In the seventh inning, standing on first base just miles but many years from his childhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, baseball gave Joe Mauer a place to shine and Joe Mauer gave the Twins his 2,000th hit.
He did not enter the game facing the 2,000 hit mark, but with a single in the third, the milestone revealed itself and was fulfilled innings later. The ball chopped up the middle and sent the runners on second and third back to the Twins’ dugout, so for the moments Mauer was allowed to soak in his accomplishment, it was just him and the fans.
With silver-patched hair, looking out at the crowd, he stepped out of to become the franchise face, he wore the jersey he idolized growing up. These moments are particular about when they show up and who they happen to. They have yet to manage to slow the inevitable, though.
People are asked to change and shift constantly. It is stupid and dumb and it’s totally fine to be a giant baby about it, but it happens. Sometimes that includes our most basic childhood loyalties. Baseball is always asking us to adapt, too, though it’s not always as necessary for a fan to oblige. Maybe a move out west requires stepping foot into Dodger Stadium for live baseball one too many times and, at some point, a Dodger blue hat ends up crossing the team store counter to get put inside of a bag, too. The hat won’t have the same feel that the Phillies or Tigers hat had for the younger version of the hat-purchaser. “It’s not a big deal! Jimmy Rollins would understand.” But Rollins’ face is still there judging. A hat is just a hat, but sometimes people have to wear a different one than they prefer.
Life never asked Mauer to give up his childhood hat and in turn the idealization of his favorite baseball team. There is at least a little magic in that. It is seen in his crumbling face as he stood by first base between innings, soaking in the “Let’s go, Joe!” chants and saluting the crowd that had watched him grow up.
The butterflies that showed up here have not been around for all of Mauer’s career with the Twins. His hometown faithful have dished boos in his direction. Concussion symptoms moved him from behind the plate to first base after 2013. Once a top defender and top offensive producer, even the impressive defense of an aging athlete has largely failed to atone for the pop leaving his bat, leaving him stranded at a power-hungry position like first base. Home runs have never been drawn to Mauer, reaching an apex at 28 in 2009, his MVP season, but even feeding baseballs juice could only get them to fly out of the park for Mauer seven times in 2017 amid the flyball revolution.
Luckily, hits are still hits even if they take a few skips before landing only in the grass. The all-time hits list puts a daunting number of players ahead of Mauer, though he is already in the company of a group of 287 that hits levels of elite usually reserved for much smaller clusters. Even given his missing spark of power, if Mauer can repeat his 2017 campaign in which he hit .305/.284/.417 with 116 wRC+, he can potentially add 100-150 more hits to his total this season, shooting himself up one of baseball’s favorite lists before his contract is up with the Twins in the fall.
The Twins are the party in all of this that still has to make the tough decision. They will likely be left with the inevitable decision. Coming up on his 35th birthday with 17 years in the Twins’ organization, the hometown boy who cried at the press conference announcing his contract in 2010 is likely to want to stay that way.
Just like life and baseball ask for adaptation, life and baseball can adapt, too, whether universally or just in one person’s perspective. Can Mauer look at his Twins jersey, and call his time wearing it, from a child to present, complete and consider moving on? What do the Twins offer a first baseman whose power dwarfs when compared with others at his position? Do they make an offer at all? Or do they remind us that baseball teams don’t care much for magic unless the magic can be monetized? Mauer’s moment can’t slow his inevitable, whatever that is, but, to be fair, that is probably what makes it so damn good.
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