Joe Mauer(notes) is from Minnesota. He is white. He plays Major League Baseball. He is considered something of a pretty boy. None of these four things outlaws him from practicing his secret hobby. All of them combined into one 6-foot-5, sideburn-wearing, .400-flirting catcher, however, makes for the unlikeliest rapper in the history of rap.
"I've heard stories," outfielder Denard Span(notes) says. "I've heard he buries himself in the studio. But never heard the finished product with my own ears. Looking at him right now, I'm guessing it's a cross between Vanilla Ice and Cypress Hill."
Now, some of this may be apocryphal. A few whispers here and an exaggeration or two there transform a microphone and computer program into a full-blown studio. Mauer isn't likely to be passing out demos from the trunk of his car or barging into Hot 97 on the Twins' yearly trip to New York demanding they play his latest cut.
Mauer, in fact, scoffs at the notion of a second career, just in case, you know, this baseball thing doesn't work out.
"No," he says. "Definitely not. I'm definitely not good at that."
Then again, that might be just typical Joe Mauer humility. Next to hitting, Mauer may be best at not talking about himself. He's six years into what's shaping up to be a Hall of Fame career. He's got two batting titles – the first ever won by an American League catcher – and should win his third this season as a 26-year-old. Two hundred at-bats into 2009 he has already set a single-season high in home runs, and his pitching staff falls over itself praising his game-calling abilities. He is polite. He is respectful. He comes from a good family. He'd really rather not address any of it, because he doesn't want to come off as a self-promoter or egotist.
All of which is well and good, because what Mauer does tends to speak for itself. He is the gifted sort whose excellence is so excessive it borders on ridiculous. And if the pretty baseball-playing white boy from Minnesota can flow, well, good for him. Though it does bring up a serious question.
If Joe Mauer can rap, what the hell can't he do?
"It frustrates me if I'm not good at something, so I do it until I get good at it," Mauer says, and he's not exactly lying. It's just the implication that he needs to practice and practice and practice that – well, it's pretty much not true.
One of Mauer's more legendary feats came in 2006 during spring training. He and a few teammates went to a bowling alley in Ft. Myers, Fla. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire suggested Mauer buy his own bowling ball, even though Mauer rarely bowled. That night, he rolled a 265.
"I like the ball," Mauer says. "I mean, I guess I wasn't very good to start off."
It's like that with everything. Mauer doesn't golf often. He shoots about 10 over when he does. He dated a girl for six months a few years ago. She was Miss USA.
There's got to be something.
"Maybe he's not a good housekeeper?" Gardenhire says.
"I try to be as clean as I can," Mauer says.
OK, so that search may hit a dead end. Anyway, all the buzz about Mauer concerns what he is doing: turning convention on its head not just by trying to become the first player in 68 years to hit .400, but also do it playing the game's most demanding position.
There is an argument for it. He plays in a hitter-friendly, turf-field park, the Metrodome. He rarely strikes out (28 times in 201 at-bats). He walks plenty. He is fresh after missing April with back troubles. And his swing is as pure as morning dew.
The counterargument carries some more weight: Nobody has done it in 68 years, and if that's not enough, he's a catcher, and, by the way, he's still only at .392 after a 3-for-3 game Wednesday, and, oh, yeah, not even Mauer believes he's got .400 in him.
"I wouldn't think so," he says. "We've got three months of the season left. It's very premature. I'm going to try to get a base hit every time I can, but … it's .400. I mean, even if you're there at the beginning of September, it's still premature.
"I understand the interest. But, I mean, June? Really?"
The novelty of .400 is seductive. Nobody has come close since Tony Gwynn(notes) ended the aborted 1994 season at .394. Before that, the last earnest attempt was George Brett in 1980, and his final day at .400 or better was Sept. 19.
Though Mauer fills the blank for the if-anyone-could-do-it-this-is-the-guy question, the feasibility is minimal. So perhaps that is something Mauer can't do: hit .400. Only it's not so definitive.
"He doesn't surprise me anymore," Gardenhire says. "You just expect it, and that's not good for him, for people to expect it all the time. It's really not good for him. It wouldn't be for anybody. When you make an out, everybody goes, 'What happened?' And that's ridiculous."
For Mauer to continue topping himself is a remarkable exercise. He joined the Twins at 20 with face-of-the-franchise status affixed to him from his initial squat. Minnesota chose him as the No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft, one ahead of Mark Prior(notes), whom the Twins felt pressure to select. They stuck with the local kid, from St. Paul prep athletic power Cretin-Derham Hall, and now can only hope he sticks with them.
Hometown products who excel their entire career with the same team are once-every-20-years commodities. Pittsburgh's Honus Wagner played his first three years in Louisville, Detroit's Hal Newhouser his final two in Cleveland and Pete Rose 5½ seasons outside of his start and finish in Cincinnati. The biggest stars to stay at home were New Yorkers Lou Gehrig and Whitey Ford, and recent shortstops Cal Ripken Jr. (Baltimore) and Barry Larkin (Cincinnati).
And at least they came from baseball-rich states. Minnesota has produced about 150 major leaguers, fewer than South Carolina, Iowa, Washington, even Connecticut. For a player of Mauer's magnitude to spend his baseball life with the Twins would be a shock, and an achievement of sorts.
"I've always wanted to play in the big leagues, and getting to do it at home is very cool," Mauer says. "I place a lot of value on that, and it's something that's comfortable."
So Mauer will play out this year and next year, and barring a pre-emptive strike by Minnesota, he'll hit the free-agent market after the 2010 season. The cash-rich Yankees covet him. The cash-rich Red Sox covet him. Every team in baseball wants Mauer, even if they have an All-Star-caliber catcher. And that winter, baseball executives will talk themselves hoarse trying to explain to Mauer why he fits with their ballclub, what he would mean to their franchise and how he does everything so well.
"What's something Joe Mauer's not good at?" Nathan says. He's thinking. He's thinking hard. He's even enlisting the help of a bullpen mate, and it's doing little good.
"OK," Nathan says. "Work with me here. I think if he was good he would sing more, and I haven't really heard him sing, so I can only guess that he can't sing. I'm going to go out on a limb and say he can't be a good singer."
… for a gawky white guy from Minnesota doesn't exactly jibe?
"You said it," Slowey says.
Still, it's tough to believe Mauer can't sing. He does everything. He's got the pedigree to run for office – and if Jesse Ventura can run the state and Al Franken represent it on Capitol Hill, anything can happen in Minnesota politics. He can make a funny commercial.
So, really, Prince doesn't have any in-state competition?
"I don't even attempt to sing," Mauer says.
Not even a line?
"I know better," he says.
There. A flaw. He's not a crooner. Mauer can dance and bowl and hoop and golf and pageant-pluck and dust and maybe even rap. Though it's edifying that he saves his best skill for public consumption.
He can hit, and even if it's not .400, it's still quite a treat.
- Joe Mauer