MINNEAPOLIS – Come to Target Field any game day between late March and late October and you’re likely to notice bars on every level, with beer and other drinks at the ready out beyond the left-field fence in foul territory at Target Field. Sandwiched between those bars you’ll notice an important piece of Twins history, maybe 50 feet above the native Minnesota limestone that rises out of the left-field seats of the lower level.
Those are the retired numbers of the greatest Twins in franchise history, and each has his jersey number displayed in raised red text inside a circle against a white backdrop.
The row of honored players from the past is pretty well full, and soon they’ll have to make more room. It won’t be long before Joe Mauer’s No. 7 is hanging alongside those other all-time greats. He didn’t need 2,000 hits to prove it; along the way he’s made sure one day his name will be written in the group that includes Killebrew, Carew, Oliva, Blyleven, Hrbek and Puckett.
Joe Mauer picked up two more base hits Thursday night against the White Sox to nudge his career total up to a nice round number of 2,000 hits. Famously understated, Mauer said after the game the moment was “pretty special.”
Only Rod Carew (2,085) and Kirby Puckett (2,304) have more hits in a Twins uniform than Mauer. When you count the walks, only Harmon Killebrew has reached base more times than Mauer since he franchise relocated to Minnesota in 1961. Those are some big names.
“He’s going to downplay it, it’s who he is,” manager Paul Molitor said. “But it’s one of those things that over time he’ll have a chance to look back on it and remember that this was a special night.”
Mauer walked in the 1st inning Thursday and rapped an RBI single in the 3rd, base hit No, 1,999. The announced crowd of 15,474 seemed to know what that signified. Mauer was on the doorstep.
He struck out in the 5th inning, which delayed the celebration. Later, a teammate told Mauer in the dugout, ‘You’re going to get 2,000. How do you feel?’
“Excited,” Mauer told him.
He walked to the plate in the 7th inning with a bat in his hand and teammates standing on second and third base, the Twins had a 2-0 lead. Facing lefty Aaron Bummer, Mauer took a close pitch at the knees for ball 1. Several foul balls and a pitch in the dirt later, Mauer got a sinker in basically the same spot as the first one. He hit a 3-hopper back up the middle and by the second baseman for a 2-RBI single.
The game paused for a few moments. The ball was collected (and later given to Mauer in a plastic baggie). Mauer tipped his helmet to the cheering crowd, as his teammates all stood at the top step of the dugout and showed the first baseman some love with rounds of applause.
Play eventually resumed, a nice moment passed. The inning ended with Mauer stranded on first base. The stadium public address announcer made everyone aware of the accomplishment. Mauer thanked the crowd with a few waves, and looked like he was holding it together. Byron Buxton hopped out of the dugout with Mauer’s glove and cap, handed them to him and then wrapped Mauer in a hug. That started a line of teammates onto the field, on their way to their respective positions, to give Mauer a congratulatory hug.
“That was awesome,” Mauer said of the fan ovation he received. “Leading up to it, I really didn’t think it was that big of a deal. But I got emotional. It was fun to see the fans, the boys at the top step, and family up there [in the stands], too.”
The souvenir baseballs will probably go to his parents, for now. “Over the years I’ve said I didn’t want to put them up [on display] to get content. There’ll be some day where I’ll put them up,” he said.
Texts and messages started streaming in well before the hit, congratulating him, touching base and wishing him well. After the game, his teammates got together and gifted him an extra-large bottle of wine, which they all signed in gold-colored sharpie
Some will contend that it’s no big deal, that it’s an arbitrary milestone; no different than 1,999 or 2,001 hits, for that matter. But it is a big deal. Mauer can try to downplay it (typical Joe Mauer) and his critics can try to tear down the significance of the moment (also typical), but both of those attempts came up well short Thursday night.
The great thing about round-number accomplishments and other career milestones is not that they’re cool for their own sake. They’re special because they allow us a moment – they give us an excuse – to pause and reflect on the level of excellence that led to that point.
Thursday’s career milestone is just the latest in a long line of accomplishments for a guy who won three batting titles as a catcher and also an American League MVP award.
Joe Mauer has hit .309 in his 15 seasons in the big leagues; he’s got a .392 career on-base percentage. For years, he was one of the best hitters in baseball and he did it at a position that didn’t used to ask for a whole lot of offense. When you think about sweet left-handed swings from the past few decades, Griffey comes to mind but the kid from St. Paul has got to be on the short list.
And speaking of short lists, not many former Twins players can claim the kind of career Mauer has put together. It was a moment to remember, yes. But Mauer didn’t need 2,000 hits. He already belonged in the company of the greatest Twins players ever to pull on the uniform.