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John Shipley: We've been too hard on Joe Mauer

Minnesota Twins designated hitter Joe Mauer (7) runs home to score against the Chicago White Sox in the second inning Friday, Sept. 28, at Target Field. Bruce Kluckhohn / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS—Here at what might be the end, it's easy to see. Many of us have been too hard on Joe Mauer.

The Minnesota Twins will play the final game of their season Sunday, Sept. 30, against the Chicago White Sox at Target Field, and all eyes will be on Mauer, the last in a line of St. Paul baseball royalty to make a major mark in the major leagues.

Whether it's now or later, we're going to miss him when he's gone. More than many realize.

Once in the express lane to Cooperstown, Mauer was sidetracked by concussions that forced him to move from catcher to first base, where he has played the past five seasons. He's a good first baseman, but he was baseball's best catcher—the first to win three batting titles and on the way to becoming the best to play the game.

But a lot has to go right for those things to happen, and little has gone Mauer's way since he won the American League MVP Award after hitting an astonishing .365 with 28 homers and 96 RBIs in the Twins' last season in the Metrodome. Target Field turned his opposite-field homers to long outs at the warning track in left and, more important, his body began to betray him.

In 2011, Mauer missed 80 games because of a mystery condition the Twins, in an ill-advised decision, called "bilateral leg weakness." It might have been accurate, but it was an unfortunate diagnosis for a player a year removed from signing an eight-year contract extension paying him $23 million annually. Two years later, he suffered a serious concussion when he took a foul tip off his facemask and missed 49 games.

That was the end of his catching career and, most assumed, his chance to join St. Paul brethren Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor and Jack Morris in the Hall of Fame. But the past few months have put a dent in that theory.

Since July, Mauer has passed Kirby Puckett for the franchise lead in doubles (427 through Thursday, Sept. 27), Harmon Killebrew for most times reaching base safely (3,077) and Rod Carew for second place with 2,116 career hits—behind only Puckett's 2,304. That's lofty company, hall of famers all.

Suddenly, you start wondering why the hell everybody has been on Mauer's ass.

We have a tendency to judge people, particularly those close to us, for what we want them to be rather than what they are, and at this point Mauer, part of the Twin Cities sports scene since he was a three-sport star at Cretin-Derham Hall, feels a little like family.

Mauer set a major league record and won an MVP award. If he plays next season, he will almost certainly pass Puckett as the Twins' career hits leader, and if he doesn't he will retire with a solid final season and .306 career batting average. For those who enjoy analytics, his career WAR is 55.0, which isn't Top 100 but is comparable to Hank Greenberg (57.6) and David Ortiz (55.3).

And while Mauer never won a World Series like Puckett, he was part of four division-winning teams from 2004-2010 and has never been less than gracious and generous with his time and money.

Yes, with the exception of his MVP season, Mauer didn't really hit for power, his biggest sin for detractors. Yes, he was hampered by injuries for the last half of his career. Yes, he made a lot of money. But when you step back and really take a look at Joe Mauer for who he is—and not who you wanted him to be—it becomes clear that he's one of the three or four greatest Twins of all time. And the other guys are in the Hall of Fame.

In today's game, he has earned that contract—and your respect. Today might mark the end of a great career, and your last chance to truly appreciate it.

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