The Minnesota Twins’ front office should spend this off-season focusing only one thing: Signing catcher Mauer to a long-term contract. All other matters can be dropped except for this one. The fate of the team rests on it. The fate of baseball in the Twin Cities rests on it. That may sound like an exaggeration. But to understand his importance, you must understand what Mauer means to his team and their fans.
First, to say that Mauer is a celebrity in town is a dangerous understatement. So beloved is the sideburned catcher that the fawning local sports radio station has a nickname for Mauer: The Baby Jesus. There is a reason for that. You can’t throw a rock in St. Paul or Minneapolis without hitting somebody who claims to have some connection to the Mauer family, whether it’s true or not. Amazingly, he is the most popular athlete in a city with both Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson, and he will remain so as long as he’s a Twin.
This popularity, of course, translates directly to high attendance for all home games. The Twins are moving into a new stadium this year, and even with all that excitement, the club needs its local hero to maintain fan interest. It has been a rough decade for the Twins, whose last World Series appearance and championship came in 1991. Although they’ve won their division five times since 2002, most of those times, their post-season role has been not much more than a Yankees punching bag. How much longer will fans support poor showings in the playoffs? It remains to be seen. But it certainly be a lot longer with Mauer behind the plate.
Second, signing Mauer to a long-term $20-million- per-year contract will send a message that the A.L. Central is for real. Free agents and superstar players will looking to be traded will see Minnesota as a place with a new ballpark (even if a few games might be delayed by snow) and a team that’s willing to shell out serious money for top talent. Getting Mauer to stick around for good will poise the Twins for future dominance of their fledgling divisional foes including the utterly anemic Royals, collapse-prone Tigers and the Indians, who apparently aren’t interested in rebuilding anytime soon. Mauer has said to the press that he wants top players around him that will turn the team into a serious contender more than he wants obscene piles of cash. What better way to coax baseball’s big names to flyover country than by giving the league’s best catcher a gigantic contract?
Finally, for all Mauer represents on a sentimental level, he is the Twins’ best hope for success in the future. It says more about his future than his current skills that he won the A.L. MVP this year—setting personal bests in slugging percentage, on-base percentage and home runs—after missing the first month of the season with a back injury. If the Twins let him get away to New York or Boston, and try to build a team with other, more budget friendly players, success will almost surely allude them. It’s a fairly safe bet that Mauer is the only MVP-caliber player that has good reasons to sign up with the relatively small market Twins, in an effort to revitalize the team. Mauer is the kind of player a franchise can be built around for several years to come. He still hasn’t reached his full potential and his leadership skills continue to evolve.
But even with all the compelling reasons to keep Mauer around, the Twins will have to do some serious soul searching. They simply are not the type of team to pay big money for the best players. Many fans believe that the Twins will hem and haw for a while, but will finally get a deal done. His agent, Ron Shapiro, after all, is the negotiating maestro who kept Cal Ripken Jr. and former Twins great Kirby Puckett with one club for their entire careers. Still, fans in the Twin Cities are still haunted by Torii Hunter and Johan Santana. They won't breath easy until the ink is dry.