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JOE MAUER GREW UP IN THE LAND OF PAUL BUNYAN. THE TWINS-AND A LOT OF MINNESOTANS-THINK HIS LEGEND MAY ONE DAY BE BIGGER

Joe Mauer slips through the netting and into the makeshift batting cage. Wearing a blue T-shirt, a pair of shorts and black Nikes, he sets up in an imaginary batter's box, cocks his black bat and locks in. Crack. There it is, the reason for all the fuss. Crack. Again and again. Each pure and powerful lefthanded stroke produces a startling sound that ricochets off the walls like a shotgun blast.

Outside the gym at Cretin-Derham Hall High School, the snow is falling on St. Paul, concealing a diamond on which Mauer not so long ago left teammates, coaches and opponents slack-jawed. The trophy case in the hallway displays a mere fraction of his high school haul, including state and national player of the year awards. They're encased alongside the hardware of other prominent alums: former Heisman Trophy-winner Chris Weinke, Vikings center Matt Birk and newly minted Hall of Famer Paul Molitor.

After uncoiling the last of what Molitor has called "one of the best swings I've ever seen," Joe steps out of the cage for his older brother, Jake. An infielder and fellow Twins farmhand, Jake was selected 676 spots behind top pick Joe in the 2001 draft. Stretching nearby is middle brother Bill, a righthanded pitcher and, believe it or not, another baby Twin. They all live together in Joe's condo in Fort Myers, Fla., adjoining the Heritage Palms Country Club, which just gives them another reason to compete. "We even play closest to the pin for lunch," says Jake. But on this bitterly cold day in late January, they're back home to appear at TwinsFest.

Suddenly, a familiar voice interrupts the workout. "Hello, Mauer boys," calls out a beaming Leann Binde, who taught all of them in an interdisciplinary course (English, religion and social studies). "Hello, Miss Binde," they respond in unison. "I can't believe you guys are still together," she says. She asks Jake, 25, and Bill, 23, about their college experiences, then says to 20-year-old Joe, "You still have lots of time to go." He nods and says he'll see what happens.

The brothers pack their gear and bundle up to leave, but not before Joe signs a bunch of baseballs for coach Jim O'Neill and chats with some starstruck students. Next to the baseballs on the bleachers is a Ziploc bag filled with homemade chocolate chip cookies, courtesy of Lisa the Lunch Lady. It's good to be home. Joe mentions that a high school buddy who's now a realtor has him looking at places in St. Paul, about 10 minutes from the Metrodome. Does that mean he'll spend his winters in Minnesota? "Oh, no," he says quickly. "But hopefully I can spend the summers here."

ON NOV. 14, Mauer was home alone in Fort Myers when his cell phone rang. Jesse Crain, one of his batterymates last season at Double-A New Britain, wanted to know if he'd heard the news: the Twins had just traded A.J. Pierzynski, their 27-year-old All-Star catcher, to the Giants for reliever Joe Nathan and two minor league pitchers. "I thought he was joking around," says Mauer. "Then I was on the phone for eight hours straight."

The conversations all went pretty much like this:

Caller: "Did you hear about the trade?"

Mauer: "Yeah, I heard."

Caller: "You're the guy now."

Mauer: "Oh, not yet.

Mauer's levelheaded approach didn't stop the frenzy back home. His parents, Jake and Teresa, fielded more than 100 calls that day. You can't blame the locals for going off. After all, in the Twin Cities, the kid's rep is Bunyanesque. According to Minnesota folklore, legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyan created the 10,000 lakes by chasing Babe the Blue Ox around the state. Once his giant footprints filled with rainwater, voila!, ice fishing. But the tales that makeup the Legend of Joe Mauer, the 6'4", 220-pound kid who ruled the local diamonds, courts and gridirons, are all true.

There's the one about Joe getting kicked out of his T-ball league at age 4 for hitting the ball too hard. "The guy who ran the playground told us he had to go," says his dad. No problem. Joe simply advanced straight to coachpitch, and eventually wound up playing alongside his older brothers. "I was 12 and Bill was 11," says brother Jake. "We were short a guy on our Little League team, so the coach pulled Joe, who was 8, out of the stands and put him in rightfield. He went 2-for-3 with a double."

All three Mauer boys honed their swings with a device their father built to let them practice yearround, in the yard during the summer and in the basement during the Minnesota winter. He mounted PVC pipe on a pole held at the base by a coffee can full of cement. The idea was to feed a ball into the top of the sideways V-shaped pipe, then hit it as it dropped out the bottom. When the end of the pipe was turned straight down, the hitter couldn't see the ball until the last millisecond and had to rely on pure hand-eye coordination. "I loved hitting off that thing," says Joe.

Father Jake and his cousin, Jim, now sell a professional model of the homemade contraption for $79.95, at mauersquickswing.com. Each order comes with a slick video featuring Molitor explaining how it can help players of all ages develop a compact swing. But it's Joe's picture on the front of the box.

