The master

AUG. 13, 12:53 p.m., Target Field, Minneapolis.

Game 115 of the 2012 season, Tigers vs. Twins, is meaningless in the grand scheme, one game out of 162, one game in a lifetime of them for Twins catcher Joe Mauer. He will prepare for this one the way he has prepared for every one of the previous 114: intent on making sure his 6'5", 230-pound body forgets what happened in 2011.

He arrives at the ballpark in his 1969 Chevelle and dresses in a home jersey, cap, shorts and a pair of running shoes. He walks down the tunnel outside the Twins' clubhouse, shuffling a little, his back stiff, his legs tired. "So this is how it starts," he says.

After a quick trip to an interview room to tape a standard-issue, end-of-season promo thanking the fans, he heads back to the clubhouse, stopping every few steps to stretch his back. "I'm feeling a little run-down today," he says. His team is 16 games under .500 and 13 1/2 games behind the White Sox in the American League Central. Mauer walks through the clubhouse, passing his friend, Twins reliever Glen Perkins, and a couple of other early arrivals. "I'm always here because I like it here," Perkins says. "Joe's always here because he's working." First pitch is six hours and eight minutes away.

JOE MAUER IS one of America's last remaining geographical oddities -- the Midwestern stoic. He encompasses what an entire state believes to be its best attributes: humility, loyalty, self-deprecation, drive and conscientiousness. And yes, more than a fair measure of blandness. "You'll find that I'm really boring," Mauer said in mid-June. "I'm not as cool as I'm supposed to be." He is the Midwestern ideal sprung to life, as reliable as summer corn, with an image as square as his sideburns. His locker, home or away, looks like the hotel closet of a businessman on an overnight stay: shirt, pants and shoes. Other guys have family photos, food, books, even women's thongs strung across the backs of their chairs, but Mauer has nothing remotely personal.

Mauer should be easing into his professional prime, a 29-year-old starting the Shakespearean third act of his career as a pro ballplayer. There are, presumably, as many years ahead of him as behind him, and the ones immediately ahead of him, chronologically and anecdotally, should be among the best of an already spectacular career.

Yet there is something distant about him, something assured but vulnerable too. You can see it in the way he scans a room, head held high, before entering it and the manner in which each word is weighed and measured on a mental scale to assess every possible interpretation. His wariness is an act of subtle genius and self-preservation, every bit as central to his brilliance as the ability to treat a two-strike pitch a hair's breadth off the corner as if it sailed over his head. Teammates marvel at his composure: stolid, immovable, an oak with deep roots. But there's a part of Mauer that remains circumspect, even now. "Private" and "guarded" are the two words repeated most by teammates. He appears slightly wounded from the questions and criticisms that dominated 2011, when injuries limited him to 82 games and his stoicism created an air of mystery that fostered speculation and distrust that led, inevitably, to questions about his passion for the game.

You must understand: Before the 2011 season, Mauer's decision to stay home, to spurn the come-hithers from the debauched temptresses on either coast, was viewed as more reinforcement of his best Minnesota-bred attributes. Mauer wouldn't abandon the small-market Twins and their sparkling new ballpark. He was the rarest of heroes: a local boy who stayed local.

The change in 2011 was startling. All the qualities that gained Mauer wealth and fame and drew reserved, down-home Minnesotans to him -- the humility, modesty and desire to be treated as just another guy -- were flipped and used against him. He was criticized for being in the background, for not seeing himself as above the backup catcher or middle reliever. His heart was challenged.

Mauer doesn't seem compelled to convince anybody of his ardor for the game, which might be part of the reason the questions arose in the first place. "When something that you love to do gets taken away, it's tough" is about as far as he will go. His passion is more analytical than ebullient, which creates confusion among fans who see playing baseball for a living as an unattainable dream.

