Older Mauer Brother Watches and Waits
By ALAN SCHWARZ
ST. LOUIS — When two brothers reach the major leagues, more often than not one is known for being good, and the other for being the good one’s brother.
Hank and Tommie Aaron, Cal and Billy Ripken, Tony and Chris Gwynn — one’s the star, one’s the shadow. And poor Vince DiMaggio: comparisons to Joe or Dominic inspired no songs, only snickers.
Early on, in the Mauer backyard in St. Paul, Minn., it was not always clear who would be better: Jake or his brother Joe, four years younger. By the time Joe became the top overall pick in the 2001 amateur draft by the hometown Minnesota Twins, and Jake was selected by Minnesota 676 picks later, mostly as a feel-good gesture, the picture was coming into greater focus. Now it is unmistakable: Three years after Jake flamed out in Class AA ball, Joe, the Twins’ All-Star catcher and one of the finest all-around players on the planet, is batting .373 and could win his third batting championship in four years.
Jake could still sneak up on young Joe, though. One of these years, maybe he will be Joe’s boss.
While Joe is riding high back home in Minnesota — where only election reform might be more popular — Jake is working his way from the minor league depths again, this time as a manager. He is at the lowest level there is: the Gulf Coast League, a developmental circuit where missed signs outnumber fans. But Jake Mauer is a Twins prospect again, more promising than ever.
“Some guys in player development don’t want to get to the big leagues, but I do,” Mauer, in his second season managing the Fort Myers (Fla.) Gulf Coast Twins, said in a telephone interview. “After I hurt my elbow in spring training 2006 I literally signed my release papers and signed my contract to coach right after the other. I took my stuff from the player clubhouse to the staff clubhouse and started hitting fungoes.”
Mauer, still only 30, has a more important role within the Twins’ minor league system than it first appears. His roster is filled with the delicate young arms on which Minnesota’s small-market hopes rely, and a slew of foreign teenagers in the United States for the first time: three Koreans, a half-dozen Dominicans, four Venezuelans, and one player each from Australia, France, Taiwan and the Czech Republic. As the Twins farm director Jim Rantz put it, “Every player in the game remembers his manager, good and bad.”
The Twins’ renowned player-development pipeline is just as respected within baseball for developing coaches, too. Every member of their major league staff, from Manager Ron Gardenhire to the trainers, rose through their minor league system, applying the Twins’ focus on fundamentals to ever more experienced players.
Advancement can be faster than as a player, too. Rantz said that the Twins had promoted two coaches — including the current bench coach Steve Liddle — straight out of the Gulf Coast League to the Metrodome, so even though Mauer has coached down there for only two summers and now has managed for two, a reunion with Joe need not be far off.
“He’s a great teacher, very dedicated, and knows the game,” Rantz said. “We have a great manager right now with Ron, but I don’t see why Jake can’t be one someday, too.”
Jake Mauer always had an idea of how good he was, and wasn’t. After four years playing in his hometown at the University of St. Thomas, he played another five with the Twins as a good-field, no-hit infielder whose elbow injury ruined his career at 27. But he played a key role for the Twins nonetheless: looking after young Joe.
A three-sport prodigy in high school when the Twins picked him No. 1, Joe was assigned to Elizabethton, Tenn., for rookie ball. Jake was sent there with him because even though Joe’s idea of mischief was letting his sideburns out a bit, he also was painfully shy and leaving home for the first time.
Joe hit .400 in Elizabethton and five years later, at only 23, batted .347 and became the first American League catcher to win a batting title. He did it again last year, at .328.
“It was huge having Jake there that first season,” said Joe, who was Jake’s teammate again the next year at Quad Cities (Iowa) of the Midwest League. “I’m 18 years old, first time out by myself, and having my older brother going through the same things I’m experiencing. It made it a heck of a lot easier on me.”
Joe also recalled that Jake “always had about eight gloves in his locker” and that his brother’s desire to be versatile had set a standard for him to follow as he attempted to become a complete player.
And he has. Mauer not only wins batting championships — he was above .400 a few weeks ago before dropping to .373 — but has added power (15 home runs) and has won a Gold Glove. His form, too, draws raves from fellow major leaguers, who marvel at how he keeps his head almost perfectly still at the plate and almost never swings at a bad pitch. He strikes out only about 50 times a year, less than the Philadelphia Phillies slugger Ryan Howard does in two months.
“He’s got incredible bat speed, yet when I see him swing it’s like he’s in slow motion,” the Tampa Bay Rays’ Carlos Pena said. “There’s something about the gracefulness and smoothness of his swing that makes me want to be more in control of my swing.”
While Joe Mauer teaches by example, Jake Mauer teaches for a living. Being in the Twins organization means daily questions about Joe, about his amazing skills, about what he was like when. Beyond the roster of the Fort Myers Twins, Jake is unquestionably Joe Mauer’s brother.
But Jake Mauer need only look to Joe’s American League rival Texas Rangers for an escape route. Mike Maddux pitched parts of 15 seasons in the major leagues constantly in the shadow of his younger brother Greg, a future Hall of Famer. Yet Mike has recently emerged as one of the finest pitching coaches in baseball, transforming the Rangers’ staff. That could be the Mauer story in 20 years.
“I knew when I got drafted by the Twins I had to be my own person,” Jake Mauer said. “They’re not going to keep me around just because I’m Joe’s brother. You have to be of some value — you’re not there because of your last name.”