Most Valuable Players are supposed to be special, but Joe Mauer and Albert Pujols took it to another level in 2009.
Baseball fans were blessed to witness historic MVP seasons for both the Minnesota Twins catcher and the St. Louis Cardinals first baseman. Not only are they two great players, but great team players well on their way to legendary careers.
Mauer and Pujols also are on the verge of free agency, destined for record-breaking contracts. The airwaves are full of speculation. Both of their contracts end after 2010, though the Cardinals will surely exercise Pujols’ club option through 2011.
Will Mauer stay in Minnesota and Pujols in St. Louis? How much do they mean to their cities and how much does it mean to baseball for Mauer and Pujols to stay put?
FACES OF THE FRANCHISE
It’s hard to believe Mauer is just 26 and Pujols 29. Both are entering their primes firmly established as franchise icons.
Albert Pujols was the unanimous National League MVP, gathering all 32 first-place votes from the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), while Mauer grabbed 27 of 28 in the A.L. The lone Mauer abstention was for Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera, which narrowly prevented the first double unanimous MVPs in the history of the game.
Mauer and Pujols have redefined catcher and first base using their own mold. Mauer has done it by winning his third batting title in 2009.
In the first 105 major league seasons of the modern era, no American League catcher had ever won a batting title. Former Cincinnati Reds catchers Bubbles Hargraves (1926) and Ernie Lombardi (1938, 1942) were the only previous batting champs in the senior circuit.
But after his sensational performance in 2009, it’s another Reds catcher whose name pops up when talking about Mauer. It’s Johnny Bench, considered by most historians as the best catcher ever.
Not only did Mauer hit .365 in 2009, but he crushed 28 home runs, leading the league in slugging (.587) and on-base percentage (.444). He also earned a gold glove for defensive excellence.
Mauer has proven himself a quarterback behind the plate, with excellent blocking skills and a strong, accurate arm. He is an impact defender who shuts down the running game and improves his pitching staff.
Through five-plus major league seasons, Mauer has a .327 lifetime batting average with two gold gloves and two silver sluggers. Even before he hit for power, Mauer was the game’s best catcher, but the 28 bombs in 2009 have put him over the top. Had he not missed 20 games early, Mauer would have hit more than 30.
Pujols also led his league in both slugging (.658) and on-base percentage (.443) to go with his first National League home run title (47). What’s scary is that while Pujols was phenomenal in 2009, it barely stands out from his other eight seasons. His career slugging (.628) and on-base (.427) numbers are in the same ballpark, and one could argue that his 2003, 2004, 2006 and/or 2007 campaigns were even better than 2009.
Pujols is also an outstanding defensive first baseman who makes his infielders better with his ability to scoop bad throws. He has a plus arm and good range around the bag, having earned one gold glove award in his career. While Mauer has proven a quarterback behind the plate, Pujols has shown to be the quarterback of the Cardinals infield.
Not only has Pujols won three MVPs, but in nine major league seasons he’s never finished lower than ninth place in the MVP vote. Pujols has finished runner-up on three occasions, then third, fourth and ninth in his other seasons. Has any other position player in the history of the game displayed such dominance over the first nine years of his career?
Noone who scouts either of these young men will ever describe them as selfish players who put numbers ahead of winning. Though the statistics are overwhelming, both Mauer and Pujols will also do the little things to win games. It’s not unusual to see Mauer hitting behind a runner or Pujols making the extra hustle to snag a foul ball out of the stands.
It seems that in every Twins or Cardinals victory you watch, Mauer and Pujols make an impact even when they go 0-for-5 at the plate. They do something else to help their team win, whether it shows up in the box score or not.
After winning each of his batting titles, Mauer brushed aside his accomplishment by declaring his real goal is to win a World Series ring. Pujols finally got his in 2006, but still plays just as hard for his next one. That unquenchable desire to win is what can make a player great.
PILLARS OF THEIR COMMUNITY
Perhaps what has put both of them over in their respective towns is their off-the-field charm and community involvement.
Mauer has an “aw shucks” type of soft-spoken innocence, the kind of guy it seems everyone wants their daughter to marry. The fact he was born and bred in the Twin Cities, a Twins fan from childhood, makes him all the more a local icon.
He was the first overall pick of the 2001 draft out of Cretin-Derham High School in St. Paul. Mauer was the Gatorade High School Player of the Year in football and turned down a two-sport commitment to Florida State, where he very well could have become the first overall pick as a quarterback in the NFL draft. Mauer signed with his hometown baseball team with ambitions of bringing Minnesota a championship.
Pujols attended high school and junior college near Kansas City on the other side of Missouri. A 13th-round draft pick in 1999, Pujols was hardly the hyped-up local boy coming into pro ball. But like Mauer in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pujols has become a part of his city’s fabric. Since his arrival in 2001, America’s best baseball town has swooned over Albert Pujols in a way that transcends even their love affairs for greats like Ozzie Smith, Stan Musial and Bob Gibson.
Pujols continues to represent himself well off-the-field, capably hiding his unyielding competitiveness long enough to be cordial to the press and opposing players (with only the occasional slip). His local contributions include the founding of the Pujols Family Foundation, a charity that benefits children with developmental disabilities. The PFF was inspired by his own daughter who was born with Down Syndrome.
THROWBACKS TO A MORE INNOCENT TIME
It would devastate either city to lose their franchise player.
One of the oldest complaints from veteran fans is that players move around too much, that they bolt for the highest dollar and don’t stay true to a franchise the way so many Hall of Famers used to. There are precious few Al Kalines (Tigers), Roberto Clementes (Pirates), Brooks Robinsons (Orioles) or George Bretts (Royals) in today’s game, superstars who stayed and became synonymous with their franchise.
Another complaint is that modern players are more selfish and motivated by money. And now that yearly salaries so dwarf the World Series shares, players are ever more concerned with their own statistics than they are with bringing home the big trophy with all the flags.
Those complaints have merit, but I suggest these two players as throwbacks. Their talent and their character would make them superstars in any era, and I do believe they will each choose with their heart over their wallet in the end.
Pujols already has once (when he signed a seven-year extension before 2004), and though he refuses to negotiate beyond 2011 right now, I believe he’ll give the St. Louis Cardinals every chance to sign him before he pursues free agency. Pujols has stated repeatedly that he’s more worried about his supporting cast and the franchise’s commitment to winning another World Series. Had it been about the money, Pujols would have at least entertained their offers by this point and gone for the guaranteed cash.
Mauer has similarly shown a preference to stay home throughout his career. Though his $5 million signing bonus was hardly pocket change out of the 2001 draft, it did represent a hometown discount and it’s likely that no other team could have signed Mauer had the Twins not selected him. Mauer would have headed to FSU to play both sports. Then before the 2007 season, Mauer signed a four-year, $33 million contract to forego his arbitration years.
The Twins will surely have dialogue with Mauer and agent Ron Shapiro this off-season as Mauer has issued an opening-day deadline to cease negotiations. From that point, Mauer wishes to focus on the task at hand, i.e. winning the American League Central and finally getting over the hump in October.
Not lost on diehard Twins fans is that Shapiro also represented Kirby Puckett. The late Hall of Fame centerfielder is still the franchise’s greatest player, one who loved being a Twin and wore no other uniform despite the riches that would have followed.
At least one fan here would love to see Mauer and Pujols be Twins and Cardinals forever, leading their clubs to championships for years to come. Major League Baseball is at its purest when players and teams have passion and identity. Mauer and Pujols represent just that and I believe both will decide to stay home when the time comes.