Hometown boys Molitor, Mauer trying to turn Twins around
On a chilly winter afternoon in St. Paul, two St. Paul natives sat down for lunch at a St. Paul restaurant and did what St. Paul guys do - they talked about what it's going to take to fix the Minnesota Twins.
The only thing that separated this conversation from hundreds of others that occur in the restaurant on a daily basis was these two guys could actually do something about it.
Paul Molitor was the newly named Twins manager. Across the table was Joe Mauer, the face of the franchise. Two hometown stars trying to save a franchise that has rarely been lower after four straight seasons of at least 92 losses.
''The more and more I get to know Paul, it seems like we're a lot alike,'' Mauer said. ''We definitely love to compete. We like the challenge of where we're at and where we're trying to get to. I'm excited to have him leading the way and bringing in guys that share that same mentality. I think we both left that lunch excited and anxious about getting the season started.''
Neither would disclose any specifics of the conversation they had over a couple of hours at that lunch in January, but Molitor said he walked out of the meeting encouraged with how his embattled star was preparing for the coming season.
''Overall, I just think he's in a good place and likes the way the team is going,'' Molitor said. ''I don't think we can project what will happen but we were a pretty good offensive team last year and our best player didn't have a very good year. So if he can get back to where he was, it will bode well for us offensively.''
The Twins held their first full-squad workout on Saturday in Fort Myers, Florida, and the two former stars at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul, each facing their own questions, are at the center of the hopes for a baseball revival in Minnesota.
Molitor is the Hall of Famer who played the final three seasons of his 20-year career for the Twins. He served on the bench under former Twins managers Tom Kelly and Ron Gardenhire, but spent most of his time in the organization as a roving instructor in the minor leagues.
He crossed paths with Mauer, the No. 1 overall pick in 2001, often, both while Mauer was coming up through the minor leagues and during spring training.
But Mauer actually met Molitor far earlier in life when Molitor came to speak to kids at a Cretin baseball camp.
''I think that's one of the reasons why I try to use the whole field,'' Mauer said. ''At 9 or 10 years old, I remember hearing him talk about spraying the field starting batting practice, the way he took it. I'm sure at 9 or 10 years old, a lot of that went over the kids' heads. But I was sitting there and looking at it like this is a major league baseball player, and a very good one at that. That's what I wanted to be so I was pretty attentive when he was talking. I don't even know if he knows that, but I remember that for sure.''
With that seed planted, Mauer made himself into one of the best-hitting catchers the game has ever seen. He won three batting titles, an AL MVP award and made six All-Star games before injuries slowed him down.
An eight-year, $182 million contract signed in 2011 brought unprecedented scrutiny on Mauer, and his inability to duplicate those superb early years and the games he's missed due to injury caused fans to question his desire.
''I don't think Joe has ever lost that edge,'' Molitor said. ''I think people try to use that against him because they can't see it and it's not tangible enough for people. But internally I've never doubted that he's tremendously driven to win. He just carries a bit differently and that's why we see such a controlled player and it's served him really well.''
Their lunch conversation was different than the countless they've had over the years, with Mauer really trying to understand how Molitor would approach his new job.
''He's one of the smartest baseball people I've ever been around,'' Mauer said. ''The one thing I've admired about him and liked to watch him is how he prepares for anything. ... He would never leave any stone unturned. The way he goes about preparing for a game is awesome to see. I'm excited to see him do that in a different position.''