October 5, 2006

A look back: Joe Mauer, PART 1

As Joe Mauer stepped into the batter's box to take his practice cuts, the 20 or so major league baseball scouts who had gathered at the baseball field behind Cretin-Derham Hall High in St. Paul, Minnesota quit talking and took immediate notice.

While Raiders coach Jim O'Neill pitched, Mauer, almost mechanically, lashed each ball, hitting it hard and on a line somewhere. No popouts or lazy flies. He bombed his fair share over the fence and across Hamblin Street, threatening the houses nearby.

Welcome to Mauer's senior season on the baseball diamond. Despite a ton of scouts every game and sometimes being hounded by reporters afterward and agents' phone calls later that night, Mauer shrugged off the attention and pressure and delivered on the field.

Mauer, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound senior catcher, has become used to being the center of the action. He is possibly the nation's best three-sport athlete -- All-American in football and baseball and all-state in basketball. Some call him the best athlete ever born in Minnesota, although Dave Winfield, who was drafted by the pros in basketball, baseball and football, might have something to say about that.

It's no wonder there's a tug-of-war going on for Mauer's future. Mauer has signed to play quarterback for national champion Florida State, but he was recently chosen as the No. 1 pick overall by the hometown Minnesota Twins in the Major League Baseball amateur draft on June 5.

Barring a major contract problem or change of heart, it appears Mauer will play pro ball and skip college altogether. Signing him might take all summer, though, considering the amount of money involved with being the top pick.

"It's just like a fairy tale," Mauer said a day after the draft. "I don't think I could have come into a better situation. It was real exciting. (What happens now) will depend on a lot of things. Playing football is still an option. I don't know how it will play out right now."

Mauer grew up playing baseball, saying, "It's the family sport." His grandfather, Jake Sr., played some professional ball years ago, along with Jake Sr.'s brothers, Hank, John and Ken. Both of Mauer's older brothers, Jake III, and Billy, now play in college. Jake, 22, plays second base for St. Thomas Academy, a Division III school in St. Paul that recently won a national title. (Jake also was drafted by the Twins this year, in the 23rd round). Billy, 21, is a pitcher for a nearby junior college.

It seems the youngest Mauer, 18, has always been a star shining bright on the horizon. His coming of age is an amazing tale of athleticism, accompanied by his humble nature.

LITTLE JOE

Even in diapers, Mauer grew up trying to bat at his brothers' baseball games. Playing sports was never difficult for little Joe, but getting to play was. He had to retire from tee-ball at an early age.

"Joe was 4 and the other kids were 6 or 7," his father, Jake Jr., recalled. "Joe hit a line drive so hard, it hit another kid in the arm. The parents complained so much Joe wasn't allowed to play any more."

It was always a struggle to find somewhere to play for Mauer, who was much more coordinated than kids his age. Jake Jr. remembers when Mauer was a 10-year-old little leaguer, he pitched a one-hitter and once again, another parent's complaint kept his son from pitching again.

In second grade, Mauer was the starting point guard on a team of sixth graders until another protest got him kicked off for being too young.
After a tedious search, the Jimmy Lee Recreation Center, which had a predominantly African-American clientele, invited Mauer to join its team. Mauer later helped the center win two club national titles.

As Mauer matured and got even better, coaches at every level, even high school, questioned his age. On several occasions, Jake Jr. had to show his son's birth certificate to settle an argument. Ironically, Mauer was often the youngest player on the field.

There's no doubt that playing with his older brothers increased Mauer's development. But it wasn't all fun and games for the three. They compete at everything. Whiffle ball games in their small backyard off of Lexington Avenue, a main drag through the city, are still heated. The sidewalk in the front yard was removed years ago so the boys had all grass to play on. There's still a home plate sitting next to the front and back door, ready at a moment's notice.

ON THE GRIDIRON

Cretin-Derham Hall co-head football coach Mike Scanlan has tutored some of the nation's best high-school quarterbacks in his 15 years at the private Catholic school, which has a student body of about 1,300 kids. Raider graduates Steve Walsh (class of 1991) and Chris Weinke (class of 1989) won national titles as starting quarterbacks at the University of Miami and Florida State, respectively.

