Is this kind of commitment to one player a gamble for the Twins? Of course, but letting Mauer go to one of the usual-suspect franchises on the East Coast would have been the real gamble. It would have been a gamble with the affection and the loyalty of the Twins' fan base.
It is one thing to be Mauer, a player whose combination of offensive talent and catching skills make him one of the best all-around catchers in the history of the game, at a position that remains one of the game's most demanding. It is another to be Mauer with all that ability, and also a native of St. Paul, Minn., a local man, modest, self-effacing, baseball's answer to "Minnesota nice."
There was a strange duality to the process. You know that someone of Mauer's stature typically has moved to a larger-market franchise, for bigger paydays. That was the usual scenario. And yet, in another way, it would have been unthinkable for the Twins to lose Mauer, given his importance, his immediacy, his talent, his background, his geography, the need for this franchise to hang onto this player.
The Twins couldn't have come up with this kind of financial package if they were still going to be in the Metrodome for the long term. Target Field, and its potential for increased revenues, makes this deal possible, as it makes a viable future for the Twins possible. Even before the Mauer deal, with the move into the new ballpark this spring, the Twins were increasing their player payroll by nearly 50 percent for 2010. Their financial horizons have been expanded and their competitive horizons should grow as well.
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The Twins have done extraordinarily well up until now as a member of baseball's lower-middle class. They have mastered the traditional baseball areas of scouting and player development and in that way, they have been a role-model franchise for baseball's underdogs. They have won five American League Central titles in the last eight seasons. They have done a lot with relatively little.
They move into a new category with the new ballpark and the new contract for Mauer. But they still won't be the Yankees, a trait they conveniently share with 28 other franchises.
This is where the encouragement occurs for the rest of the non-Yankees in the baseball universe. Instead of Mauer moving to the Bronx to take over for Jorge Posada, for instance, he will simply remain in the upper Midwest as a member of the Minnesota Twins. What a nice, clean, refreshing story line.
One of the biggest stars of the game will make his home for the years of his peak earning power, not near the Hudson River, or the East River, or the Atlantic Ocean, but along the banks of the upper Mississippi. Nice geographical change of pace.
There should be encouragement in this example for other franchises of less than gargantuan size, with star players coming into their own free agency. The best players can be retained by someone other than the biggest franchises.
Those players can't be retained in every case. The disparities in revenues among franchises won't disappear just because one exceptional player stayed with the Twins. But the example of Mauer indicates clearly that a player of real greatness can be scouted, drafted, nurtured and then -- how about this? --- kept by a team that is not among baseball's upper economic crust.
Congratulations to Mauer on his deal and to the Twins on their willingness to do what it took to keep this magnificent talent in Minnesota. The rest of the AL Central might not be particularly thrilled, but for small-market franchises elsewhere, this signing was a shining example, a highly encouraging example.