The superior man is satisfied and composed; the mean man is always full of distress.—CONFUCIUS
Joe Mauer speaks in a buttery monotone, occasionally giving away his unmistakable Minnesotaness, as when he turns so into two syllables, with a slight accent on the second one (so-OH). As a hitter, he watches pitches go by—good ones, not just the bad ones—with the patience of a twinkle-eyed fisherman. And when he does swing, often with two strikes, the wellspring of distress for inferior men, Mauer does so with a beautiful economy. What the abacus is to calculation and the sundial to timekeeping, Joe Mauer's swing is to hitting.
To be Joe Mauer is to be an irritant to pitchers. His serenity gives them no anxiety on which to prey, or as Oscar Wilde put it, "Nothing is so aggravating as calmness."
"He's a special breed," Pirates righthander Jeff Karstens said last week after Mauer, with two strikes, doubled off him on the sixth pitch of an at bat, a slider, the first pitch on which Karstens came inside. "He never seems tense up there. I'd say he's the best hitter in the American League. You have [Albert] Pujols in the NL and Joe Mauer in the AL."
Being Joe Mauer is about keeping his life and his swing as simple as possible, which is why, given a rare day off last Thursday, he drove an hour outside Minneapolis to the log cabin getaway he built in the Minnesota woods. "Real logs, real Lincoln logs," he says, though within those real-log walls are such creature comforts as a bowling alley and a batting cage.
To the log cabin is where Mauer also repaired immediately after last summer's All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium. The memory of coming home to the woods, not playing in the last big event at a baseball shrine, is what elicits a bigger smile. "I took a plane ride after the game," Mauer says, "and within eight hours I was riding a lawn mower up there. So you have New York City and the All-Star Game and all the craziness that goes on with that, and eight hours later I was sitting there cutting grass. Talk about your two extremes. And oh, yeah, I was happy."
Being Joe Mauer is being Joe Mower.
Since baseball instituted steroid testing with penalties in 2004, the sport has largely lacked a major national narrative to pull the game forward the way that the consecutive-games record of Cal Ripken and the (since devalued) 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa did in the wake of the '94 strike. Since '04 no player has hit 60 home runs (it happened six times in the six years before that); no pitcher has won more than 22 games or struck out 300 batters; no world championship team has won 100 games; and no batter has carried a .400 average into July.
Here is where Mauer comes in. With home runs having gone the way of junk bonds, derivatives and no-document mortgages, the most iconic, captivating pursuits are of hitting streaks and a .400 batting average, in part because of their daily drama and the stirring of the ghosts that come with them. Not since the Reds' Pete Rose hit in 44 straight games in 1978 has a hitter come within 15 games of Joe DiMaggio's single-season record of 56 straight. Not since the Rockies' Larry Walker and the Padres' Tony Gwynn, in 1997, has anyone hit .400 even as modestly deep into a season as June 22—until Mauer.
At week's end Mauer was hitting a blistering .407, making him only the 10th player to hit .400 this far into a season since Ted Williams in 1941 became the eighth and last .400 hitter in the modern era. Mauer has been so impressive that his manager, Ron Gardenhire, cracked after his catcher had a 4-for-4 night against the Pirates last week, "Let's enjoy the heck out of it. Let's talk about .500. It's just amazing."