Sixteen years after No. 1 pick, no regrets for Twins or Mauer

Joe Mauer in 2001 at a Minnesota Twins news conference to announce the signing of the No. 1 overall draft pick. (Carlos Gonzalez/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)
Caption
Joe Mauer in 2001 at a Minnesota Twins news conference to announce the signing of the No. 1 overall draft pick. (Carlos Gonzalez/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

Credit: Carlos Gonzalez

Credit: Carlos Gonzalez

The conference call had begun, and a voice in New York was slowly and deliberately taking roll, making sure each major league team was connected, could hear clearly, and was ready to start. The 2001 MLB draft was about to begin, and the Twins still didn't have an answer.

"Cleveland ... ready. Colorado ... ready. Detroit ... ready," the voice over the speaker phone squawked into a large, windowless conference room in the basement of the Metrodome, the volume cranked to be heard over the clatter of the stadium kitchen in the next room.

Nearly two dozen Twins scouts and supervisors were gathered in the "dungeon," as they called it, with white-erase boards lining the walls and scouting reports spread out on the table. Air conditioning sporadically kicked on to circulate the air, heavy with the smell of fryer grease.

Joel Lepel, the Twins' Midwest scouting supervisor, walked into the room as the roll call neared its end, having just listened in on one final round of last-ditch phone calls. As general manager Terry Ryan and assistant GM Wayne Krivsky walked in behind him, Lepel looked at scouting director Mike Radcliff, sitting at the head of the table in front of the phone, and shook his head. No deal.

"Take who you want," Lepel said.

Radcliff looked around the room. He looked at Ryan, who had already given his blessing. He looked at the other assembled scouts, some who agreed with him, some who did not. "I know some guys weren't sure what I was going to say," Radcliff says now.

The roll call ended just after noon, and the disembodied voice on the line said the draft would now begin.

"Minnesota has the first pick," it said, and then paused, waiting.

Radcliff leaned forward and hit the "talk" button on the speaker.

Joe Mauer stood impatiently in his parents' bedroom. There was a party about to start downstairs in the Mauers' St. Paul, Minn., home, where a couple of dozen of his Cretin-Derham Hall teammates, mostly his fellow seniors, had gathered, and the 18-year-old ballplayer was eager to join them. They had to make this quick, after all, because they had an important baseball game to play that afternoon, the Section 3 championship against Woodbury.

They just needed to know what they were celebrating.

"We really didn't know what was going to happen at that point," Mauer said. "The Twins called right before the draft, like 10 (minutes) to noon, and said they were talking about an agreement with somebody (else), but we want you, and here's (the bonus) we want you for. And my parents were like, 'Well, that's not what we talked about.' And when they hung up, we just looked at each other. I was like, 'So is that it?' "

Just five miles away, the Twins were poised to make their selection, but there was no TV show back then, no pick-by-pick breakdown. Just a couple of years earlier, MLB and some media outlets had begun posting draft results on the internet, but until recently, most players didn't know they had been drafted until their new team called to inform them.

"My agents, advisors at the time, had been talking to us that morning. They thought the Twins might still take me anyway. We just didn't know," Mauer said. "About 10 minutes after the draft started, (agents Ron Shapiro and Michael Maas) called back and said they hadn't heard anything. 'We don't know what's going to happen,' they told us. And while we're talking, Michael all of a sudden says, 'Hey, it says on the internet that you were taken No. 1!' And that's how I found out. Just someone happened to see it online, while I'm standing in my parents' bedroom."

Mauer pauses at the memory. "It's a little different today," he said.

He's absolutely right about that. On Monday, the Twins will exercise the overall No. 1 pick once again, for the third time in their history.

The player they select surely will be watching the national TV broadcast, might even be in MLB Network's Secaucus, N.J., studios to revel in his status. He'll shake the commissioner's hand, be interviewed by former ballplayers, and watch highlights of his amateur career.

But whoever the Twins choose, he probably won't go 4-for-4 that day and lead his team into the state quarterfinals.

"That made the day perfect. We ended up 10-running them (in a 13-3 win) at old Midway Stadium and got to celebrate again," Mauer said. "It was a lot of fun."

Baseball still is for Mauer, and that's one thing that hasn't changed: Sixteen years later, he's still in the lineup most days for the team that drafted him.

In fact, Mauer is one of the great success stories not only in Minnesota draft history, but of the draft overall. Of the 52 players who have been chosen as the overall top pick, only three, as measured by baseball-reference.com's Wins Above Replacement (WAR), have had more productive and successful careers than the three-time batting champion, six-time All-Star and 2009 Most Valuable Player: Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones and Ken Griffey Jr., the latter a Hall of Famer and the other two possessing Cooperstown-worthy resumes.

Yet the "Matt Christopher Sports Classic" quality to Mauer's career-long tenure with his hometown team has largely obscured a few facts about that draft choice: It almost didn't happen, the Twins were roasted by critics and scouts when it did, and it probably wouldn't happen today.

"The timing of it all is pretty remarkable," Radcliff said. "To have a kid this talented, from right down the street, enter the draft in the one year we happen to have the top pick — you could never plan that. You couldn't imagine it."