March 9, 2005

The Knee

Let's talk about The Knee for a moment.

After catching seven total innings over the course of two days, Joe Mauer began to experience what is being called "mild soreness and swelling" in his surgically repaired left knee. Nothing serious, Mauer and the Twins said, but then again we've all heard that before.

If you have surgery to repair a major part of your body, take extended time off from using the repaired part in a stressful way, and the suddenly begin using it again, I don't think some "mild soreness and swelling" is necessarily unexpected. Of course, that's me pretending to be an optimist, rather than pretending to be, say, a doctor.

Obviously everyone involved would have felt a lot better about this whole thing if Mauer could have somehow made it to Opening Day without any problems. A completely healthy and pain free spring might have even made a few people forget about The Knee for a while. Instead, regardless of how mild the soreness and swelling is and how expected they were, all the same questions come up again.

Can Mauer's knee hold up to the rigors of catching every day? Can he be a part-time catcher, at least? Does Mauer have a low threshold for pain? Will he have to switch positions? When will he have to make the switch? Third base or designated hitter? Who will catch? What will the Twins do with Michael Cuddyer or Lew Ford? Will the injury hurt his hitting too?

And on and on and on.

I feel a little silly saying this, but I literally think about Mauer's knee every day. I don't see how I could avoid it, actually. If you're thinking about the Twins (which I do constantly) and you're thinking about the season ahead, how can you have those thoughts without wondering about the health status of the team's best position player? Until he plays a full season without any problems whatsoever or gives in and switches positions, Mauer's knee will forever be the pink elephant in the room.

I still have a small bit of hope that everything will turn out just fine and that Mauer will have a nice, long career as a major-league catcher. But I would no longer bet on it. And if he doesn't -- if The Knee eventually just can't take squatting behind the plate -- it will be one of the cruelest jokes the baseball gods have ever played.

A small-market team passes on a sure-thing in the form of a dominant, polished college righthander named Mark Prior to draft a hometown boy, a high-school catcher, with the #1 pick. The hometown boy hits .400 the moment he steps foot on a pro field, blitzes through the minors leaving a trail of opposite-field singles behind him, and takes his place as the team's starting catcher at the tender age of 21.

The hometown boy then proceeds to show every imaginable skill, as if he were created in a lab somewhere using equal parts Johnny Bench, Mickey Cochrane, Ivan Rodriguez, and Carlton Fisk. He's big, he's strong, he's smart. He hits, he hits for power, he works counts, he controls the strike zone. He calls a great game, he throws out runners, he manages the pitching staff.

The hometown boy is an unequivocal baseball stud in every conceivable way. Much like John Shaft, the ladies want to be with him and the men want to be him. But mostly everyone just wants to see what a .300-hitting, Gold Glove-winning, Minnesota-born superstar catcher looks like. And the amazing thing is, they saw it. They saw it hit .308/.369/.570, they saw it gun down 39% of baserunners, and they saw it do so with about 15 years left in the tank. Or so it seemed.

Then, two games into the start of one of the greatest catching careers in baseball history, some catching gear gets caught in the Metrodome turf while the hometown boy goes chasing after a foul ball. A knee tears, a Hall of Fame career goes flashing before our eyes, and suddenly nothing is certain. Can he play? Can he catch? A surgery and a long rehabilitation later and we still know nothing more than to say, "We'll see."

The offseason was supposed to get us closer to knowing whether The Knee can make it, but each time a problem arises we go right back to the beginning, to knowing absolutely nothing. So now, for yet another time, the news on The Knee is good news. Mauer took batting practice yesterday, along with some anti-inflammatory drugs, and says the knee is already feeling better.

"It felt great today, waking up," Mauer told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "It's getting better. It's just a matter of getting the rest of the inflammation out. I was prepared for it, but it was still disappointing to see. I should be back in there the next couple of days. I want to make sure I ice and do the right things. I should be fine."

That's the first step, version 4.0. The next step will be in a few days, when he is (hopefully) able to resume playing in games. Then, for the fourth time in less than a year, we'll see if The Knee can handle catching.

Today at The Hardball Times:
- Tony O's Beef? (by Aaron Gleeman)
- Offseason Rankings: Part Two (by Ben Jacobs)

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