plagued campaign finally caused Mauer to express some of his emotion. It was a frustrating year for him following his '06 season -- when he hit .347 to become the first American League catcher to win a batting title -- with a .293 average and just 60 RBIs. The decrease in production was due to leg injuries that kept Mauer off the field for much of the season. He missed over a month, landing on the disabled list in May. Even when on the field, the catcher was clearly not 100 percent. But then reports started running in the local media late in the year that his teammates were questioning his toughness and whether he was truly hurt enough to sit out. And that's when the Twins saw a different side of Mauer emerge. "He was mad about that because the way it came out, and nobody in the clubhouse came up and talked to him personally," Morneau said. "There were no names behind the quotes, it was just 'players in the clubhouse.' And he's sitting there, trying to figure out which of his teammates may be talking bad about him. But from what we found, it wasn't so much anybody really saying anything. He got a little frustrated with that whole situation. He actually got mad -- which is rare." A rare but not completely unusual sight for Morneau, who admits he's been the culprit of a few angry Mauer moments. One of those times came early last season when the two went up to Mauer's property in northern Minnesota. Morneau took the catcher's Tahoe for a spin in a wet field, making foot-deep tracks and leaving the vehicle covered in mud. The first baseman got out of the vehicle and laughed, only to find Mauer wasn't quite so entertained. Mauer can now chuckle when re-telling the story, but Morneau said he had a far different reaction at the time. "He was like, 'What are you doing? Look at the field, you idiot.' And he was really mad," Morneau said. "I thought it was hilarious, but he was actually mad at me." Discovering a little fire behind that quiet, reserved player isn't exactly something that the Twins coaching staff considers to be bad. But Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said he doesn't expect to see any dramatic change in Mauer anytime soon. "He's a quiet guy, and he'll always be a quiet guy," Gardenhire said. "But he's a force behind the plate and a force for us offensively. And there is no substitute for that."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.