MINNEAPOLIS -- Eighteen years after the Minnesota Twins took Joe Mauer with the first overall draft pick, the hometown star with the textbook left-handed swing was still having a hard time realizing his place among the franchise's all-time greats.
As Mauer's jersey number formally joined the seven others retired by the Twins on Saturday night, the six-time All-Star and three-time batting champion sounded as awestruck of his place in team history as on his first day of rookie ball.
"Wearing the No. 7 the past 15 years has been my absolute pleasure," Mauer said, his voice cracking as he paused to compose himself, "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 any of you will ever know."
Though the Twins took the best record in the major leagues into their game against Kansas City, the sellout crowd on this night was more about the uniform retirement for Mauer, who was born and raised just across the Mississippi River in St. Paul and thus only played baseball for teams outside of the Twin Cities during his three-season stint in the minor leagues.
"He just thought of himself as a kid from St. Paul who was honored to play for his hometown Twins," said former teammate Justin Morneau, who spoke during the pregame ceremony that lasted about 45 minutes and featured a biographical montage starting with grainy home video of Mauer crushing tee balls with a remarkably smooth swing for a preschooler.
The Twins went all out for the occasion, as has been the organization's custom over years of commemorating the most decorated players and teams the franchise has had. They first surprised Mauer last Dec. 18 at a ceremony at his alma mater, Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul, with the announcement his number would be permanently off limits. This week, the club unveiled a 72-page biographical coffee table book, "A Twin for the Ages," with net proceeds earmarked for the Minnesota Twins Community Fund.
More than 30 alumni of the team were on the attendance list, including 21 former teammates from Morneau to Torii Hunter to Joe Nathan to Johan Santana to Brad Radke. Six members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame were present, including Johnny Bench, to whom Mauer compared well early in his career when he was still a catcher before a concussion in 2013 forced a move to first base.
"Everyone we asked and the Twins asked came back," Mauer told reporters afterward. "That to me means everything."
"For a catcher, I couldn't believe how friendly you were when I came to bat," Suzuki said.
The Twins even tracked down hip-hop star T.I. for a recorded greeting. Mauer used his hit "What You Know" as the walk-up song for his at-bats, and one of his gifts from the team was a gold-plated commemorative record signed by the artist. Another souvenir present: The actual home plate from his final game last Sept. 30, when he put on the catcher's gear on one last time in an emotional goodbye.
Tony Oliva (6), Tom Kelly (10), Kent Hrbek (14), Bert Blyleven (28) and Rod Carew (29), the five others still living with retired Twins numbers, were on hand. So were the son of the late Harmon Killebrew (3) and the son and daughter of the late Kirby Puckett (34).
With about 50 family members watching on the field, including his wife, Maddie, twin 5-year-old daughters, Emily and Maren, and 7-month-old son, Chip, Mauer joined his mother, Teresa, on the mound for the ceremonial first pitch to his father, Jake. The ball was high, but over the plate.
"I was real nervous. I hadn't thrown a ball in a while," Mauer said later. "I knew my dad wasn't as mobile as he used to be, so I wanted to make sure to get it in the area. To have them and my family and friends be a part of this weekend, it really means a lot."