MINNEAPOLIS -- When Joe Mauer stepped to the plate for the first time on Sunday, White Sox starter Dylan Covey stood off to the side of the mound. Home plate umpire Jim Reynolds stepped away from the home plate. Both made sure there was ample time for the Target Field crowd of 30,144 to give a well-deserved farewell.
Mauer, who may have played his last MLB game as he heads into the offseason contemplating retirement, received a standing ovation each time he came to the plate on Sunday during Minnesota's season finale, a 5-4 win over the White Sox. His longtime walk-up song, T.I.'s "What You Know," was barely audible as Twins fans gave an emotional outpouring to the player who has become a franchise icon over the past 15 years.
With his whole family in attendance, the St. Paul native finished 1-for-4. In his final plate appearance, he delivered a vintage Mauer at-bat and worked a full count before cracking a hustle double to left field in the seventh inning. After he slid in under the tag, the crowd stayed on its feet and gave him another long ovation as he tipped his cap.
"It's just been an emotional roller coaster," Mauer said. "I'm not 100 percent sure [about retiring or not], and like I said, I want to make sure I have time just to take a deep breath and really be behind that decision. But I couldn't have asked for a better last day of the 2018 season, and I'm looking forward to just taking a breath and spending some time with my girls, my family, and we'll go from there. But with the emotions running right now, I don't want to say either way."
In the top of the ninth inning, Mauer emerged from the dugout wearing catcher's gear, and the crowd erupted as it realized the moment. He spent the prime years of his career as a catcher, but had not caught a game since suffering a career-altering concussion on a foul tip on Aug. 19, 2013. Mauer stood on the field by himself and tearfully waved to the crowd. He caught the first pitch of the inning from Matt Belisle, then bounced out of his crouch, ran out to the mound and gave Belisle a hug. That was the end of his day. Mauer was replaced by Chris Gimenez and was showered with cheers once more as he exited the game.
"Players pass through and they make an impact," Minnesota manager Paul Molitor said. "From Joe's girls early on in the game to every time he stepped up the steps into the on-deck circle, it was tough to contain your feeling. I just tried to soak it all in the best that I could. It meant a lot to me to be in that position managing Joe the way I have and to share that today.
"I don't know where I rank it with other things. I was in the on-deck circle when Robin Yount got his 3,000th hit, and that was really hard for me to watch video of him and try to prepare to hit. It was just one of those things where Joe held it together. I was glad we saw the emotion. Sometimes we lose touch with the people side of the athlete that we cheer. I think the person side of Joe was on full display today."
About a month ago, Mauer's father had mentioned to his wife, Maddie, that it would be special to see his son go out and catch one more pitch. Mauer was hesitant to follow through with the idea initially, but as the weeks went on, Minnesota's staff began to talk him into it.
"Maddie kind of sat on it a little bit, and then a few people throughout the organization were kind of mentioning something like that," Mauer said. "Then not until Friday, [traveling secretary] Mike Herman caught me right when I walked in and was trying to get me to do something like that. I said, 'No, Mike, I can't do it. I can't do it.' Then Nate Dammann, our bullpen catcher [and] one of my closest friends, and [Twins bench coach] Derek Shelton, they pulled me into [equipment manager Rod McCormick's] office and asked about the possibility of making it happen.
"In hearing what they had to say, about how much it would mean … to me and other people, I think they convinced me that it would be OK. … After that conversation, I just had to go find a room and just be alone, because I started welling up. I was just trying to hold those emotions in."
When Mauer was forced to give up his catching duties in 2013, he had stashed away his catcher's gear away and planned to put it on display at home. But that never happened, and the bag remained unopened for over five years -- until Saturday night.
"I knew exactly where it was and just never opened it. So, I picked it up last night for the first time and put it on over my clothes, and I started getting emotional. … I was able to put on the gear at my locker, and that's kind of when it all came out."
When it came time to choose who would throw the pitch to him, Mauer realized that starter Kyle Gibson was the only pitcher still on Minnesota's roster that he had caught. While Gibson, who made his final start of the season on Saturday, wasn't an option, Mauer knew immediately who he wanted. He and Belisle have forged a close bond in the short time in which they've played together, and Mauer wanted him to share the moment.
"Very emotional," Belisle said. "When he approached me about this a few days ago, it was something where I was just really blown away with humility to have an honor bestowed on me in that regard. I just wanted to do my best to make it about him and have it as special as it could be. I'm at loss for words on the idea that he came to me and said, 'I wouldn't have anybody other than you throw it.'"
• Five questions facing the Twins this offseason
If this proves to be the end of Mauer's career, he will step away as one of the all-time great Twins. With six All-Star appearances, three batting titles and the 2009 American League MVP award under his belt, Mauer's .388 career on-base percentage is the sixth-best in franchise history. He also reached base safely more times than any player in Minnesota history, and reached several milestones this season, including 2,000 career hits and 1,000 career runs.
• Twins recognize two Minor League standouts
Mauer got plenty of backing on his special day. Jake Cave crushed a solo homer in the fourth inning, and Max Kepler hit his 20th longball of the year, a two-run shot in the sixth, to pace Minnesota's offense.
HE SAID IT
"I can't imagine what it's like to be him. I've said that a lot, I think, in my life. But in this specific instance, you could tell he had a little bit of an 'I can't believe this is happening' moment. And he's not a guy who gets like that. It was really crazy to see. … It went completely how you would hope it would, which is like anything with Joe in Minneapolis. It's like the stars are aligned. Just like him getting a hit the way he did. It was a hustle double. Coming out of the box, you could just tell he was going to go for two. It's like Jeter hitting a walk-off." -- Twins reliever Trevor May, on watching Mauer's final standing ovation in the ninth inning