MINNEAPOLIS — No catcher has hit for average as well as Joe Mauer did — and considering the current direction of the game, it might be a long, long time before we see one again.
Whether it was with his discerning eye at the plate, his contact ability or his Gold Glove defense as a backstop, Mauer brought a natural talent to everything he did on the baseball diamond. That led to memorable moments aplenty throughout his 15-year career with his hometown team that showcased both his ability and his uncanny instincts.
As Mauer celebrates his 39th birthday on Tuesday, let’s take a look at the top 10 moments of his career.
1. The magical MVP season
Even considering all of his productive seasons at the plate, Mauer was never all that much of a power hitter, smashing more than 13 homers in only one of his 15 big league seasons. That one season in 2009, though, was quite the incredible sight to behold — and was made all the more remarkable by the fact that Mauer missed the first month of the campaign due to back issues.
Mauer’s season began on May 1 with a 2-for-3 performance, and a four-hit game immediately followed. By the end of the month, he was hitting .414/.500/.838 with 11 homers — already just two shy of his previous career high. He was the American League’s All-Star starter at catcher and even participated in the Home Run Derby.
By the end of the season, he had career highs in homers (28) and RBIs (96) and led the AL in all three triple-slash categories, with a final .365/.444/.587 line that netted him his third batting title and his only career MVP Award for one of the greatest offensive seasons by a catcher in history. His 8.4 Wins Above Replacement that season, per FanGraphs, rank as the most by an AL catcher in the Expansion Era (since 1961).
2. Behind the plate, one final time
Sept. 30, 2018
Mauer’s well-documented concussion issues cut his catching career short after the 2013 season, and that’s what made for such a heart-wrenching moment at Target Field during the finale of the ’18 campaign, when Mauer stepped out of the dugout in his catcher’s gear and received one pitch from Matt Belisle before stepping off the field for the last time.
The Twins and their opponent, the White Sox, had agreed beforehand on the manner of Mauer’s final send-off in that ninth inning, making for a poignant several minutes as he sank into embrace after embrace in the dugout while his hometown crowd gave him a tearful farewell into retirement.
“In hearing what [coaches Nate Dammann and Derek Shelton] had to say, about how much it would mean … to me and other people, I think they convinced me that it would be OK,” Mauer said that day. “After that conversation, I just had to go find a room and just be alone, because I started welling up. I was just trying to hold those emotions in.”
3. The number retirement
June 15, 2019
Mauer didn’t even pick his jersey number at the start of his career. As he tells it, he wore the No. 7 for the first time in his life when he found it hanging in his locker for his Rookie-ball stint in Elizabethton, Tenn. Still, it went down as one of the most iconic numbers in Twins history barely a year following his retirement, when the club officially made it the eighth retired jersey in franchise history.
“Wearing the No. 7 the past 15 years has been my absolute pleasure,” Mauer said. “Being able to play my entire career in that number in front of my family, friends and fans here at home means more to me than any of you will ever know.”
4. The first career hit
April 5, 2004
There were all manner of lofty expectations for Mauer ahead of his long-awaited debut in a Twins uniform, and how could there not have been? He was the hometown kid, selected first overall, with a path cleared for his arrival with the trade of A.J. Pierzynski to the Giants. Mauer was in the lineup and behind the plate on Opening Day 2004 against Cleveland in front of an excited Minnesota crowd and took advantage to earn his first career hit in the ninth inning, a chopper up the middle against reliever Rafael Betancourt.
5. The first batting title
Mauer showed flashes of his potential in 2004 and ’05, but ’06 was when he emerged as a force on the national stage. The Twins’ backstop heated up with the summer months, swelling his batting average to .392 by the end of June. He slowed down a bit as the months rolled on, but not by much — and after hovering around .350 for much of the second half, he officially became the first (and only) catcher in AL history to win a batting title when a two-hit performance in the season finale helped him finish at .347, four points ahead of Derek Jeter.
Mauer went on to win batting titles in ’08 and ’09 as well, making him the only catcher in AL/NL history with three.
6. The 2,000th career hit
April 13, 2018
Though Mauer’s impressive average should have helped him quickly rack up the milestone hit totals, the catcher’s workload and injuries stopped him from progressing up that ladder with haste, and it was in the final season of his career in ’18 that he got to 2,000 hits, a mark that should prove helpful for traditionally minded voters in Mauer’s eventual consideration for the Hall of Fame. The milestone knock was a two-run single up the middle off White Sox lefty reliever Aaron Bummer — and he got to achieve the feat in front of his hometown crowd.
7. The diving out at home
May 17, 2009
Here, we get to the part of the list that showcases why Mauer was a three-time Gold Glove Award winner behind the plate in his prime. Part of that came through his extreme natural athleticism (he was a decorated multisport high school athlete and committed to play quarterback at Florida State), and he had elite instincts, too. That was most clear on one play against the Yankees in ’09, when Jose Mijares knocked down a Francisco Cervelli comebacker that dribbled back toward the plate.
Mauer fielded the ball halfway to the mound, giving Brett Gardner a window to round third and head for home with the walk-off run — but when the backstop realized what was going on, he turned around and made a headfirst dive toward Gardner at the plate, making the tag in the nick of time to preserve the tie.
8. The around-the-net catch
June 10, 2010
Speaking of Mauer’s instincts, those weren’t confined strictly to the field of play, either. When Mitch Maier of the Royals lifted a high foul popup just behind home plate in the ninth inning of a game at Target Field, Mauer ranged back to the edge of the netting behind home plate — and to the shock of everyone around him, he reached around the back of the edge of the netting and made the snag in a play that likely won’t be seen again by a catcher for quite some time.
9. The first walk-off homer
May 5, 2017
In the twilight of his career, there was still one relatively common feat of heroics that Mauer hadn’t yet accomplished — the walk-off homer. He finally checked that one off in his penultimate season in a May game against the Red Sox, when he broke a 3-3 tie with two outs in the bottom of the ninth by yanking a Matt Barnes fastball over the fence in left-center for his second homer of the season. Mauer was uncharacteristically hyped up as he rounded first base, pumping his fist with a huge grin, and the celebration at home was understandably raucous.
10. The no-look carom
June 8, 2013
There’s one more showcase of Mauer’s crazy instincts to round out this list — and it’s perhaps the most impressive of them all but didn’t have any influence on the game. There’s a low stone wall behind home plate at Nationals Park, and when Denard Span fouled a ball straight back off that wall, it caromed right back toward home plate on a hop — and with only a hint of a backward glance, Mauer stuck his glove out behind his back to rather nonchalantly make a no-look snag of the ball. He even played it cool by handing it to the home-plate umpire without any fanfare — and he never left his squat.