More than any other big leaguer, Mauer -- the first pick of the 2001 draft -- is community property. "There are times when I feel overwhelmed," says Perkins, also a Twin Cities native. "I can't come close to imagining what it's like for Joe." As Twins manager Ron Gardenhire says, "It's all on his shoulders, all of this." Sitting at the desk in his office, Gardenhire leans back and throws both arms to the side, signifying what a wide swath all of this entails. When Gov. Mark Dayton needed someone to help pitch the state's tourism in an "Explore Minnesota" television spot, he went right to Mauer. "I didn't know I was going to have to sing until I got there," Mauer says with a laugh.

He is so tied to Minnesota and its monochromatic idiosyncrasies that the distinction between Minneapolis and St. Paul is a cultural gulf for him. When Joe made the big leagues as a 20-year-old in 2004 and enlisted a friend to help him find a place to live, Joe's father, Jake, asked, "Where are you looking?"

"St. Paul," Joe responded. "And a few places in Minneapolis."

Jake Mauer got quiet.

"Remember, you're a St. Paul boy," he said in a fatherly tone.

Joe chose St. Paul 00 the less glamorous, remember-where-you-came-from city. Locals say you date Minneapolis but marry St. Paul.

"My dad was joking," Joe says. "Well, maybe half-joking."

His parents and grandparents come to most games. His fiancee, Maddie Bisanz, is a high school classmate from Cretin-Derham in St. Paul. They're getting married Dec. 1, in St. Paul. "That's home for us," Mauer says.

On a purely anecdotal level, she is his soul mate. When asked whether Bisanz would be available to be interviewed for this story, Mauer said no. "She's not into any of that," he says. "She probably wishes I did something else."

There might have been times last year when Mauer wished the same. If public opinion is the gauge, his worst season as a professional came at the worst moment: the first year of an eight-year, $184 million contract extension. For the first time, he was surrounded by forces of negativity and skepticism. After an offseason to recover, 2012 became his season of forgetting.

1:30 P.M., Target Field weight room. Ten minutes in the 55-degree cold tub is followed by 10 minutes in the 104-degree hot tub. From there, Mauer changes into workout clothes and starts with 12 minutes on the stationary bike. He clasps his hands behind his back and watches the MLB Network as it plays soundlessly on a screen hanging from the ceiling. "You form so many friendships throughout baseball, and sitting here is a good time to watch and catch up on everybody," he says. The Twins lineup has not been posted, but Mauer expects to play first. "That's the word on the street," he says. The Twins strategy to keep his bat productive and legs healthy has him catching a little less than half of the time. He would prefer to catch -- "We're still working on it," he says -- but the numbers make it hard to argue with the division of labor: .316 with an AL- leading .412 OBP. From the bike, he moves to a balancing/stretching platform called the Power Plate, where he spends 15 minutes working his back and legs before logging another 15 on a hip-strengthening device called a Rotex. Starting pitcher Scott Diamond is doing box jumps in the corner. Reliever Jared Burton appears to be practicing his golf swing with a weighted bar. "You build athletes from the ground up," says Twins strength coach Perry Castellano. "Working up the kinetic chain." Mauer is halfway there. First pitch is four hours and 35 minutes away.

HONEYMOONS END. Marriages begin. The glow fades, and something that might have seemed minor -- he bites his fingernails or never cleans the toothpaste off the sink -- becomes insufferable as time passes. It's the familiarity/contempt continuum. And so it can happen that a guy who hits .320 and gets on base 40 perent of the time, a guy who is the only catcher to win three batting titles, a guy whose MVP season of 2009 is arguably the most remarkable offensive year for anyone who ever wore the gear, is less appealing when he sits out with an uncommon injury and is near the top in grounding into double plays and often walks rather than swings in potentially game-deciding situations. A backlash is inevitable, maybe, but no less surprising.

Consider history: Mauer is the only high school athlete to be named USA Today national player of the year in both football and baseball. He averaged 20 points per game in basketball his senior year. Rick Majerus, then the coach at Utah, scouted a teammate and told John Janke, the Cretin-Derham athletic director at the time, "I like the shooting guard, but I really like the power forward." Janke told Majerus, "Well, Coach, he's got a scholarship to play quarterback at Florida State, and he's probably going to be the No. 1 pick in the baseball draft. But good luck."