Scanlan isn't bashful about comparing the three. As a junior, Mauer did what neither Walsh nor Weinke could: win a state title. Mauer has lost just three times in his football career.

"Joe had a better supporting cast and Weinke was the guy with the cannon arm, but I'm a believer Joe is the best we've ever had," Scanlan said. "We've always been known for our passing game, but it was never as sophisticated as it was with Joe. We asked him to do a lot. He is such a quick study."

Mauer's football career had modest beginnings. His parents prodded him to join a local team in the fifth grade. After starting high school on the freshman team, he joined the varsity to hold a clipboard and chart defenses. He continued as a backup his sophomore year behind a senior starter, a move some fans still question.

"He came in off (of summer baseball) with a dead arm," Scanlan said. "True to Joe's character, he handled it remarkably. He chose to get better, instead of mope around."

Mauer lit up the scoreboard as a junior, throwing for 2,506 yards and 32 touchdowns with only nine interceptions. In the state championship game against Hastings, a 41-21 win, Mauer directed the Raiders to 21 points in the first half's final two minutes.

The expectations grew exponentially his senior year. Mauer did throw two interceptions in a regular-season ending 44-36 loss to Wayzata, but the Raiders regrouped for a 31-21 over Wayzata in the playoffs. In a 62-34 playoff win over Eagan, Mauer completed only 16 passes, but seven of them were for touchdowns.

With Mauer and tailback Rashon Powers-Neal, a Notre Dame recruit, the Raiders went into the state finals against Eden Prairie averaging 48.3 points per game. But after falling behind 14-0, Eden Prairie's defense stiffened for a 24-14 win. Mauer suffered a deep thigh bruise, which actually kept him out of several basketball games, on the first play of the game, but never told anybody.

"It was disappointing, but a lot of people didn't think we would get back," said Mauer, who was held to 160 yards passing.

Despite the loss, the accolades poured in for Mauer, who completed 178-of-288 passes (62 percent) for 3,022 yards with 41 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He won the Gatorade State and National Player of the Year, the Wendy's High School Heisman and the National Player of the Year from the Touchdown Club of Columbus. Mauer's plaques and trophies sit in athletic director John Janke's office and in the school trophy case down the hall. More reside in the family home above the fireplace.
Many hope they haven't seen the last of Mauer on the football field. With Weinke gone, he has a solid shot to play immediately for the Seminoles. Mauer said Bowden promised him the same deal as Weinke - there will always be a scholarship at FSU waiting for him, whether he chooses baseball or not.

"As good as Joe is in baseball, I think he can be even better in football," Scanlan said. "He understands defenses almost instinctively."

ON THE COURT

Basketball was a break between football and baseball, but Mauer didn't treat it that way. Raider coach Bill McKee said Mauer never stopped improving, despite never playing in summertime. "He was great when he was done," McKee said.

Every year, Mauer improved statistically, as did the school's record. The Raiders were 16-7 his first varsity season as a sophomore, 21-4 as a junior and 29-2 last year. After averaging 9.0 points as a sophomore, Mauer's numbers skyrocketed to 19.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg and 3.1 apg last year and 19.4 ppg, 7.8 rpg and 4.1 apg this winter.

This year's basketball season was a blur, on and off the court. Mauer was gone six consecutive weekends, taking official visits to FSU, Miami, Arizona and Minnesota for football, and traveling to Chicago and Columbus, Ohio, for football award banquets. He would play Friday and leave Saturday.

Recruiters came to see forward Steve Sir, a Canadian import, and came away raving about Mauer, who played guard and forward. Many say Mauer could have been a top Division I recruit. In a showdown against childhood friend Maurice Hargrove, who signed with Minnesota, Mauer almost tossed in a triple double in a 67-45 win over Highland Park.

Cretin's only losses were to the eventual state champions in Class 4A (88-82 to Osseo in the state semifinals) and Class 3A (68-67 to Minneapolis Patrick Henry) by a combined seven points. In his final game, Mauer dumped a career-high 31 points on Tartan (Oakdale) in an 88-85 triple overtime win as the Raiders finished third in the state tournament.
"This year's team did everything together," Mauer said. "It was fun to go to practice. We didn't have the best players in the state, but we played well."

NOTE: This is part one of a 2 part story. StudentSportsBaseball.com will have part 2 tomorrow.



 

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