Say it ain’t so

Yesterday we all watched as Joe Mauer played what was probably his last home game for the Minnesota Twins. He hit a double in his last at bat, then donned his old catcher’s gear and caught one pitch before waving to the crowd and disappearing into the tunnel. It was a wonderful end to his 14 seasons at the club, 14 seasons that had their shares of ups and downs — and about a million seven hoppers to second base — but that never quite reached the heights we were all promised when the Twins drafted him out of high school, choosing baseball over a chance to play quarterback for Florida State.

He made his debut in 2004 against the indians to much fanfare. Like he was the second coming of Christ. He went two for three that day and caught a good game. A few days later I was standing in my kitchen listening to the game as it wasn’t on TV. Drinking cans of beer and ducking out between innings for cigarettes. My wife and new dog were upstairs. I could hear her laughter every time the dog did something funny. It filled me with all this love, all this happiness, emotions I wasn’t sure how to deal with then.

The game was at the Metrodome. A tired old stadium with artificial turf like concrete. The Twins batters would bounce the ball off the turf in front of home plate and easily convert the hoppers into singles. Around the fifth inning or so, Mauer tracked a fly ball back behind home plate, making the catch but sliding knee first into the wall. He would end up having to leave the game with an injury to the medial meniscus in his left knee. He came back in June but the knee still kept giving him trouble and by July his season was done

I think about that incident a lot. Yeah, sure, Mauer had a good — if not a great — career. He won batting titles and an MVP. But injuries always seemed to hound him, and never let him get over that proverbial hump from good to great, from All-Star to Hall of Famer. And I always trace those injuries back to that night in 2004, when he had all the promise, all the potential, and then it was just gone in the span of a few seconds. So while Mauer’s career was, of course, one to be proud of, there was always this note of tragedy in his eyes, his gait, his body language. Like he carried the weight of the team’s failings, of his massive contract, of the sneers of fans on his back, on his sleeve, and in his heart. His was a tragic character. Something you don’t see a lot in sports. Maybe even an introvert in the mold of Mesut Ozil. Quiet, quality players lambasted for not being bombastic captains.

Mauer then joins other Alastair Cook (who’s farewell was somehow even more poetic than Mauer’s) and Paul Collingwood and Jonathan Trott (speaking of tragic figures) who walked into the tunnel this summer, never to emerge again. Who let the sun sit squarely on their backs one last time before hanging their boots up forever. It adds to this sense of a chapter closing that I just cannot shake. Life feels like a series of endings these days, and I am in desperate need of a beginning. Of potential and promise not marred but one ill-timed slide on artificial turf. When life just opens up, and all you see is clear road ahead of you.

“There are endings and then there are endings,” Hanif Abdurraqib wrote. I keep waiting for the latter, because the former is all I have, and I have them over and over and over again.

Cheers for a great career, Joe, though I wish you would have given it one more season. I’ve had enough change, enough endings, to last a lifetime, but it feels like that’s all that life is now: endings. Endings and change. Every week, something or someone gone forever.

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