Minnesota Twins star Joe Mauer competed in the MLB Home Run Derby in St. Louis on Monday night, losing in a "swing-off" and failing to make it out of the first round.
It was a decent showing for the two-time batting champion, who received an invitation to compete in the event after teammate Justin Morneau and a handful of other American League sluggers refused. But Mauer certainly was qualified. Despite playing in just 64 games this season, he entered the All-Star break with a career-high 15 home runs.
The St. Paul native has quieted the fans and media members who criticized him for not hitting more home runs in his first five major league seasons, and because of his sudden surge in power, Monday’s home run derby might not have been Mauer’s last.
It certainly wasn’t his first.
In 2001, following his senior season at Cretin-Derham Hall and two weeks after the Twins made him the No. 1 overall pick in the MLB draft, Mauer was one of 79 seniors from across the state who were selected by the Minnesota High School Baseball Coaches Association to participate in the Lions All-Star Tournament. The players were separated by region and divided into four teams (northern Minnesota, southern Minnesota, east metro and west metro), and more than 1,200 fans came to the Mini-Met in my hometown of Jordan to get a glimpse of the much-hyped Mauer.
The lanky left-hander, who wore round glasses and a seemingly permanent grin, must have signed hundreds of autographs for a smiling sea of kids, including two of my younger brothers, as a mass of humanity packed the wooden bleachers behind home plate, the benches near the concession area, and the grassy hill down the third-base line. When the signing period ended, and when the tournament’s home run derby was about to begin, the kids positioned themselves behind the outfield fence, hoping to retrieve one of Mauer’s blasts.
Mauer didn’t disappoint; instead, he did some damage – both literally and figuratively.
Kevin Green, a special education teacher at Jordan High School and my former eighth-grade basketball coach, was one of many Jordan residents who came to the Mini-Met to watch Mauer. He brought his wife, Laurie, and two of his sons, Tynan and Johnny.
"Laurie, myself, Johnny and Ty, we came down to watch the home run derby, and I noticed when we came into the parking lot down there at the Mini-Met that it was just full of all these Cadillacs and Lincolns and expensive vehicles," Green said. "People had come from all over the state, and I think Mauer had a pretty good following from St. Paul."
The vehicles were parked behind the outfield fence – a spot not normally used for parking at the ballpark, but because the parking lot was overflowing, many people decided to take the risk. Green had no idea that his minivan was among those vehicles.
Earlier in the day, Green’s oldest son, Timmy, and I, along with the rest of our teammates on Jordan’s varsity, B-squad and ninth-grade baseball teams, were given the responsibility of readying the field for the event. Timmy drove his dad’s minivan to the park and was told by Jordan baseball coach Kyle Johnson to park it behind the outfield fence so there would be more spots available in the parking lot for visitors.
Because we got to the park so early, we all had seats in the first row of the wooden bleachers. Others, including Green and the rest of his family, were forced to find spots standing at various areas of the complex.
"We were standing down there where you could stand behind the fence, over there somewhere behind left field," Green said. "We watched the batters go up there and hit, and only like one or two of them hit a home run over. And the next thing we know, up comes Mauer, the main attraction, and he starts hitting. And the first couple of hits, I remember, landed out in deep center field and went over the fence.
"So it’s Ty and myself, and Johnny’s running around there somewhere with the Adamek twins, Tanner and Tyler, and a bunch of other little ankle-biters, and we’re all looking at Mauer," he continued, laughing. "And then, bang, he hit a couple of home runs over. And those guys took off after the first home run went over the fence, and they run around the back of the fence. So I’m watching the show, and the next thing I know, here comes the two Adamek boys coming back around the fence, running toward me going, ‘Mr. Green! Mr. Green! Joe Mauer just knocked out your windshield!’"
One of Mauer’s many longballs had cleared the outfield fence, just to the left of the old, wooden manual scoreboard, and struck the windshield of Green’s light-blue Plymouth minivan.
"I ran out back there, and sure as hell, the whole windshield is just caved in and you could see where a baseball just smacked right into the driver’s side," Green said. "It was just sunk in. I don’t know who got the ball. Somebody said, ‘Did you get the ball?’ I wish I could have gotten it. But all I could think of is, ‘Where am I going to get $250 for the deductible?’
"All those Cadillacs and those Lincolns, and it hits my van!"
Unaware of the damage he inflicted, Mauer kept swinging and belting majestic shots over the right-field fence. At one point, after he had clinched the competition, it appeared he was trying to hit the sign – "Hit it here, Joe" – a kid was holding while standing on the scoreboard.
Mauer was the only derby participant who belted more than three home runs, and because he was the main attraction, the announcer turned on his microphone and asked the young slugger to keep swinging – even though the maximum number of outs had been recorded. Suddenly, after another blast, somebody yelled, "Hey, Joe, go right-handed." Mauer smiled, switched his grip on the bat, moved to the other batter’s box and ripped a shot that banged high off the left-field wall. The fans erupted, and Mauer acknowledged them with a modest wave before walking toward the dugout.
It’s unknown if anybody ever told the future big-league star what happened to Green’s minivan. But if Green has his way, Mauer will find out someday.
"I keep hoping that someday, by chance, I’m going to drift into him somewhere at a restaurant or something and I’m going to tell him the story," Green said, laughing. "I’m going to tell him, ‘Now that you got it made, buddy, will you give me my $250 back? I have three kids, no money and a beat-up old Plymouth Voyager.’"
Green’s story likely will live on forever among the countless other myths and legendary tales associated with Jordan baseball and the majestic Mini-Met, which both are steeped in tradition and folklore.
And so will Jacob Wolf’s story.
Many baseball fans, especially Minnesota Twins fans, will tell you that Joe Mauer struck out only once in his high school career. Jordan fans, especially those who attended the Lions All-Star Tournament at the Mini-Met in 2001, will tell you otherwise.
Wolf, the ace pitcher for Jordan’s high school baseball team, faced Mauer during one of the tournament games. With the Jordan-dominated crowd watching in anxious anticipation, the hometown kid delivered a two-strike pitch that painted the outside corner. Mighty Mauer had struck out.
The crowd erupted, including my friends and I, as Mauer walked back to the dugout with his head down. That moment likely ensured that nobody in Jordan ever will forget the name of Jacob Wolf, who currently plays amateur ball and, in his modesty, doesn’t like to talk about The Strikeout. But Jordanites do. I know some people who have called into radio stations to tell the story after hearing a host mention that Mauer struck out only once in high school. "Actually," they’ll say, "back in 2001, at the Mini-Met…"
There also are some who believe that Mauer actually let Wolf strike him out, allowing the Jordan crowd to celebrate an unthinkable achievement by a hometown kid. The conspiracy theory only adds to the legend and Jordan’s rich baseball history. But we may never know. Maybe Kevin Green will find out while getting his $250 back.