The Kid Who Struck Out Joe Mauer
He doesn't want his picture in the paper. He doesn't want his name in the paper. In fact, he'd rather you not know his name at all. He understands how Mauer Mania and the media can hoover up a fella in the blink of a CNN crawl, and he has little interest in becoming the next Pete Best or Babe the Blue Ox. No, he will not live out his days as an asterisk or an answer to the trivia question: Joe Mauer struck out just one time in high school. What was the name of the pitcher who got him?
So let it please the court that Feiner is more than just The Kid Who Struck Out Joe Mauer, talk of which, he says, "makes my stomach cringe with feelings of extraordinary self-indulgence at this point, six years later. I feel as deserving of this attention as Paris Hilton [is of] an Oscar nomination." Hence, The Kid would only agree to an e-mail interview, which, in terms of the myth-making that is at the heart of all baseball lore, could actually backfire and turn him into Shoeless J.D. Salinger, or some such thing.
"I live and work in Minneapolis and absolutely love the city and my life here," e-mailed Feiner last week. "Unfortunately, it is difficult to get a baseball game together, but my friends and I play a fair amount of home run derby at a nearby park. I am 24 and manage two bank branches as well as do financial planning. One of my customers organizes a baseball game every Sunday. I just heard about it. I'd like to get back on a mound. There are few places like it in the world."
When Paul Feiner was 15, he threw a no-hitter. His father, Dave, once hit five home runs in a single American Legion game for Ethan, South Dakota. His father and grandfather grace the walls of the South Dakota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame. He was born in Nebraska and graduated from the University of Minnesota.
But such details are not the subject of the hour, and so Feiner dutifully e-rattles off the story about what happened when he was a senior at Elk River High School, playing Mauer's Cretin-Derham Hall team in the 2000 state tournament consolation game. Actually, he would rather talk about his teammates, or Greek philosophy, or the fact that Mauer also homered and singled off him in the game, which Elk River lost 7-1. But that is not why we are here, Kid.
We are here to talk about what happened only once in 222 at-bats, a feat that Mauer's high school coach, Jim O'Neill, described as "phenomenal" last week. "I coached him three years in high school," says O'Neill, an older and wiser man who is apparently not at all uncomfortable with phone interviews or his place in history. "I coached him 50 games in the summer, so that's at least a couple hundred more at-bats where he didn't strike out. I've never heard of anything like it. Even great hitters have five or six strikeouts a season. It's just the law of averages."
When Mauer was small, his father built a hitting contraption for the back yard: a PVC pipe that dropped a ball in the air. It gave young Mauer quick wrists and helped make him the hitter he is today (the machine is now available for 59 bucks at quickswing.com). As such, he probably had great confidence as he came to the plate that day in the sixth inning with two outs, nobody on, and the score tied 1-1. Feiner worked Mauer to a 2-2 count, then came with his best pitch, a hard curveball. The All-American swung and missed.
"Our bench got real quiet," says O'Neill. "Nobody said a thing. Did you see what I just saw? Nobody could believe it; I still can't believe it when I see him strike out. He didn't say anything, but you could tell he was mad because he started moving quicker. That's what he does when he gets mad: moves quick."
Writes Feiner, "I remember coming off the field and jumping over the first base line and looking up at our crowd all standing together. It felt like two hundred people all lived that moment just as excited as I was. I have not spoken with him about it.
"I hear about the strikeout three or four times a week. My oldest brother's friends are the worst about bringing it up. The shadow that does or does not follow me will be proportional to [Mauer's career]. He looks like a Hall of Famer. If he blows out a knee and is never the same, I'm not answering these questions or having relatives bring it up at reunions."
Thanks, Kid. You've done your bit. Now go back to your life. But wait. What's this? A final late-night e-mail, in response to a couple of final questions about Mauer. An asterisk from Mr. Asterisk.
"When I finished with really competitive sports, I had an energy that needed to be projected somewhere," he wrote. "I could no longer toe the rubber and stare into the soul of a man with a blunt piece of lumber in his hands. Music and writing became very important to me early on in college. Both feel uniquely sacred.
"Baseball felt that way to me in all my childhood and teenage years. It felt untouchable and escapist in a really natural and healthy way. Baseball will always represent this perfect green grass, cards-in-the-spokes, bubble-gum-and-Beckett-in-the-summer slice of growing-up Americana. Joe has become the all-American boy. I heard he is even dating Miss Teen America—I find that appropriate. Good for him. He's quiet and strong and graceful, like a baseball robot.
"He's sheepish with interviews and very polished to never say anything to keep Joe Common's eyes open at his work desk as he picks his paper up and reads about last night's game. [Mauer's] quotes range from, 'I just hit it where it was pitched' to 'Been having a little luck lately, I guess.' Hardly. Powerball is luck. Meat Raffles are luck. Joe Mauer is calculated. He's a natural, but he knows what he is doing.
"I admire his swing and attitude toward the game for the exact reason turning his bland public persona over should be a publicist's senior thesis: He's redundant and effective. His swing is like a machine—like a machine that you can buy by calling the number on the screen.
"Joe Mauer Haiku
"Swing like a machine?
call in now at the bottom
of your t.v. screen"
Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected]
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