Mauer's propensity for multiplatform excellence has long been viewed by teammates with a mixture of awe and maddening frustration. In 2006, when Guitar Hero was at its peak, several Twins would gather in hotel rooms and play. One night, Mauer decided to join them. "He was terrible, just terrible," Perkins says. "I left and came back an hour later, and he was killing it. I looked at everybody and said, 'Great, something else for him to be better than us at.'"

After another year of success in 2010, the $184 million contract kicked in. Mauer had knee surgery that offseason but was slow to come back. He rehabbed through part of spring training, attempting to get himself in playing shape. Frustrated with the pace of his recovery and cognizant of the enormity of his contract, he pushed. His knee pushed back. "Looking back to what I was doing, the volume -- it was kind of a crazy workout," he says.

"When people come out to see you play, you want to be able to play," Mauer says. Something -- poor advice? the obligation to return quickly? -- created endless setbacks. An early-season announcement from the team that Mauer had bilateral leg weakness compounded matters. It was met with one part alarm (it can be a precursor to Lou Gehrig's disease) to 10 parts derision (too vague, and besides, $23 million a year?). As a result, bilateral leg weakness was deemed mysterious and was all many Minnesotans needed to throw up their hands and conclude they didn't even know him anymore.

"I don't think the Twins handled it very well," says a source close to Mauer. "They should have just said, 'He had surgery, and he hasn't fully recovered yet.' That was the reality, so why not say that? The problem was, he was the hometown hero who had just signed a huge contract. People thought he'd better be playing every day."

Rick Anderson, who has been the Twins' pitching coach throughout Mauer's career, says, "There were many times Joe told me, 'If people only knew what I was going through physically.'"

Why, then, didn't Mauer make a better effort to explain himself publicly? Why wouldn't he tell the Twins fan base what he told Anderson? The pitching coach shrugs. "That's Joe," he says. "He doesn't bitch and moan. Nobody gets thrown under the bus."

So what happens when adulation becomes cynicism? What happens when Internet message boards -- never barometers of cultured thought but still reflective of some base element -- get peppered with posts like ones from a guy named Mark Barrett, who wrote, "This singles-hitting, no-passion lazy sissy is REALLY getting on my nerves!"?

On June 17 of this season, Milwaukee's Rickie Weeks plowed hard into Mauer on a play at the plate. The slide was questionable: Mauer had given Weeks a lane to the outside, and Weeks chose not to take it. Inside the Twins' clubhouse, it was viewed as a dirty play. Mauer missed the better part of a week with a deep thigh bruise, which prompted the St. Paul Pioneer Press to conduct the following online poll:

What's Joe Mauer made of?

  • Muscle and brain

  • Snips and snails and puppy-dog tails

  • Cheap plastic parts

  • Money

  • I'm not sure

This attempt at social commentary (that couldn't have been humor, could it?) elicited more than 1,300 votes over the first three days, and roughly 65 percent of the votes cast were for "Cheap plastic parts" or "Money."

A few facts are worth noting. Mauer's batting average at the time: .314. The number of games he missed through the season's first 64 games: four. Mauer is old enough to shrug it off, smart enough to refuse to address it and possibly insulated enough to never see it. "There are probably people who still believe they should have taken Mark Prior ahead of me," Mauer says. "As you get older, you learn there are some things out of your control. You learn there's not much you can do but play, and I love to play."

AT 3:45 P.M.three hours and 25 minutes before the first pitch, hitting coach Joe Vavra and a couple of clubhouse helpers are sitting around talking in the batting cage when Mauer arrives with a bat in his hand. He starts with 10 to 15 swings off the tee, the ball leaving his bat on a line and whacking against the back of the cage. Vavra removes the tee and stands behind an L screen to throw underhanded (but quick) short toss. Between swings, Mauer gets a scouting report on new Tigers starter Anibal Sanchez, whom he has never faced.

Mauer: "Sinker-slider guy?"


