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Tributes abound as Mauer's No. 7 is retired

@dohyoungpark
June 16, 2019

MINNEAPOLIS -- Joe Mauer had never worn the No. 7 in his life -- in any sport -- before he found a jersey with the number hanging in a locker in Elizabethton, Tenn., as an 18-year-old playing rookie ball. "To be honest, it wouldn't have mattered to me what number

MINNEAPOLIS -- Joe Mauer had never worn the No. 7 in his life -- in any sport -- before he found a jersey with the number hanging in a locker in Elizabethton, Tenn., as an 18-year-old playing rookie ball.

"To be honest, it wouldn't have mattered to me what number that was hanging in my locker that day," Mauer said. "I just couldn't believe I had a locker in a professional clubhouse with a jersey to hang in it."

But over the course of a 15-year Major League career with the Twins, that No. 7 grew almost synonymous with baseball in Minnesota -- the number that scores of fans around the upper Midwest proudly wore on their backs as a testament to their catcher, their MVP, their hometown kid.

And on Saturday, Mauer's No. 7 became the ninth number to be retired by the Twins in a nearly hour-long pregame ceremony featuring more than 30 Twins alumni, including 15 members of the Twins' Hall of Fame, five inductees of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and taped messages from the likes of Ron Gardenhire, Ichiro, Buster Posey, Albert Pujols and even hip-hop artist T.I. -- who recorded Mauer's longtime walk-up song, "What You Know."

In having his number retired, Mauer joined former manager Tom Kelly (10), Bert Blyleven (28), Kirby Puckett (34), Kent Hrbek (14), Tony Oliva (6), Rod Carew (29) and Harmon Killebrew (3), along with the 42 retired league-wide in honor of Jackie Robinson.

Twins' retired numbers

"The first number I wore on my back is going to be hung alongside the very players I pretended to be as a child," Mauer said. "I was fortunate enough to have met each one of those seven players, and each one has personally impacted me and my career in some way. Those men are some of the best to have played this game, and to say it's an honor to get my number next to theirs would be an understatement."

On the field, Mauer has undeniably earned his place in the upper echelon of Twins lore.

Mauer was the only catcher ever to have won an American League batting title -- and he did so three times. He was the AL Most Valuable Player in 2009, a six-time All-Star and a five-time Silver Slugger Award winner. He was second in Twins history in games (1,858), hits (2,123) and walks (939) and is Minnesota's franchise leader in doubles (428).

Along with Oliva, Mauer was one of only two players in franchise history to play a career of at least 15 years exclusively with the Twins.

From the moment that he was drafted first overall in the 2001 MLB Draft by the Twins out of Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul, the pressure on Mauer -- the hometown kid, "The Natural" -- was immense. But throughout his rapid rise through the organization and all his subsequent success, he remained grounded in the measured, generous personality that endeared him to fans and teammates alike.

"For all that Joe Mauer accomplished on the field, he never lost sight of who he was or where he came from off of it," said longtime friend, teammate and roommate Justin Morneau. "He just thought of himself as a kid from St. Paul that was honored to play for his hometown Twins. He carried himself with grace and humility no matter how intense the pressure."

"There was no better teammate, no finer gentleman that carried himself how you're supposed to carry," said former teammate Jim Thome. "But also, a big competitor that would get fired up, and we all fed off of each other. I played here a very short period, but to get to know guys like Joe and the rest of, obviously, those teammates, Joe will go down for me right there as one of my top five teammates ever."

* * *

Mauer did live up to his billing as "The Natural," and for all the natural athletic talent, there was always plenty of hard work behind it all -- stemming from a quiet, intense competitive spirit in everything he did, whether in baseball, or whatever else he put his mind to, as those around the Twins organization will all attest.

"It's kind of that -- he's talented, and there's a lot of people who are talented in a lot of different things, but I think he was willing to put his work into something that really interested him," said Joe's brother, Jake.

Nate Dammann, the Twins' longtime bullpen catcher and current replay coordinator, has been close with Mauer since 2007, and chuckled as he remembered a time during Spring Training in 2010, when the Twins had a ping pong table at their facility in Fort Myers, Fla.

