Tear-jerker: Joe Mauer’s jersey retirement ceremony filled with emotion

MINNEAPOLIS — Joe Mauer established himself as one of the greatest players in Twins history during his 15 seasons with the franchise, but he also became known for an emotionless approach to his craft. This didn’t sit well with many fans who just once wanted to see Mauer throw a bat in a fit of anger or yell at an umpire after a missed call.

Mauer appears to be making up for lost time of late — not on the anger side, but certainly when it comes to showing emotion.

In Mauer’s final appearance at Target Field last season, he was moved to tears when he came out to catch one final pitch against the Chicago White Sox in the ninth inning before departing. Mauer had been forced to give up catching because of concussion issues after the 2013 season and his final appearance behind the plate was a clear sign his playing days were finished.

Mauer again became emotional at his retirement press conference in November. By Saturday, when Mauer’s No. 7 became the ninth number retired to be retired by the Twins (this includes Jackie Robinson’s No. 42), the only question was when would Mauer start to choke up. The St. Paul native admitted it did not take long as he sat among family, friends and former teammates on the field before the Twins played the Kansas City Royals.

The Twins had scheduled a video called “Raising a Champion” eight minutes into the ceremony that featured Mauer playing in the back yard with his brothers and also on various teams. “I thought I had it pretty well together, but the video’s playing of us in the back yard with my brothers and teammates when I was younger and older, getting hit from all different angles,” Mauer said. “I’m 36 years old, (I spent) 18 years here, that’s half my life as a Minnesota Twin, and the other half I was a fan of the Twins.”

It wasn’t just Mauer’s willingness to publicly show emotion that has changed in recent months. He also spent 11 minutes, 20 seconds at a podium near the pitcher’s mound at Target Field giving a speech before the cover was taken off the ball-shaped No. 7 down the left field line. Think about that: Mauer, known for his sweet left-handed swing and saying as few words as possible during his career, willingly stood in front of a microphone for more than 10 minutes.

“Wearing the No. 7 the past 15 years has been my absolute pleasure,” Mauer said as he tried to compose himself. “Being able to play my entire career in that number in front of my family, friends and fans here at home means more to me than any of you will ever know.”

Mauer, the first-overall pick by the Twins in the 2001 draft, said he had his speech written “a week to 10 days ago” and then went to work practicing it in hopes of keeping it together. The Twins had no interest in seeing Mauer’s eyes remain dry and went to great lengths to surprise him. Mauer even joked to Twins’ employees, asking if they liked him because, “you’re trying to make me cry every second of the day here this weekend.”

Surprises included everything from the presence of Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench — he was joined more than 30 Twins alumni on the field — to the Twins having had the home plate from last year’s finale framed for Mauer, to a video message from rap artist T.I., whose song, “What You Know,” was Mauer’s walk-up song for much of his career. The Twins also showed messages from Albert Pujols, Justin Verlander and Ichiro Suzuki.

“He was wholesome, obviously a great stroke hitter,” said Bench, who came into town after being in Sioux Falls, S.D., on a business trip. “You watch a guy how he and hits and runs to first or how he lays the bat down. He’s not out there for the glory or whatever and all the stuff that goes along — ‘Hey look at me, I’m going to be on ESPN.’ He was just a kid that played the game the way I liked to see it played. He slowed the ball down. The great hitters always slow the ball down. It looked like sometimes the ball was on the tee. It was fun to watch. It’s easy to be a fan of Joe with all the things he did and the way he handled himself.”

The five living Twins who have had their jerseys retired — Tony Oliva (No. 6), Tom Kelly (10), Kent Hrbek (14), Bert Blyleven (28) and Rod Carew (29) — entered together from left field during the ceremony. The son of the late Harmon Killebrew (3) also was on hand as were the son and daughter of the late Kirby Puckett (34).

Mauer, who spent much of the ceremony holding his infant son, Chip, as his wife, Maddie, and their twin daughters, Emily and Maren, sat close by, was gracious in thanking just about everyone during his speech. This included Twins fans. That was interesting considering the relationship many of the fans had with Mauer during his career.

Mauer might have been a multi-sport star during his high school days at Cretin-Derham Hall, but that didn’t matter to many once he began collecting $23 million a year in 2011 under an eight-year, $184 million contract that basically assured him of finishing his career in Minnesota. There are numerous reasons why some turned on Mauer — bilateral leg weakness, the concussions that forced him from behind the plate to first base (where his lack of power became more of an issue), his lack of emotion.

But Mauer’s always calm demeanor never enabled you to see if he noticed or cared about the criticism. So when he went from becoming the first American League catcher to win a batting title, he won three in his career, to a .261 hitter in 2016, Joe remained Joe. That wasn’t going to change, even if he began to hear boos in Target Field.

There were no boos on Saturday evening. The capacity crowd of 39,267 gave Mauer a standing ovation as he choked back tears near the end of his speech. After standing at home plate and watching his No. 7 unveiled, Mauer went to the mound to throw out the first pitch. The ball was delivered by his mother, Teresa, and Joe delivered the pitch to his father, Jake.

“I was real nervous,” Mauer said during a press conference after the ceremony. “I hadn’t thrown a ball in a while. I knew my dad wasn’t as mobile as he used to be, so I wanted to make sure to get it in the area. To have them and my family and friends be a part of this weekend, it really means a lot.”

Mauer then went to watch his former team try to improve on its 46-22 record that had the Twins 10.5 games up on Cleveland in the American League Central entering Saturday night’s game.

There was some feeling last season that Mauer might try to return on a short-term contract to continue his career, especially with the expectation that good days could be ahead for the Twins. That possibility, however, disappeared after the regular-season finale in which he walked off after catching a pitch.

That Twins team finished 78-84, meaning six of the final eight teams on which he played finished under .500. Mauer said he has only watched a handful of games this season because his family has kept him busy — “It’s funny,” he said. “Everybody I’ve talked to says, ‘Oh, you’ve got all this time on your hands.’ I’m like, ‘I’m busier now than I’ve ever been with all the things going on.’ — but he doesn’t second-guess his decision to walk away from the sport he loves.

“It’s fun,” watching the Twins’ success, Mauer said. “I’ve been able to catch a few games, a handful of games. It’s been a lot of fun to watch. I know those guys so well. They’re like brothers in there. … I’ve been a Twin a long time. I want to see the team do well, and they’re doing well. I hope that continues. I made my decision.

“It wasn’t about whether I thought the team was going to be good or bad. Those were personal reasons why I’m not playing anymore. The competitor in me, absolutely I’d love to be a part of what they’re doing. I’ve been sitting back now watching it and having a lot of fun, seeing those boys have fun. Guys that had bad years last year that are turning it around and everything seems to be clicking, so I hope that continues.”

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