Vavra: "Yep." (Thwack!) "He's not real tall, but he tries to get angles."


Mauer: "Does he like to stay outside?"


Vavra: "Mostly, but he'll try to keep you honest with the slider inside."

Mauer hits three or four more loud line drives to the back of the cage. His swing is smooth, effortless. It's shocking to see such force created from such a controlled act. You could place a bowl of water on his head and not a drop would spill.

Mauer says, "I'm good, Joe. That's good."

"Good for me too," Vavra says. "I can't hear anymore."

THERE IS LITTLE to no narrative tension to the Twins' season. The team started horribly, losing 15 of its first 20 games, which created a second straight season in which avoiding 100 losses became a real goal. The starting pitching was aggressively bad, as if constructed for the sole purpose of giving up early runs. Mauer was hitting .270 in mid-May before a .397 June elevated him toward the top of the American League. He went back to doing what he had done his whole pre-2011 career: work counts and hit the ball where it's pitched.

Still, suspicion hovers. On the day Mauer is named to the AL All-Star team for the fifth time, Matt Cerio posts on the Pioneer Press website, "No worries. Mauer will get the sniffles and stub his toe on a feather and be unable to play in the All-Star Game."

One prominent local columnist, Jim Souhan, describes Mauer's contract as an albatross, while another column of his carries the headline "Clueless Joe." A local television anchor says, "I don't think Joe ever fully understood how upset people were at him last year." In the Twins' clubhouse, heads shake and eyes roll at any criticism of Mauer. There is no hesitation when Perkins says, "I can assure you there was none of that in here. I didn't hear one word inside the clubhouse questioning Joe."

But Minnesotans retain their skepticism. They had spent seven years building the Joe Mauer they wanted, and this version -- a mortal version -- didn't conform to the ideal.

"You know what? He's human," Perkins says. "It was good that people could see that he's not a robot. You don't build a $184 million robot and expect it to go out and play every day."

Mauer would never say it, but every time his name appears in the lineup, every at-bat, it's a referendum of his worth. "There were questions about his desire to play," Gardenhire says. "When you question what's inside a person without knowing what's going on, you're crossing a line. He was bothered by it -- a lot."

5:40 P.M., Twins clubhouse. Before the first game of every series, pitchers and catchers go over the scouting reports on each hitter. Minnesota is coming off a sweep at the hands of Tampa Bay, and Mauer isn't sure which of the team's three catchers will lead the meeting. "Whoever has the hot hand," he says. "I can tell you one thing: It won't be the guy who ran the last one, because we just got swept." Mauer might seem slightly Olympian in his approach to the game, but he's not above subscribing to superstition.

ONE DAY TOWARD the end of the 2004 season, when Mauer was a 21-year-old rookie whose main objective was to do his job while remaining completely unnoticed, Anderson decided it was time to change how the team ran its pitchers' meetings. Previously, Anderson ran them; now Mauer would. "He's back there," Anderson told the pitchers. "He should run the meeting."

Mauer acted like a mail-room attendant leading a corporate board meeting. He hemmed and hawed. He thought maybe the pitchers should do this unless they thought they should do that. "I'm supposed to tell these guys what to do?" he says. "I grew up watching Brad Radke pitch, and he's looking at me standing there telling him what to throw? I would say, 'I think,' because my thought was, Well, what do you think? You've been here a lot longer than I have."

This went on for three or four meetings before Anderson called Mauer aside. "Joe, run the meeting," he said. "Enough of that 'I think' or 'Maybe this' stuff. You're the catcher. Tell them what you want."

Mauer took a deep breath and ran the meeting like a four-star general.

"This guy? We're going to bust this guy inside. That guy? We're going to knock him on his ass."

"It was the damnedest thing," Anderson says. "Guys' eyes were huge."