Joe has always been out front, and not just in baseball. When he was in second grade, he started at point guard for Bill's fifth-grade hoops squad, until some parents whose sons were losing PT complained. He finally found a home at the Jimmy Lee Rec Center in St. Paul, where he played football with current Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs. Before long, Mauer was the nation's best prep quarterback, throwing for 41 TDs (with just three picks) as a senior, and winning the 2000 Gatorade National Player of the Year award.

"I yelled at him once," says Andy Bischoff, the Cretin-Derham Hall football coach. "Joe was a sophomore playing QB for the varsity, and there was a foul-up on the exchange. When he came off the field, I said, 'Joe, you gotta get the snap!' But I was the line coach back then, so I always blamed the QB. Was it his fault? No."

Once. That's also the exact number of times Mauer struck out in high school. The pitcher who got him, Paul Feiner of Elk River High, clipped the newspaper story for his scrapbook. Says O'Neill, "I saw him pop up once, too."

One time during his senior year (when he hit .605), Joe stepped to the plate, and the catcher said to him, "Why do you even play high school ball? It's way too easy for you." He just shrugged it off, the same way he handled hecklers on a rainy April day at Edina High later that year. "I said to him, 'Looks like it's going to be a tough day back there,' " O'Neill says. "I was referring to the kids, but he says, 'I don't know, Coach, I think the rain will let up.' He was oblivious to the heckling. So he hits two bombs, and the next time up they walk him, and the fans start heckling their own coach."

Opposing fans and even players would often wait around to get Joe's autograph, which is understandable. They witnessed the national record-tying seven homers in seven consecutive games. They lost the 66 straight games to Joe's Cretin-Derham Hall squad, the second-best prep streak ever. They knew he played for the junior national team and was voted the best hitter at the 2000 world tournament in Panama. They heard he had signed to play quarterback for Florida State. They saw the dozens of baseball scouts watching his every move. They weren't surprised when he became the first Minnesotan ever selected No. 1, right ahead of current Cubs star righty Mark Prior.

A few days after the draft, Cretin-Derham was locked in a tight battle against Brainerd in the state semis at Midway Stadium, home of the minor league St. Paul Saints. By his senior year, the only thing Mauer hadn't won was a state championship. His brothers had three titles between them, so the pressure was on. In the top of the fifth inning, Mauer launched a three-run homer to tie the game. In the bottom of the fifth, he came in to pitch. He threw five innings, struck out nine and hit 92 mph on the gun. Cretin-Derham won, 5-4, and went on to take the title. "Prior is awesome," says O'Neill, "but if Joe had three years of college, he'd be throwing 96 too."

The day Joe signed with the Twins (for a $5.15 million bonus), breaking Bobby Bowden's heart, his grandfather went on local TV and probaseball claimed that Joe had the best swing since Ted Williams and would get the Twins, then threatened with contraction, a new ballpark. A few days later, the team invited Joe to the Metrodome to take BP with the big leaguers. Grandpa Jake, who played in the White Sox farm system in 1954 before being stricken with polio, tagged along. "He went right into Terry Ryan's office and told him, 'You just signed the next .400 hitter,' " says Joe. "I was like, 'Grandpa, take it easy!' " The GM just smiled.

Sure enough, in Mauer's debut season, at Elizabethton, Tenn., he hit exactly .400. Last year, he batted .339 combined at Class-A and Double-A, tops among all minor league catchers, and gunned down more than 50% of basestealers. Then he hit .481 for Team USA in the Arizona Fall League, before a bruised thumb hindered his play in the Olympic qualifying tournament. The only skill he hasn't shown is power-he's hit just nine homers in 277 pro games-but even Bunyan didn't chase Babe right away.

Oh, it's there. In October, O'Neill invited Mauer and other pros back to school to celebrate the opening of a new 10,000-square-foot fitness center. The only problem is its proximity to the baseball field. As Mauer launched shots onto the roof, the freshman football team began chanting his name, and suddenly 300 students were lined up along the fence. Bedlam erupted when he took out one of the new windows. "It's hockey glass," says O'Neill. "It's not supposed to break."

AT TWINSFEST on this Friday night, the line for the Mauer brothers' autograph station snakes across the Metrodome turf. Directly behind this flash mob, there's no waiting for the John Hancocks of actual major leaguers Joe Nathan and Michael Restovich (another hometown boy, from suburban Rochester). Everyone wants a piece of Mauer, even those with PIERZYNSKI across their backs. "No. 26 jerseys are popular, but everyone here knows about Joe," says Greg Hamel of Lakeville, Minn., as he lifts up his 5-year-old son, Nathan, to catch a glimpse of the new catcher.

Mark Halverson, who's from St. Cloud, approaches with a duffel bag full of Mauer memorabilia: bats, minihelmets, bobbleheads, cards, even a Quickswing. So, Mark, is this kid the real deal? "Oh, cripe, yeah," he says, sounding like he's just stepped off the set of Fargo. "He's got great talent. He only struck out once his whole high school career, you know." Yeah, we know.

