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Twins' Joe Mauer is average Joe off the field

Catcher garnered the most All-Star votes despite playing for a small-market club, which speaks volumes not just about his baseball skills, but his clean-cut image.

July 11, 2010|By David Wharton

The ballots kept rolling in, the numbers adding up, until Joe Mauer realized that he had more All-Star votes than any other player in baseball.

More than Derek Jeter or Albert Pujols.

More than there are people living in the state of Minnesota, where Mauer grew up and now plays pro ball.

Suffice to say, the Twins' catcher, arriving in Anaheim for Tuesday night's game, has 5,372,606 reasons to be pleasantly surprised.

"Minnesota is not the biggest market in the world," he said. "I guess people realize we can play some baseball up here."

This "aw-shucks" reaction — hometown boy makes good — goes a long way toward explaining Mauer's unusual popularity.

Two Gold Gloves and last season's American League most valuable player Award certainly have boosted his image.

But in an era of Tiger Woods and Michael Vick, in a game still shadowed by the legacy of Barry Bonds, something about Mauer resonates with fans to a far greater degree than statistics or awards.

Relative anonymity

This tale emerges from the fog of controversy that always surrounds All-Star balloting, the inevitable complaints over who got snubbed — Washington Nationals rookie sensation Stephen Strasburg — and who got picked, such as Atlanta Braves infielder Omar Infante.

Critics don't like online fan voting that tilts toward New York, Boston and other big markets, which makes Mauer's tally all the more unlikely.

The 27-year-old from St. Paul has never been the type to seek attention. As a schoolboy, he once feigned illness to get out of singing with classmates in the spring concert.

"I wasn't big on that," he said.

There was no escaping accolades on the field.

A three-sport star in high school, Mauer signed a letter of intent with Florida State, where he might have played quarterback if baseball hadn't intervened.

The Twins in 2001 made him the first Minnesotan to be selected first overall in the draft. It took only three years for the 6-foot-5, 230-pound prospect to reach the majors and only a few more to establish himself among the game's elite.

Solid behind the plate, Mauer threw out nearly half of the baserunners who tried to steal on him in 2007. He was the top-hitting catcher in the league three out of the last four seasons.

If he were playing for the New York Yankees, that might have translated into mega-stardom. Minnesota is another story.

"That's where visibility comes in," said Jim Andrews, senior vice president at IEG, a Chicago-based sponsorship consulting firm. "It's easier to become a household name in New York and L.A."

Mauer didn't mind the relative anonymity.

"He's kind of low-key," said his older brother, Jake, a coach in the Twins minor league system. "To be honest, if it were up to him, he wouldn't mind playing in front of five or six people."

Joe puts it this way: "I grew up in Minnesota and I don't think I've changed a whole lot."

But his Q score was bound to rise as marketers recognized that sponsors and fans would respond to his down-to-earth nature.

"Leading on the field, not getting into trouble off the field, staying loyal and staying home," said Brandon Steiner of Steiner Sports Marketing in New York. "It's kind of a wholesome approach and people appreciate that."

Mauer had the looks, built solid with an easy grin and sideburns. Even better, ESPN the Magazine tabbed him America's most fan-friendly pro athlete, in part because he and his mother, Teresa, answer every piece of fan mail he receives.

"My mom had the idea," he said. "She enjoys doing it."

And he reinforced his stay-home reputation by signing an eight-year, $184-million contract extension with the Twins.

Riding a newfound crest of popularity, Mauer has made several forays into the world of endorsements, appearing in ads for Sony PlayStation's " MLB 10 The Show" and ESPN's "SportsCenter." He also lent his name to a local dairy because he likes the ice cream.

"I'm not one of those guys who will go out there and throw my name on something I don't believe in," he said. "It's got to be something I use."

None of this puts Mauer in the financial stratosphere of a Jeter, certainly not of a pre-scandal Woods, who was pulling in an estimated $100 million annually, but it's good work if you can find it.

"You could easily bring in a couple million dollars a year doing regional stuff," Andrews said. "That's not chump change."

Internet gossip

It is further testament to Mauer's popularity that he topped the All-Star balloting in what ranks as a mediocre season.

Nagging injuries have kept him out of the lineup for parts of the spring and his power numbers have suffered in the new Target Field, where fly balls don't carry as readily as in the Metrodome. A lifetime .323 hitter, his average has dipped to .293 this season.

So his All-Star vote total is "definitely humbling," he said. "A very cool thing."

But there is a downside to the adulation.

Start with the Internet, which has shown particular interest in his romantic life. Ever since Mauer broke up with former Miss USA Chelsea Cooley a few years ago, the speculation on new love interests has run amok.

"I don't like to have all my business out there," he said. "But you can't worry about that … I guess."

Mauer has learned to deal with the sportswriters, photo sessions and commercial shoots. It's all part of the deal, he knows, though he doesn't particularly enjoy it.

Which means he has no plans to parlay baseball success into a second career in front of the camera.

"What you see is what you get," he said.

In a backward way, that is precisely what has made the guy from St. Paul a star.

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton

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