Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Say It Is So, Joe

I'm a proponent of free agency in all sports. Curt Flood didn't do it all for nothing. It gets dangerous in baseball due to the absence of a salary cap, where the rich teams wrestle away the lesser-heeled teams' homegrown stars, needing to use little more than the almighty extra zeroes on the contract. I root for a team that is hated for doing just that, over and over again. However, the Yankees and all of the other big-market teams are merely playing the game by the rules that are written. And in my mind, a team like the Pittsburgh Pirates, who consistently produce talent only to consistently trade it away for dimes on the dollar, have much more to answer for than a does a team that exhausts every resource it has in the name of winning.

Despite all that, I come to you this evening with this declaration: Minnesota needs to keep Joe Mauer. Baseball needs the Twins to keep Joe Mauer. I do not want to see him go to another team after his contract is up at the end of 2010. Yes, you are hearing this from a guy who roots for a team with the biggest checkbook in the game and happens to have an aging catcher that will be knocking at the door of "Full Time DH" come the end of the 2010 season. The bloodlust of a Yankee fan in me wants Joe Mauer in 2011 just like he wanted Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, CC Sabathia, and Mark Teixeira in years prior. He wants to see him in pinstripes as much as he doesn't want to see him wearing a horrendous red or green Red Sox alternate uniform. But the rational baseball fan in me says he'll be happy to pass on the reigning AL MVP. In fact, he'll be happiest if he never even gets a shot at having him on his team.

Baseball has become top-heavy, and even worse, top-heavy in the markets that ESPN and mostly all other national media like to jump through hoops for. If I were a baseball fan in Texas or Florida or Michigan and had to listen to as much Yankees/Red Sox/Cubs/Mets/Phillies (albeit only more recently for the Phils) fodder as they produce over the course of 162 games, I'd develop a pretty strong disdain for those teams too. The game thrives on the everyman's hero who plays to an All-Star level, keeps his mouth shut, gets his uniform dirty, cares about his teammates, shakes hands, kisses babies, the whole bit. It makes you stop caring about how much money he's making or how much you paid for your ticket. It already has a few of them (Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, and Chase Utley pop into mind immediately), but it needs a few more who play for the lower profile teams. The Kansas City feel good story of Zack Greinke can fit that mold with another solid year. Adrian Gonzalez would already fit that role if San Diego hadn't fallen so far off the baseball map that you'd think the Flat Earth Society were on to something after all.

Joe Mauer and Minnesota are just right together. He is a Minnesota native, the face of a franchise that has been to the postseason 5 times since it was under serious consideration for contraction in 2001. He is a 26-year-old, .327 career hitter at a position where 75% of teams would happily sign for .260, and has now developed his power stroke. The Twinkies are moving into a new ballpark this season (translation: REVENUE) and would surprise no one if they win the AL Central again. They consistently make the most of their talent despite looking like a 75-win team on paper most of the time. They could be on the tier of the Yankees and Phillies if they had been able to sign Johan Santana to a long term deal a few years back.

I hope that does not happen this time. Baseball can really use another consistently good team with a likable superstar. It helps people associate the game with bats and gloves and dirt again, rather than associate it with Scott Boras, salary arbitration, and the Mitchell Report. You get a generation that grows up being taught the many things there are to love about our national pastime and fewer of the things that are wrong with it. You get TV networks having no choice but to divide up the coverage more equally. To the Twins and to Joe Mauer: if you sign it, they will come.

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