Zulgad: Joe Mauer’s career should be remembered for its brilliance, not rough spots

Maybe Joe Mauer really did need a few more weeks to contemplate whether he wanted to return for a 16th big-league season. Perhaps Mauer didn’t want to make a quick decision after going through another long season in which he had sustained yet another concussion.

Whatever the case, after wrapping up his 15th season with what felt like the perfect farewell on Sept. 30 against the White Sox, an emotional Mauer wasn’t ready to say he was done. That changed on Friday when Mauer released word through the Twins that he is retiring at the age of 35. He will hold a press conference on Monday morning at Target Field.

This isn’t to say that Mauer could not have returned for another year or two and been a productive player. He had turned himself into an excellent fielding first baseman after moving from catcher in 2014 because of concussion issues that expedited his exit from the game. He also had periods at the plate where you saw flashes of the old Mauer.

But that Mauer — the guy who became the first catcher in major league history to win three batting titles and the only American League receiver to win one — was long gone and the Twins appeared to be ready to move on. While chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine made it clear that Mauer would be the one to decide his future, the Twins were clearly heading in a new direction.

Paul Molitor, who like Mauer is a St. Paul native, was fired after the season and replaced by Tampa Bay Rays coach Rocco Baldelli. Coming off a disappointing 78-84 finish after making the American League wild card game in 2017, the Twins will have plenty of money to spend and are expected to have several new faces when they arrive in Fort Myers, Fla., next February to open spring training.

What’s interesting is that Mauer’s decision to retire actually could result in a new chapter in how Twins fans feel about him. The first chapter has plenty of fond memories. The first pick by the Twins in the 2001 Major League draft, Mauer arrived in the big leagues in 2004.

Mauer was sidelined by a medial meniscus tear in his left knee in April of that season and was out until June 2. A sore left knee ended his season in mid-July and Mauer played in only 35 games. The injury bug was something Mauer would deal with again, but he also showed his potential at the plate in that brief sample size. Mauer hit .308/.369/.570 in 107 at-bats and 122 plate appearances.

The Twins had been to the playoffs the two years before Mauer arrived and made it in his first season, even though the knee injury kept him out. There would be three more playoff appearances over the next six seasons in which Mauer would participate and his brilliance at the plate, and behind it, were instrumental in helping the Twins win games.

Mauer’s best season came in 2009, the Twins’ final year in the Metrodome. Mauer spent all of April on the disabled list but returned to hit an American League-leading .365 with a .444 on-base percentage and a .587 slugging percentage. He also hit a career-high 28 home runs and 96 RBIs. The output earned Mauer AL MVP honors.

Mauer was rewarded the following March with an eight-year, $184 million contract extension that kicked in the following season and paid him $23 million per year. It appeared to be a great deal for the hometown kid and the Twins but it eventually would become justification for criticizing Mauer at nearly every turn.

The second chapter for Mauer began in April 2011, just weeks after his new contract had started, when he was placed on the disabled list because of something the Twins termed bilateral leg weakness. Mauer wasn’t reinstated until June and then in late September he was shut down because of pneumonia.

The Twins also fell of the table that season, going from 94 wins and a playoff berth in 2010, to a 63-99 finish that got general manager Bill Smith fired and former GM Terry Ryan put back in the main chair. The term bilateral leg weakness became a punchline for many.

Mauer returned to catch two more seasons for the Twins before he took several foul balls off his mask on Aug. 19, 2013 against the New York Mets. Mauer missed the final 39 games of that season because of a concussion sustained in that game and in November 2013 the Twins announced he would be permanently moving to first base.

It was assumed that Mauer playing first base would not only lengthen his career but that he would continue to be one of the most dominant hitters in baseball. That didn’t happen and as the Twins finished under .500 in six of eight seasons, Mauer’s $23 million per year payday became a primary focus of upset fans.

There is little doubt the concussions took an enormous toll on Mauer — he suffered a final one this season while chasing a foul pop-up in Anaheim — and yet he rarely tried to defend himself. The soft-spoken Mauer — teammates will tell you he had far more of a personality than he ever showed in public — never seemed interested in setting the record straight when it came to what bilateral leg weakness meant or defending himself against the fans and media who criticized him.

It was interesting because Mauer never seemed irritated or upset by the treatment he received.

That gets us to Mauer’s post-baseball career chapter that starts now. There are some who scoff when it’s asked if Mauer belongs in the Hall of Fame. But with Mauer retiring, we can all now take a step back and appreciate this man’s greatness during the prime of his career. He went to six All-Star Games as a catcher, won three gold gloves playing that position and earned an MVP award. He will be remembered as one of the greatest players in Twins history and his No. 7 likely soon will be retired.

In 10 seasons as a catcher, Mauer hit .323/.405/.468 with 105 home runs and 634 RBIs. In the past five years, Mauer hit .278/.359/.388 with 38 home runs and 289 RBIs as a first baseman. There were moments in that time where you thought you might have seen a glimpse of vintage Mauer, but far too often that wasn’t the case.

Mauer realized this and with his contract coming to an end, he went into his final big-league game knowing this likely would be it. So did the fans and that’s why the 30,000-plus at Target Field on that Sunday no longer cared about eight years or $23 million per season or bilateral leg weakness. This was a celebration of a career that has a chance of one day being honored in Cooperstown.

The celebration was fantastic. The career was memorable. It was time.

Mauer knew it on Sept. 30 and on Friday he did the wise thing by walking away.