He drinks milk for breakfast, goes to chapel, talks respectfully to children, and can't quite fathom why some of the most famous baseball players in America stand mute in envy and wonder when he swings a bat.
But it's not his batting average – which for more than two months has been the highest in Major League Baseball – that has woven a mythic aura around Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins this summer.
To understand the Mauer phenomenon, you need only scan the police blotters and crowded court calendars that compete seriously with box scores and bullpens as a reflection of the culture of big-time athletics today. In the midst of the tumult, here is Mauer, a young man performing his craft unpretentiously at the highest professional level, driving base hits, blocking wild pitches, and averting a tag with an unshowy aplomb.
He may be a once-in-a-generation athlete, instinctively at home in practically any athletic venue. But today he is one of the baseball sagas of the year and, incidentally, a mother's dream. He was, baseball people will tell you, "raised right." What impresses them beyond baseball are his civility and quiet but confident presence, clearly genuine in this 23-year-old bachelor who now appears on magazine covers and is already a millionaire.
If you want to go for the behavioral grand slam, add modesty – a character trait not especially rampant in the high-stakes clamor of professional athletics. While competing TV ads toast the jazzy quality of beer and sell the revitalizing power of testosterone additives, Mauer is seen almost daily in a commercial promoting the unbeatable quality of Minnesota's Land O' Lakes milk.
This is no PR scam. Joe drank it as a kid in St. Paul and still does. One of the popular Mauer commercials on local television spoofs his four-inch sideburns and creates a postgame dialogue with an 11-year-old boy, reminiscent of an old feel-good commercial involving football's Mean Joe Greene. In this one Mauer seems to be ignoring the boy, then reconsiders and happily gives him a set of stick-on sideburns, like his own authentic ones. The aftermath of the commercial says more about Mauer than the commercial. In real life the kid told his friends how this big league baseball player had actually come to him before the taping and introduced himself. Later he invited the boy into the Twins' dugout and gave him a signed bat.
A new American Idol? Perhaps not yet. Home runs produce idols faster than .350 batting averages. And while he is an all-fields hitter, strong and disciplined at 6 feet, 4 inches, Mauer is not especially beguiled by the fences. By late August he had hit only 10 home runs. But his team, transformed by midseason lineup changes emphasizing speed, is challenging for the playoffs and it was Mauer's midseason explosion of base hits that lit the fuse, along with the home runs of Justin Morneau, his Canadian roommate, and in-depth pitching.
Veteran baseball players usually scan younger players with a flinty professionalism that rarely leaves room for flattery. When they see Joe Mauer, that attitude more or less evaporates. First, it's the way he swings the bat. Some great hitters attack the ball ferociously in a kind of personal vendetta – an Albert Pujols of the Cardinals or David Ortiz of the Red Sox. Mauer's swing by comparison is almost lyrical. Its movement is controlled but fluid, covering the plate, never awkward. Beyond that is his temperament, which to most of his teammates seems beyond his years in its judgment. He's a catcher, yet fast and nimble on the bases and mechanically sound behind the plate.
"You look at Joe," says the Twins' scrambling third baseman, Nick Punto, "and you see a guy who's a leader even at his age. I don't mean yelling and take-charge, but by the way he plays the game and reacts to pressure. He's all about team. A walk for him is as good as a hit. He's the guy you want to see up there, standing at the plate calm and patient, and you feel good seeing him there."
Mauer was asked if some of the emerging larger-than-life stories about him, the expanding mythology, actually happened. When he was not far beyond diapers, one of them goes, his grandpa Jake Mauer kept nudging him to swing his plastic bat lefthanded.
"From what I remember," Mauer says, "he actually did. The whole family knew baseball, and our family is close. My grandpa thought if I was going to be a hitter I'd have a better chance hitting left-handed."
So drop the rattle, kid. What Grampa says, goes.
And what about the offer from Bobby Bowden, the iconic football coach at Florida State University, to keep a scholarship warm for Joe up to 12 years if he needed that long to get the baseball bug out of his head?
Mauer smiled tolerantly. Bowden might have been the story's architect, and in Mauer's code of conduct, embarrassing his elders is on the list of things to shun. In high school at St. Paul's Cretin-Derham Hall, Mauer not only dominated the baseball field, but as a quarterback tore up practically all existing records for touchdown passes. "I thought seriously about taking the football scholarship at Florida State," he says. "I loved football as much as baseball. I don't know about 12 years...."
A teammate on the Twins, outfielder Josh Rabe, does remember the letter. "I played with Joe in the minors and we roomed together," he says. "He showed me this letter from Coach Bowden, and there's no doubt that he wanted Joe to quarterback Florida State. He told Joe to take his time deciding, coach could wait."
The Minnesota Twins couldn't. They chose Joe No. 1 in the first round of the draft in 2001. Mauer became a big leaguer three years later. He has led the league in hitting through much of the 2006 season, and in July made the All-Star team. No catcher has won the league batting title. Catchers take a pounding. Mauer tired in late August and slumped. But the stretch drive is here, and he will be playing and swinging.
So here is a gifted, churchgoing kid down the block in St. Paul, a town that has already produced Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor, and Jack Morris, telling millions of other kids: You can be a star, and still be a family guy and keep your head on straight. You can also date a former Miss USA which, incidentally, he has also found time to do.
Wouldn't you know.