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Mauer power

Since the modern era of baseball began in 1901, only two catchers have won batting titles. Joe Mauer of the Twins is on track to be the third.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published July 17, 2006


If anything is going to stop Joe Mauer, it is the pain.

The creaky back, the stiff knees, the swollen fingers; the ordinary hazards for those who play one of sports' most physically demanding positions.

The thing is, Mauer is trying to do something extraordinary.

As the Devil Rays and Twins begin a four-game series tonight, Minnesota's catcher has a shot to be only the third from his position since the modern era began in 1901, and the first since 1942, to win a batting title.

"I try not to think about it," Mauer said before last week's All-Star Game in Pittsburgh. "It would mean a lot, but as long as we're winning, those kinds of things will come."

It is Mauer's standard answer.

The 23-year-old St. Paul, Minn., native, who turned down a Florida State football scholarship to sign with the Twins, is an "aw, shucks" kind of guy.

He is a good-looking 6-foot-4, 220-pounder with an unforced smile, and he politely answers every question. The media also has had some fun with Mauer's relationship with Chelsea Cooley, Miss USA 2005.

Mauer, though, admitted to lingering awkwardness with his fame and said talking about himself doesn't top his list.

"I know I probably sound like a broken record with some of these answers," he said.

Mauer's peers are glad to pick up the slack, especially with his American League-high .372 average, 28 points higher than second-place Derek Jeter despite a 2-for-18 slide his past five games.

"If you're hitting .370 in (the AL Central) with the pitching he has to face every day, I tip my hat to him," White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. "He's incredible."

"What he is doing," Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca said, "is unreal."

And though the territory is not quite uncharted, there is a distance between checkpoints.

The Reds' Ernie Lombardi was the last catcher to win a batting title - 64 years ago. He also did it four years earlier in 1938.

Cincinnati's Bubbles Hargrave did it in 1926.

No one has done it in the American League, though the Tigers' Ivan Rodriguez came close in 2004, finishing fourth at .334.

Why the drought? Here are some clues:

Deacon White, who won the 1875 title in the old National Association, was primarily a catcher but not exclusively. King Kelly, who won the 1884 and '86 National League titles, split time between catching and the outfield.

Joe Torre didn't win until 1971, when he stopped playing the position, and Lo Duca said he loses an average 20 pounds a season.

See the connection?

Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter said he does.

"The modern-day catcher, with as many games as we caught, it's going to have an effect on you being able to produce every day and have a high batting average," he said.

"The way your knees feel, the foul tips the guys take, the blocking of the plate."

And Rodriguez said that doesn't factor in the mental energy catchers spend meeting with pitchers, going over opponent tendencies, calling games and positioning fielders.

"There are so many things you have to do," he said, "and none of them are hitting."

Said Carter: "To be able to separate the two and be able to do the job behind the plate and hit the way Joe Mauer is doing this year is unreal. I have a lot of admiration and respect for what he's been able to do so far.

Mauer said there is no secret why he is hitting 75 points better than his career average.

"I'm just trying not to do too much," he said. "Early on, maybe some last year, I was trying to do too much, especially when guys would get on base, trying to drive them in instead of taking a walk.

"I'm trying to be more selective, trying to hit something I can handle instead of something the pitcher is trying to get me out with."

Mauer said he has the typical aches and pains, but nothing that should keep him out of the lineup.

He has sat out just 11 of the Twins' 90 games and said unless manager Ron Gardenhire says he needs a rest, "I want to be in there every day. When I get to the park, I want to see my name in the lineup."

No pain, no gain.