You're probably used to this sort of subtle cudgel being twirled at cities like New York and Boston, which tend to chew through their heroes just as quickly as they can exalt them. But Tim Keown's piece in the current issue of ESPN The Pulp-Based Periodical is one of the rare stories that quietly rips a place with normally impeccable manners: Minnesota and specifically the Twin Cities, whom Keown would like to check itself before it wrecks itself.
The subject of the story is Joe Mauer, the most gifted catcher of his generation and one of the most gifted offensive players of his generation, period. For those two people to be the same person, and for that person to be a homegrown athlete, and for that home to be a place as typically well-balanced as Minnesota should mean harp music and hosannas for the Twins from draft day till Cooperstown. Instead, as Keown intimates in ways both overt and glaring, there are problems. They arise from injuries Mauer cannot control and a frustration by Minnesota fans that Mauer is not healthier for the $184 million contract extension he signed shortly before he got hurt. In Keown's framing, Minnesota fans and media are not upholding their side of what it means to be Minnesotan; Mauer, meanwhile, through his impeccable comportment, unparalleled discipline and intense rehab regimen, exemplifies the ethos of the state as well as anyone possibly could. Keown's piece is not just a letter from Minnesota; it's a letter to Minnesota. Between the lines it reads, Get off his ass already.
It is an easy thing for a writer to side with the subject, just as it's easy to conflate a person with a place. Here, if you're willing to accept the author's premise that Minnesotans value the "humility, modesty and desire to be treated as just another guy" that Mauer exhibits, and that Mauer "is so tied to Minnesota and its monochromatic idiosyncrasies," then you can also follow that their reaction to Mauer's travails has been uncharacteristically petulant and entitled. The snitty web polls that find Mauer is made chiefly of "cheap plastic parts" or money; the message board doofus who calls Mauer a "no-passion lazy sissy"; the writers forecasting that he'd "get the sniffles and stub his toe on a feather" before the All-Star Game. Mauer gets hurt and then breaks himself down further in an effort to rush back. Guys. You're not helping.
The image of Mauer that Keown carves for the rest of the story is one of a stone-cold professional blessed with the natural ability of a stone-cold freak. Yes he was the USA Today national player of the year in football as well as baseball, and only struck out once in high school, and still walks more than he strikes out, and dominates Guitar Hero, and simply cannot be fooled by a pitch at the plate. He waits and waits and walks and grinds out singles and gently guides rookies and doesn't seem to listen to the noise. "Mauer is a fantastic player," Keown writes, "but he is far too reasoned to be a particularly exuberant entertainer. He is not a player who evokes comparisons to his predecessor as a Twins icon, the wall-crashing Kirby Puckett. Mauer is best defined, perhaps, as Minnesota's Joe DiMaggio." One day, once the prairie-dwelling yammerers look back and miss what they ripped, they'll wonder where he's gone.
The Master [ESPN The Magazine]