Seeing Stars in Rochester

I attended the University of Rochester from 1998 through 2002 and I stayed in Rochester, NY after graduation. So, I’ve basically lived in Rochester for the past six years.

In 2001, as you most likely know, the Minnesota Twins made Joe Mauer the No. 1 pick in the amateur draft. I read the stories about Mauer and how good a prospect he was, but I wasn’t any more interested in him than in any other top pick because I’m not particularly a fan of the Twins. Then, after the 2002 season, the Rochester Red Wings of the Triple-A International League ended their 42-year affiliation with the Baltimore Orioles and signed a two-year contract with the Twins.

Mauer had just hit .302/.393/.392 in 110 games in low Single-A as a 19-year-old, and now there was a chance that he’d be playing in my home town sometime in the next couple years, so I started to pay close attention. In 2003, at the age of 20, Mauer hit .335/.395/.412 in 62 games at high Single-A and then hit .341/.400/.453 in 73 games at Double-A.

After that performance, I was certain that Mauer would be the starting catcher for the Red Wings in 2004, and I couldn’t be more excited. Mauer came out of high school as an extremely highly-touted prospect and then hit very well at each of the four stops he made in the minor leagues. He had drawn comparisons to some of the best catchers in baseball history, and I was going to be able to monitor his last stop before beginning what would surely be a great major-league career.

And then, the Twins traded A.J. Pierzynski. And I knew that I wouldn’t get to see Mauer play at Rochester after all. Mauer, as everybody knew he would be, was named the starting catcher for the Twins and skipped Triple-A entirely.

However, in just his second game in the majors, Mauer tore the medial meniscus in his left knee. I never like to see a player get hurt, especially a young player with as much talent as Mauer has, but at some point soon after his injury, it occurred to me that there was a possibility he’d come to Rochester on a rehab assignment eventually.

As April drew to a close and May began, I started talking with the Red Wings beat writer more about the possibility of Mauer coming here. Twins GM Terry Ryan was in town for a little while at the beginning of May and Twins farm director Jim Rantz was in town after him and it sounded like there was a chance he’d come up for a few games starting May 13, 14 or 15. As those dates approached, it became apparent that Mauer wouldn’t be ready in time, and I worried that he’d go on his rehab assignment while the Wings were on the road and I wouldn’t get to see him.

However, the Wings returned to Rochester after their eight-game road trip and Mauer was still in Florida. What’s more, it sounded like a sure thing that he would come to Rochester during this homestand, which started May 25 and ended June 1. I was covering the games on Friday, May 28 and Saturday, May 29, so I was especially interested now.

Mauer still hadn’t come up to Rochester when I went to the game on the morning of Thursday, May 27, sitting in the press box, but not covering the game. The Wings won the game, and when the beat writer and I went down to the clubhouse, Wings GM Dan Mason had an announcement. Mauer’s rehab assignment would start the next night. In Rochester. With me covering the game.

I arrived at the park at 3:30 on Friday for a 3:45 press conference with Mauer. I wasn’t doing anything in particular on him that night because our columnist was writing a column on him and I was just going to write about what he did in the game for the game story. So, I just taped the press conference and didn’t ask any questions. The press conference didn’t last very long and he didn’t say a whole lot, but he seemed like a nice guy.

After that, we all watched him take batting practice for awhile. Then, I went into the clubhouse and talked to Wings manager Phil Roof and outfielder Michael Restovich, who the Twins had just sent back down to Rochester, for my notebook. I went up to the press box and wrote the notebook and then went into the stands and talked to fans about Mauer from 6 until just before 7 (the game started at 7:05).

Wings starter Dave Gassner got the Norfolk Tides in order in the top of the first. Wings leadoff hitter Augie Ojeda flied out to left and then Jason Kubel walked, bringing Mauer to the plate.

So, after all the buildup and all the waiting, in his first Triple-A at-bat, his first appearance in front of the Rochester fans, Mauer … struck out swinging. It didn’t take him long to get his first hit in Rochester, however, as he went the other way with a pitch in the fourth inning for a double down the left field line.

By Mauer’s next at-bat, the Wings had fallen behind 5-0 and he came up with runners on the corners and nobody out. Mauer unloaded a bomb to deep center field, but speedburner Esix Snead ran it down at the wall and Mauer had to settle for a 400-foot sacrifice fly. The score was 5-2 when Mauer came up again in the eighth with a runner on second and one out and struck out for the second time in the game.

After the Wings lost 7-2, I went down to the clubhouse to interview Roof, Mauer and Kubel. Three TV cameras were also there for interviews, and the first question one of them asked Mauer was, “What do you think of Rochester?” Now, keep in mind that Mauer arrived at the airport at 1 that afternoon and went straight to the ballpark. Obviously, he didn’t know quite how to answer that question and it was a little awkward.

Mauer didn’t say much interesting, so I went to talk to Kubel by myself and got some good quotes. As would turn out to be the case with Mauer as well, a lot of players are just better interviews when you’re talking to them alone instead of with a group of cameramen. So, that was Day One of Mauer in Rochester. It wasn’t anything really special, but it was good to see him play in person and nice to talk to him. The really fun day, however, would be coming up.

I went to the office before the game on Saturday to do the fan piece I had interviewed people for on Friday. After finishing that, I arrived at the ballpark around 5 p.m. for another 7:05 start. I watched the end of batting practice, and then I interviewed Mauer one-on-one for a feature on him for Sunday’s paper. I talked to Mauer for about five minutes, and he’s much better in a one-on-one setting than in a press conference-type setting. If you’re interested in reading it, here’s the story I wrote about Mauer.