IT'S A THEME with Mauer: leadership away from the public eye. In mid-June, before a game against the Phillies, Byron Buxton signed a contract that included a $6 million bonus for being taken by the Twins with the second pick of the 2012 draft -- the highest Twins pick since Mauer. The team set up a locker for him, gave him a jersey bearing No. 1 and allowed his mom, dad and little sister to come into the clubhouse for photographs. It's an awkward ritual -- the new, bright-eyed 18-year-old kid trying to be cool while big leaguers getting ready for a game watch him out of the corner of their eye.

It's also tradition for a player drafted as high as Buxton to take a kind of ceremonial batting practice with the team on the day he signs. Buxton found himself in an odd spot, penciled in with Group 2 -- Mauer, Josh Willingham and Justin Morneau, the middle-of-the-order guys.

Observers of this show-and-tell -- early arriving fans, the media, Twins officials -- saw a composed Buxton swing the bat confidently and well. The swing was a bit long, but he showed good bat speed and a pro's feel for when to leave the cage to the guys with the game to play.

What they didn't see took place about 10 minutes before Buxton.

He stood near the dugout, not entirely sure where to be or how to act. Mauer quietly motioned him into the dugout, down the stairs and into the cocoon of the tunnel, away from the glad-handers and grandstanders. Mauer handed him a pair of batting gloves and one of his bats. After dispensing some advice regarding the logistics of BP, Mauer told him to take a breath and take in the moment. Buxton's nervousness was obvious in his eyes. Perhaps seeing his past in Buxton's present, Mauer sent the young man onto the field by saying, "Just remember: Relax and have fun."

7:10 P.M., Target Field. The sense of deflation that surrounds losing baseball teams in the second half of the season is impossible to ignore. The pennant race is an external force, something that comes to town or that players get on a plane to visit. Preparing for the Tigers, this hollowed-out feeling seeps from the Twins' clubhouse. They're highly paid professionals, sure, but from here it's easy to see how guys might lose focus amid the lethargy and monotony, might get tired of staring at the same faces loss after loss, month after month, might be prone to the infighting that grows more pronounced in losing clubhouses in August and September. "Last year, there was a feeling that some guys had given up," Mauer says. "That hasn't happened this year. This is a great group of guys, good people. Everybody's busting their tails. The results just haven't been what we'd wanted." His team's performance is undoubtedly buoyed by one fact: Mauer is on pace to surpass his single-season high of games played (146 in 2008). Gardenhire's lineup card puts him at first base tonight, and by the time he watches Samuel Deduno throw the first pitch, Mauer has been at the ballpark for more than 6 1/2 hours.

PRIME IS A nebulous concept, generally understood to be the time when an athlete's physical ability and mental acuity intersect on life's X/Y axis to produce a body that can maximize the brain's knowledge. But maybe prime is that period in an athlete's career between the time he first perceives his mortality and the time it overtakes him. Is it possible that those three or four years are the ones in which he works hardest to forestall the inevitable?

After all, nobody really knows when someone's prime is going to happen until it has already passed. Mauer's best years could be behind him. Johnny Bench was at his peak from 22 to 27; Carlton Fisk's came in his mid-30s.

Maybe prime is the age of reason and self-knowledge. At 29, Mauer is comfortable with who he is, critics be damned. But is prime the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end? Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum, 28 and struggling for the first time, told reporters, "It's kind of coming to terms with my mortality."

Mauer disdains such introspection. When asked about his own end, he says only, "I was dealing with a lot more physical stuff last year."

On a deeper level, though, it was the first time he couldn't just decide to do something, like be better than everybody in football, basketball or video games. A measure of control and invincibility was lost, and the fight to regain it will dictate his career and its legacy. "When you're 25 or 26, you just kind of show up," says Willingham, the 33-year-old Twins outfielder. "Maybe stretch, maybe not. You just go out and play. Once you get close to 30, you start to feel and see different things. You have to be smarter and work harder if you want to stick around."

The manifestation of Mauer's validation looks something like this: Pulling out of Rangers Ballpark in Arlington after midnight on Monday, July 9, bound for a chartered jet, heading to Kansas City and the All-Star Game.