Mauer sits calmly amid the storm, looks each fan in the eye and smiles on cue for photos. He's the LeBron of the Twin Cities, only without the Hummer. When Mauer became a multimillionaire at age 18, he bought a Trailblazer, plus a Chevy Tahoe for the parents and an Impala for his brothers. "You see all these 18-year-olds driving Escalades," he says. "Those are big league cars. I'm not going to get a big league car until I'm in the big leagues."

His shot is coming early, at least in part because Pierzynski, who led the Twins with a .312 batting average last season, was due a big raise. But it's that Midwestern sensibility and maturity way beyond his years that have convinced the Twins, and the Twin Cities, that this Minnesota kid is going to make it after all. "Joe's been the same since fifth grade, when he was playing with me and my high school buddies," says Jake, who broke in at Elizabethton with his little bro and will be in major league camp with him this spring. "We didn't take it easy on him. He always held his own physically. And I've been trying to get into his head for 20 years. Distractions don't bother him."

That's good, because his folks have already bought 400 tickets for Opening Day, April 5 at the Metrodome, two weeks before Joe's 21st birthday. And Grandpa Jake isn't about to stop braggin'. "I don't think the media or anyone else can put more pressure on him than us," says his dad.

This Hometown Boy thing doesn't often work out. There's the cautionary tale, soon to be a movie, of Texas pitching sensation David Clyde, who made his Rangers debut just 20 days after his high school graduation in 1973. And Clyde didn't have to study a pitching staff, call a game and hit major league stuff. That's a daunting task for a 20-year-old, though it's not without precedent. In 1976, Butch Wynegar broke in with the Twins at 20 and had two All-Star seasons right out of the box. But he didn't grow up in the Twin Cities.

Kent Hrbek did. "They're laying it all on him," says Hrbek, the first baseman for the Twins from 1981 to 1994, and the spiritual leader of their two World Series title teams (1987, '91). "Soon enough, we'll find out if the guy has the head and the balls to play the game. I'm hearing he does." Hrbek must have been talking to Grandpa Jake.

Or Terry Ryan. Standing behind home plate at the Metrodome, the GM simply says, "We traded A.J. Pierzynski for a reason. And Joe Mauer was a No.1 pick for a reason."

Across town at the Winter Carnival, there's a home plate stationed where St. Paul mayor Randy Kelly hopes to build a new park for the Twins. Before putting the plate in place, though, he asked one player to sign it: Joe Mauer.

Now all Joe has to do is make the team.

POPPIN' FRESH

The 2004 rookie class could wind up like the Democratic presidential field, with lots of shaky candidates falling by the wayside. Joe Mauer looms largest right now, but Dontrelle was invisible this time last year too.

HERE ARE FIVE OTHERS TO KEEP AN EYE ON THIS SPRING:

BOBBY CROSBY, SS, A'S

With Miguel Tejada gone to Baltimore, the 24-year-old Crosby inherits a critical position for the defending AL West champs. The son of ex-major leaguer (and former A's scout) Ed Crosby was Oakland's first pick in 2001. He's big for a shortstop (6'3", 195 pounds), but he makes all the plays. Last season at Triple-A Sacramento, he had a breakout year: .308, 22 HRs, 24 SBs, .395 OBP, .544 slugging. Adios, Miguel.

ADAM LAROCHE, 1B, BRAVES

Atlanta slashed payroll and is banking on three first-time regulars in the 24-year-old LaRoche, 3B Mark DeRosa and C Johnny Estrada. The lefthanded LaRoche, son of ex-reliever Dave LaRoche, batted .290 with 20 HRs between Double- and Triple-A, then had a solid winter in Puerto Rico. "We think he's ready," says GM John Schuerholz. Adam's brother, Andy, a powerhitting infielder, was the top position prospect in the Cape Cod League last summer and signed with LA for $1M. Is baseball a family sport, or what?

JEREMY REED, CF, WHITE SOX

The 22-year-old lefty batted .333 at Class-A Winston-Salem, then got promoted to Double-A Birmingham and hit .409 in 242 ABs. He also stole 45 bases and drove in 95 runs overall. Don't be surprised if Ozzie Guillen takes him north.

GRADY SIZEMORE, OF, INDIANS

As the youngest hitter in the Double-A Eastern League last season, the 21-year-old Sizemore, acquired in 2002 from Montreal in the Bartolo Colon trade, hit .304 with 50 extra-base hits. A star quarterback in high school, Sizemore would be playing for the Washington Huskies had the Expos not given him a $2M bonus in 2000.

EDWIN JACKSON, RHP, DODGERS

With Hideo Nomo hurt, the Dodgers sent the Double-A starter to the mound against Randy Johnson in Arizona on Sept. 9, his 20th birthday. No sweat. He threw six strong innings to become the youngest pitcher to win his debut since Doc Gooden in 1984. The 6'3", 190-pound Jackson is a study in grace, with a fluid delivery and a moving mid-90s fastball. He had a 2.45 ERA in four late-season games and should crack one of baseball's best rotations this spring.