By Pat Borzi
MINNEAPOLIS -- Two years ago, after Justin Morneau's surgery to remove a disc fragment in his neck, Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire asked catcher Joe Mauer -- the three-time batting champion and 2009 American League Most Valuable Player -- to play some first base until Morneau returned.
The move made sense. Mauer's left knee remained weakened after off-season surgery and a two-month stint on the disabled list. He couldn't catch more than a few days in a row. And the struggling Twins needed his bat in the lineup. So Mauer borrowed a first baseman's glove from teammate Michael Cuddyer, took ground balls for about week, then debuted in Chicago.
Mauer did what the team asked.
Last weekend, after Mauer spent the better part of a month trying to return from a concussion, Twins general manager Terry Ryan told him to forget a hurried comeback. With Mauer still limited to stretching and light conditioning, Ryan and the club's medical staff saw no point in Mauer rushing to play the final games of a third consecutive 90-loss season.
"[Playing Mauer] would have been the ideal," Ryan said. "But I'm also realistic enough to know when enough is enough."
Again, Mauer did what the team asked.
That's important to remember as the Twins and Mauer mull his future as a catcher.
Mauer hasn't played since Aug. 19, when Ike Davis of the Mets fouled a 91 mph fastball from reliever Anthony Swarzak so hard off the top front of Mauer's helmet that the ball caromed over the backstop. Shaken up, Mauer dropped to his knees, pulled off his mask, and took a few moments to gather himself. He stayed in the game. In the eighth, he doubled off the wall in right-center.
Concussion symptoms don't always manifest themselves right away. The next day, during batting practice in Detroit, Mauer felt dizzy and repeatedly missed routine grounders at first base. That alarmed Morneau, who battled concussion problems in 2010 and '11, as well as Gardenhire. That day the Twins placed Mauer on baseball's seven-day concussion disabled list.
He never came off.
Though Mauer was taking batting practice by early September, a recurrence of symptoms -- sensitivity to light and noise, irritability, and an out-of-sorts feeling -- forced him to stop and rest. Mauer resumed light workouts last week, first at home, then at Target Field.
"There's a long laundry list of [symptoms]," said Mauer, 30. "I tend to do better in smaller settings without a lot of stimulation around.
"I was experiencing a lot of symptoms on the last homestand. Once the team got out of town, they really kind of calmed down, especially when we dialed it back with the activity. I think that really helped a lot. Now I'm feeling good, but it's relative to a lot of work I've been doing."
Fan debate over whether Mauer should stop catching to prolong his career began as soon as he reached the majors in 2004, when he damaged his left knee cartilage sliding for a foul ball at the Metrodome in his second start. It intensified in March 2010 when Mauer, a native of St. Paul, Minn. who grew up rooting for Kirby Puckett, signed an eight-year, $184 million contract extension through 2018 rather than test free agency.
Mauer brushed off all the talk then. He did the same Monday. The concussion, he said, he has not changed his mind. He's a catcher.
"Absolutely," he said. "I have every intention of coming back and catching. That's what I do. Right now I have to take care of the situation so I can. I look forward to getting back out on the field next year as a catcher, and whatever else they need me to do."
Detroit Tigers catcher Alex Avila knows how Mauer feels. Jarred in the mask by a Nick Swisher foul tip on Aug. 8, Avila suffered headaches and nausea two days later and spent more than two weeks on the concussion DL, one of nine catchers to land on that list this year.
Avila takes a beating with foul tips from Detroit's hard-throwing starting staff but has no intention of asking to play anywhere else. Besides, with Miguel Cabrera at third and Prince Fielder at first, where else could he go?
"Catching is really the only thing that I know and feel that I'm very good at," Avila said. "As far as the potential for getting hurt, that just comes with the territory. That's just the way it is. You can ask that question of every catcher. They'll say, `Yeah, I want to play somewhere else,' and then there are no more catchers."
Twins catcher-outfielder Ryan Doumit is another of the nine. In August he suffered his second foul-tip related concussion in four years. After eight days on the DL, he caught six times, then asked the Twins not to use him there the rest of the season.
Josh Willingham, the Twins left fielder, caught for parts of three seasons in the Florida Marlins organization before that club made him a fulltime outfielder. "It's a demanding position physically and mentally," he said. "I enjoyed doing it, but I thought it was tough to do every day. I respect the guys [that] do it every day."
So he won't question Mauer's urge to keep catching. "I trust Joe, what he thinks," he said.
Though Ryan insisted the decision to catch or not will be Mauer's, signs that Twins may persuade him to move can't be ignored.
First base remains unsettled. Ryan never offered a contract extension to Morneau before trading him to Pittsburgh August 31, and neither Chris Parmelee (.227) nor Chris Colabello (.191) have hit well enough to claim the job.
Twins officials believe Triple A catcher Josmil Pinto, a 24-year-old Venezuelan who is hitting .359 in 17 games since his September 1 callup, could eventually handle a major-league staff. Monday night against Detroit, Pinto helped coax six innings out of starter Mike Pelfrey, the former Met, by calling more off-speed pitches when Pelfrey couldn't spot his fastball. Pelfrey (5-13) allowed one run and struck out five in a no-decision, his best start in more than three weeks.
Though Mauer has won three Gold Gloves and thrown out 43 percent of runners trying to steal this season, tying the second-best mark of his career, he has never been known for his game-calling. It was telling to hear Gardenhire, in describing Pinto's work with Pelfrey, use Tampa Bay's Jose Molina as an example of a catcher who helps a pitcher through a struggle, not Mauer.
Then again, it may not be Gardenhire's call. His contract expires after the season.
"There will be a lot of discussions on everything, but now's not the time," Gardenhire said of Mauer. "Right now it's about him being healthy. We'll dig into all that other stuff, however we're going to make up our club. We'll plan to go forward with him as our catcher, and if things change, they change. He's our catcher. Always has been."
Until he isn't. Remember: Mauer will do what the team asks.
"I know Joe," said second baseman Brian Dozier. "He signed to be a catcher. He wants to be a catcher, and still believes he's going to be catcher. What happens down the road is totally up to him, what Terry and all them decide.
"I know that Joe will do what's best for this team to win, whether it's catching or whatever his role might be. Joe is going to do whatever he feels will help this team, whether it's catching, first base, whatever it is. He's going to be productive any way he goes."
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Pat Borzi, a former Yankees and Mets beat writer for the (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger, has covered major league baseball since 1988. His work appears frequently in The New York Times.