After I talked to Mauer and went up to the press box to write the story and get ready for the game, I got another nice surprise. Dmitri Young was in town, rehabbing his broken leg for two days with the Mud Hens. His presence would turn out to be an even bigger deal than Mauer’s.

In the top of the first, Toledo’s first batter reached on an error and the second batter singled, putting runners on first and second. Mauer was catching for the first time in Rochester — he was the DH on Friday — and the Mud Hens tested him right away, executing a successful double steal. After Marcus Thames popped out, Young unloaded a three-run homer to deep right field to give Toledo a 3-0 lead. In the bottom of the first, Kubel singled ahead of Mauer, but Mauer just grounded out to first base before Restovich homered to center field to cut the lead to 3-2.

Toledo scored three more runs in the second inning before Young ended the inning by fouling out to the third baseman. After the Mud Hens made it 8-2 in the third, Mauer picked up his second Triple-A hit. He hit another double, this time a line drive into the right-center field gap, but was stranded there.

Young came up for the third time in the fourth inning and hit a soft liner to third that the third baseman could only knock down for an infield single. Mauer picked up another hit and RBI with a single to center in the fifth and then Young doubled to center in the sixth. After Young’s double, everybody in the press box started to joke about Young’s chances of getting the cycle.

Now, I know Young’s not as slow as a lot of people his size. He hit seven triples last year and he has 22 triples in his career. However, he was playing his first game since breaking his leg and he looked very, very slow on the double. I said that his best chance at getting the cycle was to hit an outfielder in the head with the ball and knock him out.

Mauer struck out for the third time in two games in the seventh, and then Young came to the plate with one on and two out in the eighth. He hit a sinking line drive to left field that looked like it would be a routine single for his fourth hit of the game. However, Restovich decided to try for a sliding catch, and the ball landed in front of him, bounced over his head and rolled all the way to the wall. The center fielder chased it down, but the shortstop’s relay throw to third was a little off line and Young slid in safely.

The only question left was whether it would be a triple or a hit and an error. The scorekeeper decided to take another look at it on the replay. He couldn’t give Restovich an error because, although it might not have been a smart play to dive, he didn’t actually touch the ball or have a realistic chance to stop it after he slid. And he couldn’t give the shortstop an error because it would have been a very close play at third even if the throw had been perfect. So, Young got the triple and the cycle, improbable as it seemed.

The Mud Hens ended up winning 14-5 and I was the only person to talk to Mauer after the game, but it’s understandable that he didn’t say much because there’s not much to say after a 14-5 loss. So, after two days covering the Red Wings with Mauer in town, I had seen him go 3-for-7 with two doubles and two RBIs. Plus, I got to talk to him several times, including a decent-length one-on-one interview.

I had a party to attend on Sunday, so I couldn’t go to the game. I didn’t miss much, however, as Mauer went 0-for-4 and the Wings lost again. I did go to the Memorial Day afternoon game on Monday with my girlfriend, her family and a friend of ours, but unfortunately the game got rained out. The only positive was that Mauer signed autographs for 45 minutes for the fans who had shown up, and my girlfriend, Stacy, was able to get both a Minnesota Twins ball and a Rochester Red Wings ball signed.

The game was rescheduled as part of a 6:05 doubleheader (two seven-inning games) on Tuesday, but I couldn’t go because I had to work from 6 to 10. Stacy and our friend, Aaron, did go, however, and Stacy, who adopted the Twins as her favorite team after they signed on with the Red Wings, provided me with a full report on Mauer’s performance.

He caught in the first game, and had an impact right away as he threw Nook Logan out trying to steal second in the top of the first. Unfortunately, he couldn’t keep the good night going as he grounded into a double play in the bottom of the first. He came up again in the third and singled, with Stacy telling me it was a grounder up the middle. In the fifth, he flied out to the warning track in left field, according to my scout. Finally, he grounded out to second in the sixth. The Wings won 8-0, but he didn’t really have anything to do with the outcome.

Mauer was the DH in the second game, and he singled to left field and scored in the first inning. He hit a line drive that was caught by the shortstop in the third inning and I got to the ballpark after getting out of work just in time to see him line a double off the wall in right field in the fifth inning. In the sixth, the Wings trailed 3-2 with two on and two out when Mauer came up and hit a fly ball to center field that was deep, but not quite deep enough.

The Wings lost 3-2 and Mauer was called up the next day. So, Mauer’s stay in Rochester produced a disappointing 1-4 record. Mauer went 6-for-19 (.316 average) with three doubles (.474 SLG) and a walk (.333 OBP). He also struck out four times in 19 at-bats after striking out just 101 times in 1,030 at-bats during his first three professional seasons.

Mauer was good, but he didn’t provide any jaw-dropping moments. No special occasions to tell the grandkids about. Just from seeing him up here for a little while, however, you could see why there’s so much expected of him. He just has a way about him that makes you sure he’s going to be a great one.

I’m going to be a big fan of Mauer’s for the rest of his career, and I hope he’s every bit as good as it looks like he could be. And every time Mauer does something that makes me shake my head and smile, I’m going to look back fondly on last weekend. There was just a constant feeling that you were in the presence of greatness, and it’s not a feeling you get very often.

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