In the last 40 years, only four catchers had been handed Major League starting jobs before their 21st birthdays: Bob Didier, Johnny Bench, Butch Wynegar and Ivan Rodriguez.
That is, until Opening Day 2005, when a certain St. Paul, Minn., prodigy gave the group one for the thumb. And from the moment 20-year-old Joe Mauer first put on a mask and assumed his spot behind the plate -- in front of some 1,000 friends and family at the Metrodome -- the hometown hero hasn't just joined the ranks of elite Major League catcher, he's created a class of his own.
Whether it's chasing the elusive .400 mark or battling through hip pain in this year's American League Division Series, Mauer's undeniable talent and gritty determination have made him not only one of baseball's most respected players, but also the 2009 American League MVP.
And while baseball is full of blooming late-round prospect stories and tales of journeymen who spend years toiling in the Minor Leagues, Mauer was a unique specimen. A five-tool high school recruit, his compact left-handed swing and superior defensive footwork, coupled with all-around athleticism and poise, made any Minor League seasoning look like a stretch.
By the time Mauer was selected as the top pick in the 2001 Draft, he'd already been on scouts' radar screens for several years, with dozens drooling daily over the multi-sport standout's every at-bat for Cretin-Derham Hall High School.
"He doesn't have to improve any of his tools or skills to jump in and impact the game at the Major League level," Twins' vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff told Baseball America in 2003, when the magazine crowned Mauer its Minor League Player of the Year.
"He's not a normal prospect. Improvement is a different word with a guy like that. He's good enough with his present abilities."
Minnesota also selected Joe's brother, Jake, in the 23rd round and sent both Mauer boys to Rookie-level Elizabethton, where Joe hit .400 in 32 games. Invited to Spring Training in '02, his stock continued to rise in his first full season with Class A Quad Cities. Mauer batted .302 to finish in the Midwest League top 10. Only 19 years old, he was listed as MLB's seventh-best and the Twins' No. 1 prospect, despite missing the final month following hernia surgery.
Mauer was even better the following season, opening with Class A Advanced Fort Myers before a .335 average prompted a midseason promotion to Double-A. The backstop tore up Eastern League pitching, too, hitting .341 with four homers and 41 RBIs in 73 games as New Britain claimed a playoff berth.
By the time Baseball America anointed Mauer as the Minors' best, even an organization as notoriously patient as the Twins knew it was time for the Minnesota native to shine. Mauer was tabbed as the Opening Day starter in 2004 and has become the face of the Twins franchise, adding hardware seemingly every season.
Famously depicted in a Sports Illustrated cover earlier this year as a log cabin owner who still mows his own lawn, Mauer's ability to hone in on simplicity is both the driving force behind his superfluous swing and the steadying hand anchoring the Twins rotation.
It was a fast-track path that put Mauer in the Majors, but getting the 26-year-old to ease up, even briefly, is a laborious task.
Despite being admittingly "slowed up" by a sore hip flexor through the first two games of the Division Series, Mauer -- who spent the season's first three weeks on the disabled list -- made it clear to manager Ron Gardenhire that he was going to play through the pain.
"As he told me before I left the clubhouse [during the offday workout preceding Game 3], 'I am a catcher, no matter what you say,'" Gardenhire said.
A catcher whose offensive stats are eye-popping enough to make Mauer the leading candidate for AL Most Valuable Player honors.
Minor League career breakdown
2001:In his first stint as a professional, Mauer hit .400 with 14 RBIs in 32 games in the Rookie-level Appalachian League.
2002: Playing for the Quad Cities River Bandits of the Class A Midwest League, Mauer batted .302.
2003: Splitting the season between Class A Advanced Fort Myers and Double-A New Britain, Mauer hit .339 with five homers and 85 RBIs.
2004:Mauer made his Major League debut on Opening Day but tore up his left knee going after a foul pop. He spent several games rehabbing with Triple-A Rochester. |
Brittany Ghiroli is a contributor to MLB.com.