This marks the 30th anniversary of USA TODAY recognizing the nation's top high school athletes. As we prepare to unveil the 2013 American Family Insurance ALL-USA Baseball Team at the end of the season, we'll dig into the archives and check in with ALL-USA honorees from the past three decades. Today, we catch up with Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer, who was the ALL-USA Football Player of the Year in the fall of 2000 and Baseball Player of the Year in the spring of 2001 while at Cretin-Derham Hall (St. Paul, Minn).
Joe Mauer, who played three sports in high school and is the only high school athlete to be named ALL-USA Player of the Year in two sports, says athletes may be focusing their efforts too early.
“I think kids are specializing way too soon,” Mauer says. “Playing basketball and football really helped me in baseball, doing different movements and seeing different situations helped out. I think once you get to the college level, you have to specialize. Being a quarterback at Florida State would be a full-time job. It would be difficult to do baseball and football in that situation. But as far as high school, I played three sports and it seemed to work out pretty good.”
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Mauer, who just turned 30 on Friday, is a five-time major league All-Star, the only catcher to win three major league batting titles and he’s hitting .375 this season. He had a big offseason too, getting married to a former Cretin-Derham classmate and, appropriately enough, has twins on the way.
Jim O’Neill, Mauer’s baseball coach at Cretin-Derham (St. Paul, Minn.), says many in St. Paul wonder how far Mauer could have gone in football.
“He was like Peyton Manning back there,” O’Neill says. “He was a quarterback who really understands the game. It would have been interesting to see what he could have done in the NFL.”
Cretin-Derham director of admissions Tony Leseman played alongside Mauer in baseball, football and basketball and was one of Mauer’s best men, along with older brothers Billy and Jake, at his wedding. Leseman says baseball was Mauer’s first love.
“I think he clearly made the right choice,” Leseman says. “What he could have done in football will be an ongoing conversation that will go one forever. He’s the type of athlete who can pick up a sport and as soon as he learns the concept, he figures it out. He’s also good in hockey and ping-pong, but he’s not as good a ping-pong player as me.”
Pro athletes who play for small-market teams near where they grew up, such as Cal Ripken, Jr. did in Baltimore or LeBron James did in Cleveland, face an overwhelming amount of attention. The first “Joe Mauer is struggling” stories started five games into this season in Minnesota.
“I’ve learned a long time ago not to play attention to talk radio and newspapers,” Mauer says. “If it was up to those guys, I would have been moved out of the catcher position a long time ago.”
“There are a lot of expectations of him here, so whatever he does, it’s isn’t enough,” O’Neill says. “I think those are the things that he’s been able to handle, overcome and just be Joe Mauer.”
Part of the reason for that is Mauer’s upbringing. He and his brothers, both of whom played in the Twins’ organization, helped pay for their tuition at Cretin-Derham by doing work-study at the school. Jake is now a manager with the Twins’ class A Midwest League affiliate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa., while Billy runs Mauer Chevrolet in Grove Heights, Minn.
“Nothing in his life was given him,” Leseman says. “He and his brothers have worked hard for every single award that was given them.”
Leseman says that while people in St. Paul are usually respectful of Mauer when he’s out eating, he had to quit being a conduit for Mauer autograph seekers a while back.
“When I lived with him, that’s when I started getting a lot of requests for autographs,” Leseman says. “It started to wear on me and him. I would say the oddest thing I’ve ever seen him sign was a pink plastic flamingo for one of my mother’s co-workers.”
Mauer says he’s able to take the attention in stride because living in the Twin Cities is all he’s ever known.
“The positives outweigh the negatives,” Mauer said. “My family comes all the time to games. I think my grandparents have missed maybe five home games my career.”
When he wants to get away, Mauer can go to his ranch in Cambridge, about an hour north of Minneapolis.
“I like to go pheasant hunting with my dad,” Mauer said. “We tend to do it quite a bit. It’s nice to take my five-year-old yellow lab (Lil Kim) and watch her work in the field. It’s not bad exercise and it can get your heart running, especially when you nearly step on a pheasant.”