8:03 P.M., Target Field. In Mauer's second at-bat against Sanchez, he takes a called strike and two pitches later drives a sinker over the outside edge into centerfield for a solid single. It is a simple two-out single -- the kind of at-bat Mauer's critics love to cite as evidence of his no-power, average-only approach. But this one is followed by singles from Willingham and Morneau and a run for the Twins.

PITCHERS READ HITTERS the way boxers read opponents. They're looking for tells that betray a hitter's expectations: Someone who was late on a fastball was expecting something slow; someone who falls too far forward on his front foot while taking a breaking ball was looking for a fastball; someone who closes his stance slightly might be angling to hit the ball the other way and could be susceptible to hard stuff on the hands.

Mauer gives the pitcher nothing. He is almost never off balance. His approach never betrays any perceptible change. Some hitters -- good hitters -- check-swing twice a game. Mauer might do it twice a season. He allows the ball to travel deep into the zone, as evidenced by his Tony Gwynn–like ability to flick two-strike singles to left. Anderson, the Twins' pitching coach, says the only comparison he can make is to another Cretin-Derham alum, Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. "When I pitched to Molitor, he drove me crazy," Anderson says. "You're always going off reactions, and I'd make a pitch and he wouldn't move. You could never tell what he was doing or what he was thinking. This is Joe."

Says Jim Thome: "Joe's the only teammate I've ever had who never gets fooled. And when I say 'never,' that's what I mean. Absolutely never."

There's an elegance to Mauer's approach, and it stems from a trait that seems as much personality as talent: He is never hurried. At no point does he ever appear stressed, anxious or even slightly out of control. (It's nothing new: He struck out once in four years of varsity baseball in high school.) Pitchers talk about his trips to the mound as if describing a farmer walking down a gravel road to get his mail and coming upon a neighbor. (Perkins' impression of Mauer: "Well, Glen, I don't know if they're going to make a pitching change, but I'm just out here to give you a little break. I'm gonna stand here and let you catch your breath.") The only sign of tension is a habit of sweeping his feet across the dirt in front of him, first right, then left. He does this setting up in the batter's box, as he prepares to squat behind the plate or even talking to a runner at first. He is like an obsessive shopkeeper, and the feet-sweeping, we have to assume, is where tension goes to die.

Patience is something of a strong suit. The examples seem endless: He bought his parents a new car after he signed his first contract while he drove an old Blazer in A-ball; he was in the market for an old American muscle car for quite some time before he found out former minor league teammate Garrett Jones wanted to sell the '69 Chevelle; he and his fiancee were close friends for more than five years before they began dating. In the batter's box, he swings at the first pitch a major-league-low 7.7 percent of the time among hitters with at least 400 at-bats. "He takes because he can," Gardenhire says. "Other guys aren't good enough." He walks more than he strikes out -- 74 walks, 71 K's through 125 games. He treats every at-bat like a precious stone, often turning them into acts of attrition. His split-second strike-zone identification is so good that many players believe the umpires defer to him. "If Joe doesn't think it's a strike, it probably isn't," Burton says.

The count doesn't matter. Mauer says he cuts down on his swing with two strikes, but it's such a fine distinction it's not discernible to teammates or opposing pitchers. It takes an enormous amount of effort to make something look this effortless. "You can get him 0-2 or 1-2, but he's still in control," says Twins starter Cole De Vries. "Those are pitchers counts with everybody else, but with him, you still have to make a bastard pitch" -- something nasty but seductive -- "because he's so good with two strikes. You have to throw strikes to get him out."

His forbearance is so complete that it can appear detrimental to the team. In a game against Seattle on Aug. 18, he came to the plate against lefthander Lucas Luetge with two outs in the ninth inning of a 2-2 game. The Twins had runners on first and second. Luetge fell behind 3 and 0, and Mauer had the green light to swing. He took a sinker down the middle, took a slider for strike 2 and walked on the 3-2 pitch to load the bases. The Twins didn't score and went on to lose.

As Joe Christensen wrote in the Minneapolis Star Tribune the next day, "Sometimes, a guy making $23 million per year needs to take it upon himself to take his shot."

