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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — For most of his baseball life, Joe Mauer has been anything but normal.
The Twins catcher has been a star since he was a teenager growing up in St. Paul, Minn., and that didn’t stop in his first six seasons in the big leagues. He was a four-time All-Star, three-time batting champion and the AL MVP in 2009.
After a series of ailments limited him to only 82 games in 2011, Mauer reported to spring training on Saturday and said he planned to start catching right away when pitchers and catchers hold their first workout on Sunday. For once, Joe Mauer is going to be just like everyone else, and that’s a very good thing for the Twins.
“I’ll be another catcher out there running around, and that’s exciting for me,” Mauer said. “I was pretty limited all spring last year, and to get out there and run around with the guys is definitely something that I missed.”
Mauer had offseason knee surgery in December 2010, putting him behind from the beginning. He tried to take it easy during spring training last year in hopes of keeping his legs fresh for the grind of catching a long season. The strategy backfired. Mauer wasn’t ready to play when the season began and he was soon placed on the disabled list with a condition called “bilateral leg weakness,” a term that puzzled fans and teammates alike.
The hometown boy’s shiny image was tarnished and his $184 million contract extension brought a new level of scrutiny from fan base that had done nothing but fawn over him ever since he was a prep star at Cretin-Derham Hall High School. Mauer also missed time due to illness and set career lows in batting average (.287), home runs (3) and RBIs (30).
“Even probably to start the year last year, I knew it was going to be a grind, be a struggle right from the get-go,” Mauer said. “Did I know what was going to happen? No. But I knew it was going to be a tough year. I wasn’t anywhere near close to where I am physically right now. I’ve still got a lot of work to do, and that’s what spring training is for, trying to get ready for opening day.”
His polite and understated demeanor hasn’t changed. But Mauer spoke with a candor on Saturday that simply hasn’t been there in the past. He is speaking like a player with something to prove, on a team full of them.
“I think that’s everybody in this clubhouse,” Mauer said. “If you don’t have that chip on your shoulder then something’s wrong. I think everybody, including myself, is just embarrassed about how last year played out. Just anxious to get back on the field and play.”
Mauer isn’t the only Twins player looking to forget last season. A team that has grown used to winning AL Central championships over the last decade lost 99 games to sink to the bottom of the division, a humiliating finish in the second season at Target Field.
“Maybe you have a little more hunger. You’ve been humbled a little bit,” closer Matt Capps said. “Maybe a different drive.”
General manager Terry Ryan, who resumed his duties for the demoted Bill Smith, is bringing 66 players to big-league camp this season — an unusually high number — in hopes of creating a sense of urgency and competition for jobs. Thirty-three of those players are pitchers who will hit the fields at the Lee County Sports Complex on Sunday as the Twins try to address holes in both the starting rotation and bullpen.
“I think we know we have our work cut out,” said right-hander Scott Baker, who is returning from an elbow injury. “I think everybody in this clubhouse is prepared to put the work in like we’re going to win the division. There’s no way other to do that.”
With Mauer behind the plate from the start this spring — he didn’t catch a bullpen until well into March and only had eight official at-bats in exhibition games last year — there figures to be a different vibe. He’s refreshed, determined to show that this franchise, and these fans, can count on him again.
“I’m excited for this camp,” Mauer said. “Probably the most excited I’ve been coming to camp. I mean, I’m always excited, but just to get back on the field and get after it and make sure something like 2011 doesn’t happen.”
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