The playoffs are in high gear, but those who cling to hope for the underdogs might be forgiven for tuning out early this year. The league championship series featured the past three champions (Cardinals, Giants and Yankees) and a preseason favorite (the Detroit Tigers). Gone are the plucky upstarts: the Nationals, the A's, the O's, the Reds. In short all the teams who haven't sniffed the World Series in over 20 years, and in their place, much more of the same.
Baseball's competitive balance is still a little better than you might think, but that's not the point of my writing. My point is that there's a certain something missing from this years playoffs; that plucky scrapper mentality that many mid-market fans cling to as superpowers get richer each year.
Once upon a time, in the good ol' days of five years ago, the Twins were one of those scrappy franchises. Mixing and matching spare parts and raw newcomers to find startling success; while we often wished ol' Carl Pohlad would loosen his purse strings a little more often, we now know that big spending won't solve our problems.
After two years of 90+ losses and nearly $200 million dollars in payroll, frustration is mounting. At the center of all of this frustration isn't the ownership (no longer Carl, just his sons), or the management (penny-pinching Terry Ryan in his 2nd non-consecutive turn as GM), the frustration falls squarely on Joseph P. Mauer. The 23 Million Dollar Man.
Of course, we all know the rest of the story too. In the three years since Mauer signed the uber-deal, his production has vacillated from solid to injury-riddled to elite-catcher level again. At the same time, Mauer has remained the stoic, humble, home-grown star who endeared himself to Twins fans as Minnesota's own throw-back to the crew-cut, mashed-potato-munching stars of yester-year. He's got a house in Florida, but another up north, with a St. Paul-bred wife and a consistent relationship with his St. Paul loving family.
He plays the same. He acts the same. He is the same. Clearly, money did not change Joe Mauer.
And clearly it did change us.
Somewhere along the way, the promise and the paeans to Joe Mauer morphed into demands. Our affection didn't come easily anymore, he wasn't the adorable kid playing stickball on Summit Avenue, he was "the franchise," and he had better play like it! He wasn't a local boy made good, he was a local boy made off with our hard-earned money. He wasn't a great player, he was a shampoo-hawking, prima-donna who let "leg-weakness" get in the way of the game.
Before, we had loved Joe Mauer simply and purely because he was our own and he was awesome. Suddenly, we begrudged Joe Mauer some undefinable something simply and purely because he was our own and he was only "pretty good"...and, oh yeah, he was getting paid a large sum of money (much of which came from our own tickets).
Chances are, if you find your way to this page, this blog, and my style of writing, you have a more complex view of Mauer than simply "the-golden-boy" or "the-sissy-punk". Chances are you've heard plenty of this before. Chances are I'm not saying anything that you haven't thought yourself a time or dozen.
But one thing to bear in mind, as we enter a season of acrimonious bickering over cries of "super rich one-percent-ers" and "the welfare class of entitled moochers" is just how we use these words and why. It's easy to tune out the tit-for-tat argument and snark as irrelevant or impossible, but that avoids the core of the discussion. Does Joe Mauer earn the enmity of disappointed hordes in Target Field because he doesn't perform his job, because he abuses his wealth and privilege, or because class and money affect us in ways we don't feel comfortable talking about. Is it pure jealousy, the shriveled raisin of a dream deferred, the genuine disdain for misappropriated money at a time of fiscal uncertainty?
There's no clear answer to those questions, and that's as it should be. The teachable moments of our year in fandom aren't just moments where a lesson is learned and we move on with life. Teachable moments are the somethings, the anythings, that encourage us to look at things again, to consider and reflect.
I'm a homer, and I'll always love Joe Mauer for how he hits and plays. But after this year, I also have to appreciate how he offers all kinds of teachable moments