The pay may change, but Joe Mauer stays the same
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Spend 5 minutes with Joe Mauer, and you get the feeling you might accidentally have pulled aside a clubhouse attendant who bears a striking resemblance to the Minnesota Twins catcher.
Or maybe it's a lookalike little brother. Some other taciturn doppelganger, perhaps.
Certainly not the biggest sports superstar in Minnesota -- a native son whose mere existence some swear is the reason Target Field was built, not to mention the sun rising and setting each day and the evisceration of the occasional pandemic.
People often make a big deal of saying a pro athlete hasn't changed, as though not driving a Lamborghini and dating a dozen supermodels simultaneously means he'll stop and have a beer if you recognize him in the parking lot.
The truth is success and fame and money changes almost everybody. Some just know better than to be rude and aloof and egotistical in front of someone who might write about it in a column someday.
Mauer's not naïve. He knows how to talk on both sides of a question, be diplomatic, generally avoid stringing together more than three words that, even out of context, could be construed as remotely controversial.
But there is a genuine reticence about Mauer -- a polite, eyes-averted awkwardness that sometimes gives the impression you're actually speaking to the kid from St. Paul who was known around the Twin Cities before he'd completed his freshman year at Cretin-Derham Hall.
In a way, you are.
Ask shortstop J.J. Hardy, who met Mauer when they were teenagers on the junior national team.
"He hasn't changed one bit from the first day that I met him," Hardy says, "which is pretty amazing."
Or perhaps you're speaking to the Joe Mauer who made his big-league debut in 2004, before he could legally drink that parking-lot beer.
Ask manager Ron Gardenhire, who jokes of Mauer's evolution, "Sure, it's went from a real shy, quiet guy to being a ... shy, quiet guy."
The former No. 1 overall draft pick has evolved on the field. A younger version wouldn't have gone to the mound repeatedly on Wednesday afternoon to talk some sense into Kevin Slowey, who kept shaking off Mauer's signs.
"He controls the game now," Gardenhire says. "All those things have changed.
"But as far as personality in the clubhouse, the whole package, he's pretty calm, he's pretty laid back."
Ask Mauer whether he felt a sense of urgency to get his new eight-year, $184 million contract extension done before the season, and his answer isn't surprising.
"I don't know if it was urgency," Mauer says, "but I actually didn't want to have to answer (questions about) it every couple days, you know? You go to a different city every few days, and that'd be a topic I'm sure that they'd want to talk to me about."
He says he hasn't bought anything since acquiring his fortune ("I live pretty simple, I guess"), which meshes with his minimalist approach at the plate.
Mauer is a hitter of no wasted movement -- deep counts, compact swing and a pokerfaced deliberation that's yielded three batting titles and last year's American League MVP award.
"Obviously, a lot of guys have told me I've set the bar high," says Mauer, who turns 27 on Monday, "but I feel I could get better."
Even when he's suffering through what passes in his world for a slump -- he went 0-for-3 in Friday's 10-3 rout of Kansas City, marking the first time he's been hitless in consecutive games since last July 18 and 19 -- the flashbulbs pop and chants of "Joe!" and "MVP!" rain down when he comes to bat.
He operates on a star schedule, too, regularly being the last out of the showers as reporters curse under their breaths about making deadline.
But spend 5 minutes with Joe Mauer and mention you once were a pitcher at Edina High School, that you once played against his Cretin team and the results were, well, not positive.
You don't have to ask, and he perks up and says, "Over at the field -- it's Braemar, right? Yeah, I like that place."
It's as if your conversation is taking place in some alternate baseball universe, where some superstars really don't change. Where nothing changes.
For Mauer, in a way, nothing has.