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Richard Justice

Mauer, Morneau deserve to stick together

Twins cornerstones could be playing final season together in Minnesota

Mauer, Morneau deserve to stick together

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- They're back for a 10th season together, friends and teammates, the faces of the Minnesota Twins. For Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, this is a season of sweetness on a couple of levels. Both of them are healthy again, and both of them sense that the Twins are close to turning a corner after back-to-back last-place finishes.

Yet there's uncertainty, too, because there's the very real possibility that this could be their last season together. Morneau is eligible for free agency after this season, and even though he has said he'd like to stay, even though Mauer has lobbied for his buddy, the Twins are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

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"I always say it'll take care of itself," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "If Justin does those things he's capable of doing, that contract status will take care of itself."

Yes, but will that next contract come from the Twins?

"Why not?" Ryan asks.

For his part, Morneau has said exactly the right things.

"This is the only organization I've ever known and the only organization I want to know," he said. "But that's out of my hands."

Mauer is straightforward on the topic.

"I think everybody knows where I stand and what I would like to have happen," he said. "He's a good friend of mine."

Still, Ryan will face a decision. If Morneau is healthy and productive -- and every indication is that he will be -- Ryan probably will have contenders dangling packages of prospects for his services, especially should the Twins not be involved in a playoff race.

Here's to Morneau's exit not happening. They've been so good together for so long, joined at the hip in the hearts and minds of a generation of Twins fans, that the perfect ending would be to give them the opportunity to help finish the job of rebuilding their franchise.

Morneau finally is free of the concussion symptoms that shortened his 2010 and 2011 seasons, and he has recovered from surgical procedures on his neck, wrist, knee and foot.

For the first time in a while, he can play with a clear mind and a healthy body. He has learned to appreciate the game in a way he probably never did during all those days when he could not play.

"I think I appreciated it before," he said. "But when you're sitting at home and something is taken away from you, and when you feel you have an awful lot left to do in the game and contribute to a team, it makes it very difficult. My perspective on life has changed a little bit. I've learned to enjoy each day, because you don't know what's going to happen tomorrow."

Meanwhile, Mauer is coming off another monster season: a .416 on-base percentage, tops in the American League, along with 31 doubles, four triples, 10 home runs and 90 walks. Still only 29, he seems on his way to constructing a Hall of Fame resume. He, too, is healthy again after leg problems limited him to 82 games in 2011.

Once upon a time, it seemed inevitable that they would lead the Twins to a championship. In recent years, the challenge has been to keep them on the field.

"You appreciate the opportunity to play in the big leagues," Mauer said. "You love something and get to do it every single day. I don't think I ever took it for granted, but it makes you appreciate it more. Being out on the field with your teammates, we're pretty fortunate to do what we do."

When the Twins talk about Mauer and Morneau, they almost never begin with the obvious stuff. Plenty of what the pair has accomplished can be measured. In helping the Twins get to the playoffs four times in a seven-year stretch at the beginning of their careers, they've each won an AL Most Valuable Player Award and have a combined nine All-Star appearances and six Silver Slugger Awards.

To the Twins, though, to the people who are around them everyday and have seen them in good times and bad, there's something else about them almost as impressive.

"They're good people. They're good teammates. They're good in the community," Ryan said.

There it is. It's the way they handle their business away from the field. It's their dedication to doing things right, to being good role models and to representing their franchise the way they think it should be represented.

"They have a lot of respect for everything that's involved in a franchise," Ryan said. "They take that seriously."

Ryan sat in his team's Spring Training clubhouse Thursday morning and smiled as he thought about how the years have rolled by. Morneau is 31 and beginning his 11th season. Mauer is 29 and beginning his 10th.

Both are married, each participating in the other's wedding. Mauer just announced that he and his wife are expecting -- how perfect is this? -- twins in August.

"We've seen them grow from young men into mature men," Ryan said. "It's amazing. It doesn't seem all that long ago that we drafted them."

Both players say they've been so busy playing in the World Baseball Classic and preparing for a new season that they haven't had time to reflect on the possibility of this being their last rodeo together.

"We have this year to play, and that's what we're focused on," Mauer said.

So much has happened that both of us have learned to appreciate one day at a time.

"That's a pretty good player to be compared with," Mauer said.

Morneau smiled.

"It's been good so far," he said.

Let's hope for many more.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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