P.J.R.: Looking back at a week of analyzing Mauer melodrama
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The Twins opened the home season last Monday with an 8-3 loss to the Oakland A's. I was there working for the Star Tribune and with the duty to produce a column.
Chip Scoggins was also writing a column and the legendary beat writer, LaVelle Neal, was going to write what's known in Stribland as an "Insider.'' That's when a beat writer is going to analyze an element of the game, rather than offer a big picture view of that day's result.
In other words, we had three guys producing columns off a game that had a level of drama that wasn't conducive to one column.
Even though the Twins had scored an astounding 38 runs on the season-opening, six-game road trip, the patched-together lineup was showing its flaws against the A's on this coolish late afternoon.
I was looking around for inspiration, as the Twins' chances started to fade, and saw Roy Smalley sitting in the third row of the press box. He was there in his role as an analyst for FSN.
The question for me after watching the Twins for a week in spring training was, "How is this lineup possibly going to work?''
One successful stretch of production in Chicago and Cleveland didn't change the question.
The pessimism toward this team was pervasive with the fans and we in the media. Attendance was headed toward another substantial decline, even with the All-Star Game as an incentive for season-ticket holders to renew.
The starting pitching would be better (despite the earliest results), but what was it going to take to score enough runs to put some degree of sizzle in this product?
I looked at the third row again and said, "It's going to take a run like Roy Smalley had before the All-Star Game in 1979. It's going to take someone putting the lineup on his back, and getting the public (and, yes, the media) to have some kind thoughts about the ballclub.''
Smalley was the story of baseball through the first half of the 1979 schedule. He was voted into the American League lineup as the starting shortstop. And even though he faded and so did the Twins, there was enough of a positive vibe that attendance increased by 300,000 and got back over 1 million (which was an accomplishment 35 years ago).
Yup, I said, it's going to take a Smalley '79 to create at least a semi-positive feeling for this team, and there's only one guy in this lineup with a chance to duplicate that: Joe Mauer.
So, that was the column for Tuesday's edition. Many interpreted it as a "bash Joe'' piece, rather than what it was: a plea for more two-run doubles and fewer walks.
By coincidence, I heard quite a bit of Mauer talk from Phil Mackey and Judd Zulgad on the 9 a.m.-1 p.m. show (four hours ... how the heck do they do it?) on Tuesday. In one segment, they were analyzing the fervent criticism that Mauer receives from a segment of the team's followers.
My feeling is there are more casual followers than hardcore (read, angry) followers of the Twins, and that Joe remains largely popular with the first group, and is the No. 1 target for the failures of the past three seasons by the second group.
I was listening to this discussion between Phil and Judd, including as to when the skepticism arose with Mauer. The easy answer was the April day in 2011 when the Twins attached the phrase "bilateral leg weakness'' to the reason a $23 million catcher would be absent from the lineup for a time.
That's not only the easy answer but probably the accurate one. Still, I was taken back to the first time I heard a Target Field crowd turn on Mauer to some degree:
It was July 20, 2010, when he had a chance with one out and two on to drive in a lead run in the seventh inning of a tie game with Cleveland, and he bunted. As someone raised in the era of baseball when "leaving it for the next guy'' to drive in a run was the worst thing that could be said of a hitter, I still get chest pains thinking about that bunt.
So, I recalled the bunt in the mini-essay that I've been writing for the Sunday Strib's page 2 in sports ... suggesting Joe's P.R. problem actually might be traced to The Bunt.
"Why bother to bring that up again?'' was the theme of responses to that blurb.
Here's why: Joe Mauer has gone from among a handful of the most-popular athletes in Minnesota in my lifetime when Target Field opened in 2010, to far from that in 2014.
And to me, that's a fascinating and ongoing drama that isn't going to be resolved in Joe's favor with a litany of "analytics'' by modern-day seam-heads. It's only going to turn Joe's way with lots of RBIs.
--PATRICK JAMES REUSSE