But Twins general manager Terry Ryan counters: "Walks are good. We don't have any problem with walks or doubles, and I don't think anybody has a problem with Joe Mauer leading the league in on-base percentage and having a chance to win another batting title. People clamor for 30 home runs. That's not going to happen. It's not his swing, and it's not the ballpark we have."

In a sense, Mauer is playing a different game from the one you're watching. It takes a certain childlike enthusiasm to play baseball for a living, an eagerness that cleanses the soul of the endless travel, the stifling summer heat and mindless Internet polls. It's not fair to say Mauer has lost those qualities, but it seems fair to say there are times when he has to remind himself of their worth. People who pay money to attend games want to be entertained by men who are as excited about the prospect of a ballgame as they are. Mauer is a fantastic player, but he is far too reasoned to be a particularly exuberant entertainer. He is not a player who evokes comparisons to his predecessor as Twins icon, the wall-crashing Kirby Puckett. Mauer is best defined, perhaps, as Minnesota's Joe DiMaggio. He doesn't rub dirt on his hands, tuck a big chaw in his cheek or howl at the umpire every time a call goes against him. The word "gritty" has never been used to describe Mauer, unless his detractors are employing it facetiously.

Even times when he should be angry, he is measured. On Aug. 23, in the first game of a four-game series in Texas, Mauer was hit near the back of the neck on a 3-0 pitch by Roy Oswalt. It was ugly, and all manner of tumult ensued, with Diamond throwing at Josh Hamilton and getting tossed by home plate umpire Wally Bell, Gardenhire going into a patented GardyRage and getting tossed and Diamond being suspended for six games. But look at the tape of Oswalt's beaning of Mauer. It's standard procedure for umpires to bounce out in front of the plate to discourage further confrontation, but Bell -- understanding Mauer's temperament -- sidestepped convention by merely walking toward Mauer and throwing Oswalt a new baseball. Such is the power of Mauer's calm. It supersedes MLB protocol.

To borrow a phrase, Mauer seems to live his life with one thought in mind: Never make a straight line crooked.

9:52 P.M., Target Field. In the bottom of the seventh, with the Twins leading the Tigers 5-1, Mauer comes to the plate against reliever Duane Below. As always, Mauer's meticulousness dictates that he never give away an at-bat, even if it's 5-1 in the late innings of a long game, he has been at the ballpark since 12:45, and the stands have cleared and everybody from the lowest-level clubbie to the manager is thinking of packing up and heading home. And so on a 2-0 pitch, with a hit to his name already, Mauer does something surprising. He unleashes a huge swing at a mid-thigh fastball and does something else you rarely see: He swings right through it. "Yeah, I let it go a little on that pitch," he says later. "Then I went back to what I usually do." On the next pitch, a sinker tailing down and away, Mauer squares it up and drives a topspin liner to center for his second hit of the night.

ON AUG. 4 at Fenway Park, Mauer stepped in with two outs in the ninth inning, the Twins trailing the Red Sox by a score of 4-3. Ben Revere was at second base, Jamey Carroll at third, and Alfredo Aceves was attempting to close it out for Boston.

The next day's headlines emphasized that Mauer hit a three-run homer over the Green Monster to win the game. But the pitch that dictated the at-bat, the pitch that makes Mauer Mauer, came a pitch earlier, with the count at 2 and 2. Aceves threw one of De Vries' "bastard" pitches -- a 95 mph fastball that started over the outside edge at the knees and cut another inch or two away. It was the exact pitch Aceves wanted to make, a stitch or two off the outside and down. It was a grounder to short if Mauer decided to go with it, a grounder to second if he rolled over. No man hits that pitch over the Monster.

Mauer spit on it. He took it like it one-hopped the backstop.

Perkins watches this pitch from the Twins' clubhouse, glancing at Mauer on television while stewing over the fact that he had given up two in the eighth to give the Red Sox a 4-2 lead. He shakes his head in awe when Mauer takes the pitch, then watches the replay with his jaw slack.

