When the Minnesota
Twins play on TV, Jake Mauer Sr. draws the shades at his house on Big Goose
Lake, 35 miles north of Minneapolis, and settles into a chair three feet from
his 56-inch TV screen. Macular degeneration has robbed him of much of his
vision, but by turning his head just so, he can, with his peripheral vision,
see his grandson Joe step up to the plate. If Jake sees Joe overstriding or
carrying his bat too low, he snaps photos on his digital camera and calls him
later, with comments. However, Jake adds proudly, he rarely sees flaws; what he
sees is "the greatest hitter I ever saw--and I saw Ted Williams." In
short he sees the young man he helped raise in a St. Paul neighborhood seven
miles from the Metrodome. "I watch Joe, and I see myself so much, I could
cry," says Jake, now 75. "The way he is, that's the way I should have
Jake had his shot
in the early 1950s. A lefthanded hitter with power who played shortstop and
third base, he was supposed to be better than his three older brothers, all of
whom played in the high minor leagues. But his time with the White Sox' Class A
affiliate in Colorado Springs was brief. His performance was hobbled by an
overly enthusiastic social life, and his career ended with a knee injury after
four months. "I thought I could play ball and drink and party and chase
women, but it catches up to you," says Jake. "I've harped on that with
Joe: Don't make the same mistakes I made. Focus on playing the game. Focus on
being the best player you can be."
So behold Joe
Mauer at 23, not yet the best player he can be, but already nearly as good as
it gets (box, page 54). Aside from being baseball's leading hitter �(.368
at week's end), one of the best defensive catchers in the league, an All-Star
and one of the biggest reasons the once wayward Twins had won 35 of their last
45 through Sunday, he is humble, hardworking and handsome, the Minnesotan ideal
of a hometown hero. "If you are going to model yourself after a player, 95
percent of what you want to be about is right there in Joe Mauer," says
Twins batting coach Joe Vavra. "There are so many things he possesses that
you wish the rest of the kids in the country had."
instance, his success at the plate. If he can keep up the pace he has set this
summer (.376 since June 1) the lefthanded hitter could become first AL catcher
to win a batting title. (No catcher has won a title since Ernie Lombardi of the
Boston Braves batted .330 in 1942.) He could also set a new standard in the
majors. No catcher has ever hit more than .362 in the modern era, with good
reason. The position is so demanding mentally and so punishing physically that
hitting is sometimes an afterthought. With the wear and tear from foul tips,
collisions at the plate and that infernal crouch, it's little wonder that
offensively prolific catchers--even at his young age, Mauer included--are
frequently mentioned as candidates for an eventual position switch (see: Torre,
Joe; Piazza, Mike).
Mauer can hit
righties (.372) and lefties (.359), he can find the gap in defensive shifts,
and he can spray the ball all over the field. His other gifts are legion. After
praising Mauer's size (6'4", 220 pounds), hands, arm, demeanor, patience at
the plate (he leads the team in walks, with 48), handling of the staff,
game-calling savvy, athleticism, upbringing and unfailing good manners, Twins
manager Ron Gardenhire pauses. "It's kind of hard talking about him,"
he says, "because you're throwing so many accolades at a really young
player, but we haven't figured out anything bad about him."
opponents. "Offensively, he has no weakness," says Tampa Bay Devil Rays
manager Joe Maddon. "Defensively, he is one of the best catchers in the
league. I think when God made his blueprint for catchers, he stamped Joe
The only knock one
hears about Mauer, who has just eight homers, is that he lacks power. "Some
guys, it's not in their makeup to let it fly like that," says Gardenhire.
"Joe does 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."
That swing was
both discovered and nurtured by Grandpa Jake when Joe was still in diapers.
Widowed at age 48 in 1979, Grandpa Jake lived with the family of his only
child, Jake Jr. He tended bar at night and provided day care for Joe and his
older brothers, Jake III and Billy, while their parents worked. "He was
like a second father to us," says Joe. Grandpa Jake changed the boys'
diapers, made their peanut butter sandwiches and preached the virtues of
hitting. "If you can hit," he'd say, "they'll always find a place
for you." He tried to get the older boys to emulate his style and hit
lefthanded, but they wouldn't bite. "Then one day Joe [then a toddler]
picked up a plastic bat lefthanded and whacked a little beach ball," says
Grandpa Jake. "I said, 'Ho-leee! We have a lefthander!' His brothers tried
to get him to hit righthanded, but I told them to leave him alone."
Mauer, who throws
right and signs--and signs and signs--autographs right, honed his swing by
spending countless hours in the family basement swatting a skinny 32-inch steel
pipe at Wiffle balls and golf balls dropped through a coffee-can-and-PVC-pipe
device his dad invented when Joe was nine. Besides giving the boys a quick,
compact stroke, the device, which Jake Jr. now markets as Mauer's Quickswing
(quickswing.com), kept them "away from Nintendo," says Joe's mother,
Teresa, and beyond the grasp of trouble they were unlikely to go looking for
told the boys, You are related to or know half of St. Paul, so if you screw up,
we'll hear about it," says Teresa.