MINNEAPOLIS -- Joe Mauer joined an elite group of players when he won his third American League batting title this past season.
Now the 26-year-old Twins catcher has become a member of another illustrious club -- that of Most Valuable Player Award winners.
Mauer was named the AL MVP by the Baseball Writers Association of America for the first time in his career on Monday, receiving 27 of the 28 first-place votes to easily beat out the Yankees' duo of Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter, who finished in second and third, respectively.
Mauer finished with 327 points, well ahead of Teixeira, who had 225, and Jeter, who had 193. Detroit first baseman Miguel Cabrera, who received the only other first-place vote, was fourth with 171 points.
"It's surreal, to hear those words -- AL MVP," Mauer said. "A dream of mine was always to play in the big leagues and I got there. Now to think I'm an MVP, I can't really describe it. ... An award like this, it is an individual award, but I think my teammates had a lot to do with that. They just pushed me every day."
For the Twins, this marked the second time in four seasons that one of their players was named AL MVP. Justin Morneau took home the honor in 2006. Mauer is now the fifth player in Twins history to win the award, joining Zoilo Versalles (1965) Harmon Killebrew (1969), Rod Carew (1977) and his teammate, Morneau.
The Twins celebrated Mauer's accomplishment with a news conference on Monday afternoon at the Metrodome. It was a family affair, as the St. Paul native was joined by his parents, his two older brothers and their families, including his two young nieces, as well as his grandparents, who have been a staple at nearly every Twins home game over the past six seasons.
Sitting alongside Mauer's family at the press conference was Morneau and his wife, Krista. Morneau wanted to help celebrate his good friend's achievement. He even brought Mauer a bottle of champagne.
"He deserves it," Morneau said. "You look at his career right now with three batting titles at 26 years old. Some of the best players in the history of the game have won three batting titles in their whole career. I mean, you look at what he's done -- Gold Gloves, Sliver Sluggers -- and he still can get better. We're very lucky to be a part of it and watch him play. Ten years from now when we look back on it, we'll say, 'Wow this guy is one of the best to ever play the game.'"
Mauer put together the best season of his already impressive young career in 2009, despite missing all of April due to a back injury. He batted .365 to earn his second straight AL batting title and his third in four seasons, becoming the only catcher in Major League history to accomplish the feat. He is the 10th player in AL history with three or more batting titles.
In addition to leading the league in batting average, Mauer also was the leader in on-base percentage (.444) and slugging percentage (.587), giving him what some consider the modern Triple Crown. The last AL player to lead in all three of those categories was George Brett of the Royals in 1980. Mauer set career highs in home runs (28) and RBIs (96). And it was that unexpected power surge that was the biggest change for Mauer in 2009, as he more than doubled his previous high in homers (13 in 2006).
"The year Joe had was just incredible," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said last week. "It's almost hard to wrap your mind around where he now stands in the history of the game. I know what he means to our ballclub and our organization. But I think everybody nationally is starting to get a little bit of a feel now how really, really good this guy is. I think you just top it off by giving him an MVP Award, which he rightfully deserves."
Mauer said that he's had some time to reflect on the season in recent weeks, particularly while bow hunting for deer near his cabin, which is located about an hour north of the Twin Cities.
"I've had a chance to go up in the deer stand a few times, and everyone here knows that when you're up in the deer stand you think about a lot of different things," Mauer quipped. "Just about the type of year we had as a team, the run that we had. I think coming into the season, my goal personally was just to stay on the field. To be here sitting today and being the MVP is more than I could have ever imagined."
Last winter it likely would have been difficult for Mauer to picture his 2009 season ending this way. He was plagued by back problems throughout the offseason and it kept him from participating at all during the club's Spring Training in Fort Myers, Fla. In mid-March, Mauer was finally diagnosed with inflammation in his sacroiliac joint, forcing him to begin the year on the disabled list and miss the entire first month of the regular season as he allowed his aching lower back to heal.
"I wasn't too happy, you could say that," Mauer said. "That's why I'd like to thank my family for having that support, sticking with me. They probably heard me rant a little bit of 'What's going on?' It took a whole lot of people to get me out on the field. I'm just appreciative that once I got out there, I was able to stay out there."
The catcher did more than just get on the field. He hit a home run in his first at-bat of the season on May 1, and he delivered one of the best single-month performances ever enjoyed by a player in his first month back with the club.
Mauer now believes that perhaps his injury and subsequent Minor League rehab stint might have been a blessing in disguise. He was forced to do more core work on his abdominal and back muscles, something he believes might have helped with his power surge.
Considered a front-runner for the MVP honor as he flirted with hitting .400 into the month of July, Mauer saw his candidacy surge thanks to the Twins' late-season run.
Sitting seven games back of the Tigers on Sept. 6, Minnesota won 17 of its final 21 games -- including a one-game tiebreaker against Detroit -- to capture the club's fifth division title in eight years. With Morneau out for the final three weeks of the season due to injury, Mauer's production was even more critical. The Twins went 11-11 in April without Mauer but went 76-65 after he returned to the club.
Mauer's impact on the Twins was about more than his offensive numbers, however. During the first month of the season, the club got a reminder of what it was like not to have its Gold Glove Award-winning catcher behind the plate. In addition to having one of the better arms in the league, Mauer has also played a key role in helping to steady the Twins pitching staff.
"He's a special player, and it's rewarding for a lot of people in the organization," said Twins general manager Bill Smith. "A lot of Minor League managers and coaches have had the privilege of working with Joe. When you get a once-in-a-lifetime player like Joe, we're fortunate."
For winning the MVP, Mauer receives a $100,000 bonus, per the terms of his contract. But with Mauer set to enter the final year of his four-year, $33 million deal in 2010, the big question this offseason revolves around Mauer's future. The Twins have not hidden their desire to sign the catcher to a long-term extension this offseason before he can reach free agency.
But on this day, neither Mauer nor Smith wanted to focus on anything other than the catcher's MVP award.
"All that contract stuff, that's for another day," Smith said. "I'll just say one thing: If you think if he finished second that the price is going to come down ... No."
Mauer wasn't the only Twins player to receive MVP votes. Michael Cuddyer received an eighth-place vote and a 10th-place vote from two of the 28 reporters who cast ballots. Jason Kubel received an eighth-place vote.
For Mauer, the AL MVP was the cap to what has been a busy awards season. He's taken some time to reflect on what happened in '09 and to enjoy it, he said. But after his news conference, Mauer admitted that talking about what both he and the Twins as a team accomplished this past season already has him thinking about what they can do in 2010.
"I'm looking forward to next year already," Mauer said. "I've started moving around again, starting to work out and I feel great. This press conference, talking about the year we had, has got me excited about next year."