"Nobody -- nobody -- takes that pitch in that situation," Perkins says. "Joe takes it 10 out of 10 times. I really think that's the robotic side of him. He didn't get fooled either. He saw it as a ball, and he took it. I don't think there was even a part of him that thought, I got lucky on that one. I think Joe's thought was, Good call. You got that one right."

What does that do to a pitcher? The game is no longer baseball; it's more like poker. Aceves showed his best hand, and Mauer beat it. Aceves came back with the kind of pitch a guy makes when he is frustrated and knows the hitter won't budge: a belt-high fastball that leaked over the middle of the plate. Mauer waited and drove it over the Monster.

11:10 P.M., Target Field weight room. Minutes after the Twins' 9-3 win over the Tigers -- "That was a good one," Mauer says -- the postgame weight workout begins. Tonight the emphasis is on legs, and Mauer sits on a leg-press machine, his knees going up and down like pistons. Castellano, who is 52 but has the energy of a 12-year-old, is overseeing the proceedings. Mauer moves quickly from one machine to another before putting cloth booties over his shoes to drive his body across a 10-foot slideboard. He goes back and forth like a hockey player, hitting the end board and raising his inside leg to drive back to the other side. He does several sets of 10 slides but is dripping sweat after the first. "It sounds funny, because it's the type of thing your mom might have used to get in shape in the '80s," Mauer says, "but this thing has helped my legs more than anything." At least that's what he seems to say. Catcher Drew Butera's iPhone is plugged into the state-of-the-art speaker system, and his music is battering the walls as if the room itself has a heartbeat.

THE TARGET FIELD weight room is a shrine to excess, more than 2,000 square feet of gleaming metal and spotless padded flooring undoubtedly built with some of the $390 million in taxpayer funding the good folks of Minnesota allocated to the Pohlad family. Most of the strength machines run on air resistance that comes from a series of under-floor air lines connected to a central compressor room, giving the machines less torque and a consistent resistance you don't get from weights. This is Castellano's design and brainchild. "We're not building football players," he says. "This is a 162-game season with 18 days off, including the All-Star break. We're building for a marathon."

The description of the weight room is relevant for this reason: Castellano provided the same design -- the same machines, the same under-floor air lines, the same compressor closet -- for the weight room in Mauer's offseason home in Cape Coral, Fla. Each machine has a slot for a computer chip that records sets and resistance, allowing Castellano to monitor Mauer's season-in-between-the-season workouts. "People can say what they want about Joe," Castellano says. "They don't see the level of commitment it took for him to get back to the level he's used to."

11:30 P.M. Target Field weight room. The more time you spend with Mauer, the more you appreciate his dry sense of humor. It's dry like July-in-Vegas dry -- just parched.

His late-night workout finished, Mauer lays on the massage table while Castellano stretches his legs as if he is trying to snap them off. Butera's industrial, high-speed, techno-beat music sears through the speakers like acoustic adrenaline. Mauer and Castellano struggle to hear each other from less than a foot away. Butera finishes his workout and stops the music. The silence feels like a gift. It lands hard.

Mauer and Castellano look up.

"Oh, did you want me to leave this on?" Butera asks.

"No, no. I'm good," Mauer says politely.

"You sure?" Butera asks earnestly.

"No, really," Mauer says, deadpan. "I'm good."

Butera unhooks his iPhone and walks out. Mauer, lying on his stomach, looks up into the pounding silence and smiles as if experiencing the rapture. There is something rare in that smile, something unedited and pure. The night couldn't have gone much better, and the postgame satisfaction provides a momentary burst of joy in a tough season. He doesn't seem concerned that he has only 13 hours to enjoy it. For now, the silence is enough. "Hey, there's a note for the story," he says. "Tell everyone they had a rave going on while they worked out." He laughs, and the room laughs with him, as if now -- in this place, nearly 12 hours after his arrival, after three hits and one good win in a bad year -- Joe Mauer can finally live for the moment.

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