Several times over the course of six minutes, Joe Mauer talked of what he misses about his former job. The calling of games and working with pitchers. The “little decisions” that could impact the outcome of a game. The grind, physical and mental, of spending nine innings or more a night in a crouch. Just about everything but the foul tips.
It was one of the latter that precipitated the end of Mauer’s time as an everyday catcher. Last August, the Minnesota Twins’ six-time All-Star suffered a concussion when a foul tip from Ike Davis, then of the Mets, caught him on the mask, and it took so long for Mauer to fully recover, he said, it was “frightening.”
The result was a permanent move to first base for a player who in 2010 signed the largest contract ever given to a catcher. Friday, as the Twins began a three-game series with the Giants, Mauer was asked what career advice he might give to Giants catcher Buster Posey, a fellow franchise player and former Most Valuable Player behind the plate.
“He’s a great catcher. Play it as long as you can,” Mauer said. “Just enjoy what you’re doing.”
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Coincidentally, both Mauer and Posey started Friday night’s game at first base, with the Giants giving Posey a planned night off from catching. Still, it’s a frequently discussed topic whether Posey may eventually also need to switch permanently, given the normal wear on catchers, to keep his bat in the lineup and allow the Giants the greatest returns on their nine-year, $167 million investment in the 27-year-old.
Posey has said he wants to catch as long as possible. It’s also what the Giants envisioned when they negotiated his long-term deal. Posey’s offensive value is enhanced by being an everyday catcher, and the franchise has won two World Series with Posey handling the pitching staff.
“We signed him to be our catcher,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said Friday. “So that’s the plan right now. Could he (play another position) if we wanted to make a position change? Sure, I think Buster could handle it. But that’s not in the plans right now.”
It wasn’t in the immediate plans for Mauer, either, until late last year. While Mauer said he heard suggestions that he change positions, beginning “when I was 20 years old,” the tipping point came when lingering symptoms from his Aug. 19 concussion caused him to miss the rest of the season. After that, he said, “It wasn’t really much of a decision.”
“I knew the importance of just being on the field,” Mauer said. “Talking to doctors, they said if I were to sustain another concussion it would be four months or more (missed). So I can’t do that for myself, my family or the organization.
“So I understood exactly what was to happen if I’d said, ‘Let’s go ahead and catch.’ On all levels, it was the right decision to make.”
That didn’t make it painless. Mauer spent his first 10 major-league seasons as a catcher and said he “really enjoyed that position. That’s what I worked my whole life to be. I put in a lot of time at that position, and I was fortunate enough that I could go somewhere else and play. I miss it, definitely. But once you make that decision, you’ve got to move on.”
The last part, Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire said, was key to the transition for player and team. Gardenhire told reporters Friday the Twins thought a position change might be the right thing for Mauer but “weren’t going to force him to do anything,” and that Mauer “had to make a decision in his own mind that this was the right thing to do.”
“Once he agreed to it and thought that was the right thing to do, it was pretty easy,” said Gardenhire, according to MLB.com, adding that bringing in a veteran replacement in Kurt Suzuki helped ease the transition for the Twins. “He’s an athlete, a good athlete.”
The same often is said of Posey, who played infield in college at Florida State and has equipped himself well in 83 career starts at first base for the Giants despite his rarely practicing there. Still, Gardenhire said, if a permanent move were to someday take shape, the technical aspects likely wouldn’t be the most important.
“It all comes down to the mindset of Posey,” Gardenhire said. “He’s got to want to do it.”
Gardenhire said he doesn’t feel the need to offer any advice on the matter to Bochy, who himself is a former catcher.
“He can figure it out,” Gardenhire said. “He’s pretty good at what he does.”
And with nothing currently forcing Posey to shelve his catcher’s gear, it’s something Bochy surely doesn’t mind having as a non-issue.
“There will be a day when he can’t catch anymore; there’s a day when we can’t put the uniform on anymore,” Mauer said. “But he’s a special player, and he’ll be able to make that transition, extend his career if he wants. I’d like to see him catch as long as he can.”
For Posey, hearing Mauer say so came as little surprise.
“To even start to catch at any point in your life, you really have to love it, because you’re going to get beat up,” Posey said. “If you don’t enjoy it, I don’t think you’re going to stay back there.”