When Kirby Puckett retired I realized that childhood heroes go the way of teddy bears and G.I. Joes.
When Kevin Garnett retired I realized why adolescence is the thread running through so much sweet nostalgia.
When Joe Mauer retired I realized that I’m careening down the road into middle age and every vestige of youth is behind me.
Joe Mauer is the best athlete I ever shared a field with and it’s not even close. In the fall of 2000 my decidedly horrible Minneaolis South High Tigers football team faced Joe’s defending state champion Cretin-Derham Hall team in the first round of the sectional playoffs. I knew we’d lose before we ever took the field; that was never in doubt. But I knew they’d embarrass the life out of us when I saw Joe warming up.
Watching Joe Mauer throw a football in warm ups was like watching a greyhound out for a walk in the neighborhood – all grace and ease with the certainty he could do so much more, and to perfection. I don’t remember much of the game (traumatic experiences are like that) except that he played only one quarter and left with no incomplete passes, no sweat on his brow, no grass stains on his uniform, and a four or five touchdown lead.
Joe was the Gatorade National Football Player of the year and had a full ride scholarship offer to play QB for Bobby Bowden’s Florida State Seminoles. Yet football was only his second best sport. A few months later he would be selected first over all in the Major League Baseball draft by the Minnesota Twins ahead of college ace pitcher Mark Prior. At the time the pick was panned as a cost saving effort by the cheapo Twins front office and a huge miss on the best prospect. The next decade would prove Joe right for signing with the Twins instead of playing football and the Twins right for selecting him over Prior.
When Mauer broke into the majors it was so exciting—a fellow Twin Cities boy, my peer, starring for the hometown team. And star he did: 3 batting titles as a catcher (the only player ever to do that), 1 MVP, gold glove defense behind the plate, and a calm classy competitive drive that made opponents and teammates alike respect him. Watching Mauer wield a baseball bat was like watching Eric Clapton on guitar or Jimmy Chamberlin on drums. He was a master of his craft with a style all his own, part Wade Boggs, part Tony Gwynn, and all Joe Mauer.
When the toll of catching broke down Joe’s knees and one too many concussions robbed him of his wand-waving bat skills he didn’t pout or turn diva and he didn’t quit. He did what Joe always did – give a half smile, an “aw shucks,” and got back to work. At 30 he remade himself into a skilled first baseman who still deserved a spot at the top of the batting order.
During his fifteen-year career Joe generated exactly one scandal: a failure to hit enough home runs to please the troglodyte beat writers and rube fans. That’s it. The only one. Even in this age of social media foibles and public embarrassments he is squeaky clean, and not in a sanctimonious Tebowy way either. Just as the sort of guy who would make an even better neighbor than he was a baseball player.
Yesterday Joe Mauer announced his retirement. When I heard I wasn’t sad like I was when Kirby retired or nostalgic like when KG retired. I was proud for him and glad to be a fan and his peer. I was thankful for his contributions to the Twins and Minnesota. Mostly, though, I was melancholy that one of the last tangible links to my youth (and athletic prime) hung up his spikes. When Joe retired it was like I retired too – from identifying myself as an athlete, from imagining myself as an athlete, from being young at all.
I’ve known for decades that I would never be a professional athlete. My parents and friends probably knew before that and were too gracious to tell me. But, like many men, I’ve harbored dreams of stardom and imagined myself lacing a hanging slider into the left-centerfield gap. I’ve held these dreams vicariously through the success of others, especially those I had a connection to, like Joe Mauer – that Minnesota boy whose star shined on every youth in the Twin Cities at the turn of this century.
Joe will be missed by Twins fans because of his greatness on the field, his class off it, and his unmistakable, unshakeable Minnesotanness. But Joe will be missed by his peers for giving life to our dreams and carrying the weight of our imaginations. We knew we’d never be him, but we could live out our dreams with every web gem and line drive he generated.
Enjoy your retirement, Joe. Enjoy your family and your neighbors and the creep of your hairline and waistline. And enjoy the freedom from having anyone living vicariously through you. Welcome to the club.