Mauer and Twins belong together

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Imagine Joe Mauer returning to Minneapolis-St. Paul if he left for Boston, New York or some other larger market.

I can't.

And I bet Mauer can't, either.

Mauer will stay with the Twins. Mauer always was going to stay with the Twins. Any other outcome is simply unthinkable -- for the team, yes, but for the player, too.

Mauer is Cal Ripken in Baltimore, Tony Gwynn in San Diego – a native son so strongly identified with his hometown team, his image would be ruined if he went anywhere else.

Imagine Mauer stepping to the plate in a Yankees or Red Sox uniform at Target Field in 2011.

Imagine him facing his good Midwestern neighbors after bolting for, say, an extra $50 million.

Imagine him enduring a generation of kids in the Twins Cities howling, "Say it ain't so, Joe" – and much worse.

Some will say the Twins need Mauer more than Mauer needs the Twins, and to an extent that is true. If the Twins lose Mauer, they should be contracted – for real this time – or better yet, condemned.

Yet, it's not unusual for sports teams to part with legends, particularly in the age of free agency. Heck, even in the so-called good old days, the Giants lost Willie Mays, the Colts lost Johnny Unitas, the Red Wings lost Gordie Howe – when he came out of retirement to leave their front office for another league.

Dumb as the Twins would be for losing Mauer, they would remain part of one of America's most lucrative monopolies. Mauer, meanwhile, would reach another level of stardom – and wealth – if he signed some ridiculous contract with the Red Sox or Yankees.

He just would not be regarded as highly.

As Ripken and Gwynn can attest, there is a certain value to staying with the hometown team, even for less money. Yes, the demands of friends, family and neighbors on such players are greater, even a source of occasional frustration. But Ripken, in particular, profited from staying in Baltimore. His participation in a "Like a Rock" campaign for Chevrolet was based not just on his consecutive-games streak, but his tried-and-true American virtues, not the least of which was loyalty.

Ripken's agent? Ron Shapiro, the same guy who represents Mauer – and who once represented Kirby Puckett, who spent his entire Hall of Fame career with the Twins.

Shapiro, the author of a book called "The Power of Nice," is sort of the anti-Scott Boras. He believes in win-win negotiations. If he sacrifices a few dollars to keep a player comfortable, so be it.

In Mauer's case, what kind of sacrifice are we even talking about? The difference between $200 million and $250 million?

Somehow, Mauer, the republic and even the players' union would survive.

Few players can relate to Mauer's unique position; many seek the best financial package, and free agency gives them the right to choose. Take Alex Rodriguez. He relishes being the game's highest-paid player. And he surely would have followed a much different career path if, as an amateur, he had not picked Boras over Shapiro.

It's difficult to argue that A-Rod made the wrong call; see his $252 million contract with the Rangers. But who knows? If A-Rod had chosen Shapiro, he might have stayed with the Mariners – not his hometown team, but his original one – and become the game's most revered player, with minimal drama.

Mauer does not crave money and status the way A-Rod does; he is wired more like Ripken and Gwynn. Those two Hall of Famers, however, combined to win one World Series in 41 seasons; Gwynn, in particular, suffered from playing for a low-revenue club.

Surely, Mauer harbors concerns that the Twins will be unable to sustain a contender if his salary is too high. For that reason, his deal is almost certain to include significant deferrals. The rest,

it's up to the Twins to figure out.

Baseball's economic system isn't perfect, and never will be. Still, some of the recent signings are encouraging: Felix Hernandez stayed in Seattle, Zack Greinke in Kansas City, Josh Johnson and Hanley Ramirez in Florida.

True, the Indians moved CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee in back-to-back seasons, the Blue Jays just traded Roy Halladay and the Padres' Adrian Gonzalez and Rays' Carl Crawford will be the next to go. But the Twins' signing of Mauer would be, without question, a positive development for the sport.

He's going to stay. He needs to stay.

About the last thing Joe Mauer wants is to be persona non grata in the only place he has ever known.