The first time I saw American League MVP Joe Mauer play was at the 2000 Tournament of Stars in Joplin, Missouri, the year before the Twins picked him with the first pick in the 2001 draft.
Actually, I met his father, Jake, before I had a chance to see Joe play. The field the TOS used in Joplin was tucked into a neighborhood and there was little parking except on the streets. I parked a block or two away and was walking towards the old park when I passed a car on a side street. I heard a voice yell out "hey, aren't you Dave Rawnsley?" I turned and saw a couple of men sitting on lawn chairs tailgating out of the trunk of a rental car. Jake Mauer introduced himself and offered me a beer and I missed a couple innings of the game I was headed to (Joe wasn't playing in it).
The most distinctive part of Mauer's tool/skill package when he was 17 years old was his hitting. I watched him play 3-4 games that week and I doubt very much whether he hit one ball to the right of the second baseman. Everything he hit was a line drive up the middle or a line drive up the left centerfield gap. He didn't pull a single ball, but squared up virtually everything. It left you wondering, as a scout, whether he could pull the ball or just didn't have any interest in doing so.
His development as a player in 2009, when he went from 9 home runs the previous season to 28, coincided essentially with his ability/willingness to turn and pull certain pitches. I saw a game from the upper deck of the Metrodome in early August where had 3 hits. One was a line drive up the middle, one a double up the left field gap (gee, where had I seen that before?) but the third was a blast into the right field stands. Even from 400 feet away, I could see the big difference in that one swing even as he was making contact. He recognized a pitch, opened early and put some lift in his swing. It was beautiful.
Many people probably forget that Mauer was an incredible three sport athlete in high school, where he was often compared with former Minnesota prep star Dave Winfield. Mauer was named the national football player of the year by more than one organization after throwing for over 3,000 yards and 41 touchdowns as a senior and signed a football ride with Florida State. He was also an all-state basketball player on a 29-2 team, averaging 19 points/5 rebounds per game.
-- David Rawnsley