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The new M&M Boys (cont.)

Posted: Friday September 1, 2006 5:03PM; Updated: Friday September 1, 2006 6:07PM
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The original M&M Boys, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, in 1961.
The original M&M Boys, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, in 1961.
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Morneau was a third-round pick in 1999 and great things were expected from him, but the young slugger struggled through 2005 after suffering pneumonia, appendicitis, and the chicken pox the previous winter. Before the year was over, he was beaned in the noggin by a Ron Villone fastball and had a clubhouse altercation with Hunter, who has since grown more sympathetic toward the youngster

"You have to understand the pressure on kids like that," Hunter said last spring. "Imagine you're 23 years old, like Morneau last year, and you open the year for us in the four hole. I don't care what anyone says -- that's pressure."

Morneau had a strong showing for the Canadian team in the World Baseball Classic, yet there were lingering questions about his focus. He was benched against the Mariners on June 7. At the time, Morneau's batting line was .236/.297/.450. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire had a private, but pointed chat with his first baseman after the game.

"It just kind of woke me up a bit," Morneau told Sid Harman of the Star Tribune. "I don't think my focus was where it needed to be. I think it got better after that. It wasn't like they were saying it was my last shot. It was just kind of a little bit of a wake-up call to tell me, you're capable of a lot more than what you're doing. When the manager sits you down, lets you know, it means they care about you and they need you. I think I've been better since then. I'm sure that helped."

Since June 8, the Twins have made a serious run at contention, during which time Morneau has hit a blistering .410/.438/.748. While his breakout season isn't exactly a surprise, the poor showing in '05 has added a sense of drama to it for sure.

"Morneau's season has been like going in for a job interview, thinking you nailed it, and then not getting called back for a month," says Aaron Gleeman, who blogs about the Twins daily. "And just when you start to seriously doubt whether or not you were really impressive in the first place, you get a call saying they want you to start Monday at double the salary. You're not really shocked by the outcome, but the road you took getting there was unexpected."

Says Kahrl: "Morneau is everything this team hasn't had since Kent Hrbek, and that's another element of the story, that he's the first 30 homer guy in a Twins uniform since 1987. That's easy to note, while describing just how good Mauer is and will be takes up space."

Mauer has the calmness and stability of a Zen monk. Defensively, he's solid at throwing out runners (currently, he's fifth in the league). He's also excellent at blocking pitches in the dirt and has become increasingly confident at game-calling and working with the pitching staff.

"One overlooked aspect of his defense is his ability to make tough tags on plays at the plate," says Gleeman. "He not only does a good job blocking runners from the plate, which you'd expect given his size, Mauer also makes great, athletic plays just to get himself in position to make tough tags on relatively off-target throws."

In fact, defensively, Mauer seems to do everything well. "The odd thing is," Gleeman continues, "that because his offense is so fantastic, his defense gets lost in the shuffle and will probably end up being underrated."

Oh yes, the offense. In a season that has boasted an unusually strong offensive showing from catchers, Mauer is the cream of the crop (his .932 OPS is almost one hundred points higher than the next best-hitting catcher, Victor Martinez).

"Offensively, he has no weakness," Devil Rays manager Joe Maddon told SI.

Though Mauer doesn't have Morneau's power, Gardenhire admits that for some guys, hitting the long ball is not in their makeup. "Joe does [hit home runs] every once in a while, but when you have a natural swing like that, you leave him alone and let him be a baseball player."

"Joe is a pure hitter who will hit the ball where it is pitched," according to Blyleven. "He is so calm at the plate and has a great eye and knowledge of the strike zone. Justin is a power hitter who wants to drive the ball over the fence, but his batting average is over .300."

Batgirl admits that picking an MVP between the two depends on your interpretation of the meaning of the award. But, she adds, "How many players in baseball are actually better than Joe Mauer? It really is a marvel to watch him hit -- it looks like the height of human perfection, that all of evolution has been leading up to the moment where Joe Mauer puts bat on ball."

Alex Belth is the founder and co-author of Bronx Banter. His biography of Curt Flood, "Stepping Up: The Story of All-Star Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights," is available on Amazon.com.

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