Before J.T. Realmuto became an All-Star catcher for the Miami Marlins, he was playing shortstop for the baseball team at Carl Albert High School in Midwest City, Oklahoma. But one of his favorite big league players at the time wasn’t a shortstop. It was Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer.
The way Mauer played and approached the game left an impression on the young Realmuto, who would later move behind the plate himself.
Realmuto is now coming into his prime, just as Mauer steps away. The Twins icon announced his retirement in a letter to fans on Friday (Saturday in Japan).
“In my opinion, he’s one of the greatest catchers of all-time,” Realmuto said at Tokyo Dome prior to the MLB team’s game against Samurai Japan in the Japan All-Star Series on Saturday night. “I don’t say that lightly. He was unbelievable defensively and offensively for a very long time. He’s somebody I definitely always looked up to growing up.”
Mauer, a native of St. Paul, Minnesota, played for 15 seasons, all with his hometown Twins. He leaves the game with a .306 career average, 143 home runs and 923 RBIs.
“He had a great career,” said Texas Rangers catcher Robinson Chirinos, who is also in Japan with the MLB All-Stars. “I wish him the best in his next chapter.”
Mauer was a nearly unanimous selection as AL MVP in 2009 (receiving 27 out of 28 first-place votes) and was a three-time AL batting champion. He was the AL Gold Glove winner at catcher from 2008-2010 and was a Silver Slugger Award winner at the position in 2006 and 2008-2010.
“He was still catching when I started catching,” Realmuto said. “But when I was in my most influential years, junior high and high school, I was a shortstop at the time and that was when he was really unbelievable.”
While Mauer spent most of his career as a catcher, a concussion he suffered on Aug. 19, 2013, forced him out of the position. He finished his career at first base and as a designated hitter.
“I was reading today about his concussion,” Chirinos said. “I know because I went through the same thing six years ago. I know it’s not fun. Hopefully he can go home now and not have to worry about concussions or getting injured.
“He had a great career in the big leagues.”
To Realmuto, it was one of the best by a backstop.
“He just did everything well,” Realmuto said. “It’s very hard to find catchers who can produce offensively and defensively and also take care of a pitching staff and lead a team.
“You really need all that from a catcher and not very many guys can do that. He did it as good, if not better, than any of them out there.”
As demanding as the position looks from the outside, it can really take a mental and physical toll on the men who play it, to say nothing of the injury risks.
“It’s not like (people) don’t appreciate it, but they don’t know all the work and the things we go through as catchers,” Chirinos said. “But we signed up to be catchers. I bet if you asked that question to every catcher, they’re going to say they love the position and they do it because they care about the team.”
That Mauer was able to do it so well has stuck with a lot of players. Realmuto says that while he hasn’t tried to adopt any specific part of Mauer’s approach, the influence of the Twins great is always there.
“I try to be a well-rounded catcher like he is,” Realmuto said. “I try to better myself behind the plate and on the basepaths, in the box … try to get better everywhere just to try to be almost as good as that guy is.”