Mauer started the spring as one of the worst in the clubhouse, but by the end of an intense spring of work, he had eclipsed J.J. Hardy (who had a "professional paddle" from "some guy in Germany," Dammann says) for supremacy on the team.

"It seemed like he had always done everything," current Twins pitcher Kyle Gibson said. "I'm sure he had stayed active. Played every sport. He probably would beat us all on the basketball court, as well. It just seemed like as a family, I'm guessing they just did a lot of stuff as kids. If it was anything outdoors or anything like that, he probably was good at that, too."

That rare combination of natural talent and determination -- and the associated results -- were something that fans in Minnesota may have grown to take for granted at times throughout Mauer's 15-year tenure. Even those close to him, like Dammann, could feel that at times.

"I think I took it for granted," Dammann reflected. "I never really sat back and said, 'Wow, this is something to watch.' Him hitting a baseball or a golf ball -- I guess, I just assumed he should be doing that.

"I was more surprised when he couldn't do something, like see him miss a three-foot putt, or almost trip on a base or not pick a ball. I was more surprised by that than what he could do. That's a bad thing for a friend to say, but it also speaks to what he could do. Because he could do so, so much. So when he couldn't do something, it's like, 'Oh. He's human.'

"I wanted him to be perfect. God willing, if he goes to Cooperstown, I want to be in the front row cheering him on. Yeah. I always assumed that he could do anything."

Pressed if whether there's anything that Mauer, in fact, can't do well, Dammann does perk up with an answer.

"He's a terrible driver," Dammann says. "Slow. Typical Minnesotan slow. Just real cautious. It's tough sitting in there, because it's like, 'Let's go.' He would drive how you'd think he would. Fifty-five [miles an hour], do everything by the book."

For now, that competitive itch that drove Mauer's career and success from the time he was a little kid -- the youngest of three brothers who would compete in everything from baseball to golf to floor hockey or just about any endeavor -- is taking a back seat in his life as he transitions to life outside of baseball.

But Jake Mauer doesn't think that will last.

"I think he'll be back in some capacity, whether -- I don't know if he ever wants to coach," Jake said. "Maybe he does down the road. But he's got a lot of knowledge and experience, obviously, that would -- I'm sure there will be a lot of people that'd be interested to hear what he'd have to say about a lot of different things.

"I think, down the road, maybe when he kind of settles into the family life and gets that itch to go, whatever capacity that is, I think he'll definitely be involved."

* * *

These days, Mauer passes his time enjoying the little things he couldn't make time for as a ballplayer -- being a father to his three young kids, going on a fishing trip with his brother for the first time or playing pickup basketball with old friends at the field house bearing his name at Cretin-Derham Hall.

But for just one June afternoon, the Twins turned back the clock.

Other Twins greats in attendance -- from Johan Santana, Joe Nathan and Brad Radke, to Torii Hunter, Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer -- were certainly as significant a part of many of those winning Twins teams of the early- to mid-2000s. But none of them are as uniquely part of the history of the Twins -- or of Minnesota sports -- as Joe, the lifelong Minnesotan and Twin.

Surrounded by his former teammates, mentors, family and friends, Mauer choked back tears as he received the heartfelt support of a sellout crowd that had formed lines snaking through the streets of downtown Minneapolis hours before the Target Field gates opened for the opportunity to cheer on their hometown hero one more time.

"Wearing the number 7 for the last 15 years has been my absolute pleasure, and being able to play my entire career in that number in front of my family, friends and fans here at home means more to me than anything I've ever known," Mauer said, his voice cracking.

"I hope that everyone here tonight sees that number 7 hanging on the rafters, and you all know that you played a role in getting it up there. I know when I see it, I'll think of all of you and be forever grateful."

When the sheet covering the round plaque affixed to the facing of the second deck of the foul territory in left field was finally lifted by Jim O'Neill, Mauer's high school coach at Cretin-Derham Hall, the big, red number "7" officially became enshrined in Twins history.

And in the shadow of that number, Mauer threw a pitch to his father, Jake -- just like in those backyard games of catch in St. Paul, all those years ago.

Do-Hyoung Park covers the Twins for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @dohyoungpark and on Instagram at dohyoung.park.