Published March 23, 2010
Joe Mauer's new contract with the Twins has been hailed as a triumph for mid-market teams, a victory for common sense over greed.
It is both of those things. But if we stop there, we miss its greatest significance.
The deal is a testament to what amateur sports once were - and still can be, if the right people are paying attention.
The timing of this could not be better, coming in the year when Bryce Harper might be the No. 1 overall pick in the amateur draft, as Mauer was nine years ago.
Harper is the anti-Mauer. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated last year, billed as LeBron James with a chest protector. He is supposed to be a high school junior right now. Instead, he is batting a team-high .420 for the College of Southern Nevada.
He obtained his GED so he could skip his final two years of high school. Mauer took the exact opposite approach, playing every school sport he could and strengthening relationships with his childhood friends.
And his career has turned out just fine. There are 184 million reasons to believe that.
In an era of coaching-by-suffocation, single-sport specializing and 100-game schedules for aspiring draft picks, Mauer, the reigning American League MVP, is a refreshing anomaly.
He was a three-sport star in high school, having realized that playing ball with your buddies is far more enjoyable than going corporate at age 16.
He didn't need to transfer away from St. Paul's Cretin-Derham Hall, the same school he would have attended if history, not hitting, had been his passion.
He got to play in state tournaments. He got to win championships that meant something. He got to hang out with his friends. He got to be a kid.
So if someone tries to convince you that private lessons and 10-year-old select teams are necessary for baseball greatness, he is full of hooey. The guy who won three of the last four AL batting titles developed his swing in a Minnesota garage.
Mauer is living, hitting proof that you can have it both ways, that it's possible to have an uncontrived upbringing and then sign a $184 million contract with your hometown team. It may sound like a made-up tale from Lake Wobegon, but Mauer and the Twins put ink to paper on Sunday night.
Mauer, who turns 27 next month, has played on only one losing team in the major leagues. Perhaps we can trace some of that success to the fact that Mauer is an outstanding teammate, in addition to his obvious talents.
And don't you think that his experience relating to teammates of different ability levels, in different sports, has something to do with that?
"He had a great senior year," said Jim O'Neill, the Cretin-Derham Hall baseball coach. "He enjoyed his classmates. Some of them are still his best friends.
"He didn't attend a whole lot of camps when he was young. Then he started playing for Team USA in the summers. He came back and told me, 'The other guys have personal trainers and coaches.' He'd never heard of that stuff."
So, let the sea change begin. There is no need to put down your football or basketball. Three sports for everyone. Be like Joe.
But if that's the case ... and if Mauer is the new standard bearer ... then how do we begin to explain Harper?
Of course, he had his reasons: Better competition ... and ... uh ... wait ... I forgot the second thing.
Oh, right: Millions of dollars.
Let me make this clear: Harper's decision made me queasy, but I understand why he did it - from an on-field standpoint. He is absurdly talented. He didn't have anything left to prove against high school pitching in Las Vegas. Now he's excelling against good players who are two and three years older. And he's doing it with a wooden bat.
To the extent that anyone could, he is living up to the hype. In fact, one longtime AL scouting director told me on Tuesday that Harper has "exceeded" his expectations.
"I think you can make the case that, in some games, he is dominating the competition," the scouting director said. "You would have to be blind not to see the obvious All-Star-type ability. He is clearly the most talented player in this year's draft."
It looks like everything is going to work out for Harper. He is in a favorable position, because he has a good coach (Tim Chambers) and has been able to live at home during the transition. At some point between the June draft and August signing deadline, he will be swimming in cash.
But if Scott Boras - you were expecting someone else? - secures a contract for him on the order of Stephen Strasburg's $15.1 million, I shudder to think what the ramifications will be.
America being America, overeager dads from Florida to California will immediately type "GED practice test" into their Internet search engines. They will be convinced that their son is the next Bryce Harper.
They will connect the dots: skip two years of high school, crush baseballs, become a millionaire.
That is chilling.
Harper is probably a nice kid. I don't know. I've never met him. But I am certain of this: Right now, he is one terrible role model. And that has nothing to do with the fact that he was recently ejected from a game for taunting.
In baseball, "staying in school" used to refer to college juniors who elected not to sign and instead returned for their senior years. But here comes Harper, bolting from high school before he could park with the upperclassmen.
It's not right. But it's legal under the current basic agreement. If baseball isn't careful, Harper might inspire a legion of followers - and few, if any, will possess the same ability. That is bad for the game and worse for the kids. They will be like the teenagers who skipped college to chase their hoop dreams ... only to wind up with the Fargo-Moorhead Beez.
We have already witnessed a similar phenomenon with the growth of scout-friendly showcase tournaments that cater to "elite" talents. "There are more and more every year," one area scout said. "They have become huge revenue monsters for certain companies. They used to just take the best players. Now they are taking everyone because they realize parents will throw away money chasing a dream for their kids that isn't realistic."
Money is one thing. A childhood is another.
The loophole that Harper and Boras are dancing through should be closed when the new collective bargaining agreement goes into effect after the 2011 season. In the meantime, consider this a plea for the same prudence that is keeping Mauer in Minnesota.
"One of the things my family wanted me to experience was somewhat of a normal high school life," Mauer told me earlier this spring. "I enjoyed playing football and basketball. I kind of understood that was going to be my last year playing, so I wanted to enjoy it. I'm glad that I did.
"Football and basketball have helped me on the baseball field. It was also good for me - I'm kind of a quiet guy, so it allowed me to make more friends."
So, what advice would he have for Bryce Harper?
"Just have fun," he said. "You're 17 years old. Enjoy being a kid. You can never take it back."
At that moment, Mauer sounded like a young man with no regrets. Ten years from now, I wonder if we will be able to say the same thing about Bryce Harper ... and all the rest.