From youth star in St. Paul to Twins legend, Joe Mauer seemingly on the verge of being elected to Cooperstown

The very first time Jim O’Neill watched Joe Mauer step to the plate, the future Twins star hit a grand slam.

Mauer was a fifth grader at the time, tagging along with his older brothers, Jake and Billy, to a Cretin-Derham Hall summer league game. They was short a few players, so the youngest of the Mauer boys was allowed to participate, even though he was at least two years younger than everyone else on the field.

“You could tell he was special,” said O’Neill, Mauer’s future high school coach at Cretin-Derham Hall. “For somebody that young, just a beautiful swing. He was definitely standing out amongst the other little kids.”

Mauer’s special talent may have been clearly identifiable early on, but, of course, there was no way of knowing on that summer day in the 1990s that a future hall of famer may have been standing in the midst of the group of young ballplayers.

St. Paul is a proud baseball city, home to three hall of famers: Paul Molitor, Dave Winfield and Jack Morris. Joe Mauer — and a state full of hopeful supporters — will find out on Tuesday if the former Twins catcher will become the fourth St. Paulite to be enshrined this July.

Results of Hall of Fame voting will be revealed live on MLB Network on Tuesday during a show that begins at 5 p.m. live from Cooperstown, N.Y. As of Monday morning, Mauer had received 82.9 percent support on publicly revealed ballots tracked by X user Ryan Thibodaux (@NotMrTibbs). An estimated 50.3 percent of ballots had been made public, meaning Mauer would need support on 67 percent of the remaining ballots to reach the necessary 75 percent threshold for admission to baseball’s hallowed halls.

“I don’t think anybody has ever questioned — nobody inside of the Twins’ organization, certainly — has ever questioned that Joe Mauer’s going to find his place in Cooperstown at some point,” Twins president and CEO Dave St. Peter said. “The only question was whether he’d get there on the first ballot, and I think we’re, to date, we’ve absolutely been excited and thrilled and incredibly proud of the support Joe has been getting.”

Mauer seems likely to be voted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, a rare feat — he and Adrián Beltré, a former star third baseman who is essentially a lock to be elected on Tuesday, would make it just 60 players in Major League Baseball history — that even some of those close to him weren’t necessarily expecting.

But while it was no guarantee — and still isn’t until the results of the voting are revealed — that Mauer would be a first-ballot hall of famer, it seemed evident from early on that Mauer could be on a path that would lead him to Cooperstown.

As he aged, O’Neill would mention him to his old high school teammate, Molitor, who years later would become Mauer’s manager during the final four seasons of his career. Molitor tracked Mauer’s impressive high school accomplishments — among them, he struck out just once — and had a chance to watch him from time to time. He has a vivid memory of watching a teenaged Mauer hit a pair of home runs against Edina High School.

“He hit a couple of moonshots,” Molitor said.

Molitor remembers 20 to 30 scouts being in attendance that day. Among those watching, he said, was Twins general manager Terry Ryan. Ryan had first heard of the kid from St. Paul from Mike Radcliff, the late Twins scouting legend, who had returned from watching Mauer play internationally with glowing reviews.

Twins scouts became frequent spectators at Cretin-Derham Hall, watching Mauer excel not only in baseball but also basketball and football — Mauer, a quarterback, was the nation’s top high school football recruit and had committed to playing for Bobby Bowden at Florida State.

The Twins wanted to see what kind of teammate he was. They wanted to see what kind of competitor he was. They wanted to learn everything they could about the teenager that they hoped could become the face of their franchise.

A 93-loss season in 2000 landed the Twins the first overall pick, and the Twins spent the first half of 2001 debating between the prep catcher from just down the road and Mark Prior, a college pitcher considered by many to be the best player in the draft. Radcliff made the final call, setting Mauer’s professional career into motion.

“When you’re picking that high, every organization would like to say, ‘This guy has got hall of fame talent,’ and Joe did,” Ryan said. “He could do everything. He could run, he could throw, he had great hands. He had great hand-eye coordination with the barrel.”

And yet, that “hall of fame talent” often doesn’t turn into hall of fame production. If elected, Mauer would be just the fourth No .1 overall draft pick to make it to the Hall of Fame, joining Harold Baines, Ken Griffey Jr. and Chipper Jones.

Prior became an all-star pitcher before Mauer made his major-league debut. But their careers then would take drastically different paths. Prior’s was cut short by injury, lasting just five major-league seasons. Though Mauer dealt with plenty of injuries of his own, including concussion issues that forced him to shift from behind the plate to first base, he would become the special player the Twins envisioned when they drafted him.

He became a six-time all-star, a three-time Gold Glove Award winner, an AL Most Valuable Player and the winner of three batting titles — the only catcher in MLB history to accomplish that feat. He lived up to the lofty set of expectations placed on him from an early age — and did it with the additional pressures of playing in his hometown.

And as a result, on Tuesday, he will spend the day awaiting the call of a lifetime from the Hall of Fame.

“To be amongst the best that have ever played the game — of the 21, 22,000, there’s 350, roughly, hall of famers. To be one of those, I don’t think that moment will be lost on him at all,” said Justin Morneau, Mauer’s former teammate and good friend.

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