With a loud "thwack," a baseball leaps off Joe Mauer's bat and climbs through the crisp morning air. About 380 feet later, the ball clears the outfield fence in right center, becoming a souvenir for a lucky spectator at Lee County Sports Complex in Fort Myers, Florida, the spring training home of the Minnesota Twins.
It's the final week of spring training, and Mauer—the Twins' newly appointed full-time first baseman—seems pleased. But the gaggle of teammates and spectators watching look blown away. Perhaps that's because Mauer isn't swinging a piece of Major League lumber. Instead, he's using a Kinect Stick, a training bat that's one-and-a-half inches thick—approximately half the size of a normal bat. From a distance, it looks like Mauer is launching balls into orbit with the bizarre offspring of a fungo bat and a cop's nightstick.
"The barrel is like swinging a pipe," Mauer says. "It gives you good feedback about whether you are squaring balls up and getting that backspin that you want."
We should mention that the pitch he sent yard was fired from a Jugs pitching machine with enough break on it to buckle the knees of most batters. Hitting a wicked curve ball with a comically tiny bat seems nearly impossible, but that's why Mauer does it at the end of his hitting sessions. In fact, he's been doing it since he was a kid.
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The Boys in the Basement
Legend has it that Mauer's majestic swing came naturally from the moment he picked up a bat as a toddler waddling around his backyard in St. Paul, Minnesota. Early video footage backs up the story, showing a diaper-clad Mauer chasing his two older brothers, Jake and Billy. Joe then grasps a bat and takes smooth, MLB-quality swings.
Mauer was trying to imitate his older brothers, but his swing was different.
"When I picked up the bat, I picked it up left-handed," he recalls. "My two older brothers were right-handed hitters and were trying to switch me over. Thankfully, my grandpa, who was left-handed and a great player in his own right, was there to stop them."
As Mauer grew, his natural swing became more powerful and accurate, aided by clever actions from his dad, Jake. During the remodeling of his family's basement, Jake took leftover pipes and created "bats" for his sons. Mauer says, "My dad cut them into 28-, 30- and 32-inch segments and taped up the handles. We were swinging heavy pipes with small barrels to hit wiffle golf balls."
The Mauer boys had a blast taking swings with the heavy, makeshift bats. It helped them develop powerful hands, forearms and core muscles while they honed their ability to make solid contact. That's why it's still part of Mauer's hitting routine today. "I'm still out here swinging pipes," he says.
Minnesota's brutal winters and non-existent springs made outdoor ball impossible for a good chunk of the year. The Mauer boys had fewer opportunities to play ball than their peers in warm-weather states. But Jake came through for his sons again, this time by inventing a device he called the Quick Swing.
The original version consisted of a coffee can with elbow-shaped PVC piping sticking out of the bottom, which came around in front of the hitter. When a ball dropped into the can, it traveled through the PVC pipe and dropped down into the strike zone, forcing the hitter to load and quickly swing.
"All of a sudden it dropped," Mauer says. "You had to react and be short and quick with your hands to meet the ball. I would keep going out there and swinging whenever I had a few minutes. I didn't know the benefits I was getting from it, I just liked to do it."
Mauer's Quick Swing, now an actual product sold online, was a driving force behind the quick, compact swing that made him one of the best hitters in the game.
Making the Bigs
When Mauer finally got a chance to take his game outdoors, he blew people away. At Cretin-Derham Hall High School, he posted a .605 batting average his senior year. In four years of play, he struck out just once. He also led the basketball team to the Minnesota state tournament and played quarterback on a state runner-up football team. He held a scholarship offer to play QB at Florida State, but the Twins picked him first in the 2001 MLB Draft.
"Joe is an incredible athlete," says Twins strength and conditioning coordinator Perry Castellano. "The guy could, and still can, do everything."
Within two years, Mauer— who had morphed into a 6-foot-5, 230-pound slugger—had become a Major League starter. Opening Day in 2004, when the nervous 20-year-old took the field at a stadium barely 10 miles away from his high school, was an experience he calls one of the most emotional of his life.
From there, Mauer's numbers tell the story: 11 seasons; six All-Star appearances; three American League batting titles; three Gold Gloves; a .322 career batting average (tops among active players); and a 2009 AL MVP award.
The move to first should preserve Mauer's body and extend his career. Although Mauer's on-field skills routine has changed (watch his new routine), his training goals remain the same: to improve lower-body strength, stability and flexibility.
"We focus on training the full body, regardless of position," Castellano says. "For example, we don't just do 'ab work,' we train the whole body to work together."
The regimen focuses on recovery and quality rather than quantity. "When I was young, I would go out there and try to do everything," Mauer says."Now that I'm a little older, I understand you want to do things the right way."
Mauer recently began working with Roger Erickson, a stretching guru who helped former Baltimore Ravens All-Pro center Matt Birk during the team's 2012 Super Bowl Championship season.
"I've really been focusing on flexibility," Mauer states. "In baseball, you can stand around a lot. You have to stay loose to react quickly."
Playing the Game Right
The bomb to right center is the last of the day for Mauer. He trots up to the mound and offers a "Thank you" to Twins batting practice pitcher Erik Lovdahl. This simple gesture says a lot about Mauer's approach to the game: do the little things right and let your performance do the talking. "I guess I am a dying breed," he says. "I like to think of myself as old-school, and I think the people notice hard work. That's what I would like to be known for."
As he walks off the field, Mauer spots fans waiting anxiously for him. Already running a few minutes late for an interview, Mauer conveys a polite apology to the reporter waiting for him. Then he heads over to the fans and signs an autograph for each and every one of them.
Old school for sure.
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