Samuel Beckett didn't have Joe Mauer in mind when he wrote Waiting for Godot. However, there is a similarity or two between the play and Mauer's current status with the Minnesota Twins, as is often the case between baseball, literature, and life.
The play, if you haven't read it, goes like this: The two main characters Vladimir and Estragon spend two consecutive days waiting for a character named Godot, who never shows up. They joke, they speculate, they bemoan their fate, and they get absolutely nothing accomplished as they obsess about the whereabouts of this person.
The play is structured in such a fashion that one never quite knows whether Godot is an actual person, a figment of their imagination, or something else. But there is the anticipation that if he appears, everything will be set right with the world.
A basic meaning one can take from a reading of Beckett's play is that we shouldn't invest too much hope in external forces outside our control or trust in magical fixes.
Of course, the difference here is that Mauer is the real deal.
Mauer, for those of you who spend too much time with your nose stuck between the pages of a book, is on the mend, trying to overcome a disabling inflammation in his lower back that has prevented him from taking the field this season. The latest news is that he's able to run without pain, a major step forward, and Mauer may be able to return to the Twins before the end of April.
Mauer's impeccable credentials are a matter of history.
Mauer, at 25, is a two-time American League batting king with a lifetime .316 batting average.
His career .399 on-base percentage is phenomenal, far outdistancing the marks amassed by such Hall of Fame catchers as Yogi Berra (.348), Johnny Bench (.342), and Carlton Fisk (.341). Only Mickey Cochrane (.419) owns a higher on-base percentage among catchers than Mauer.
And these things don't even take into account his defensive abilities which, by common consensus and empiracal evidence, rank at the top of the catching ranks.
Yet isn't the baseball world guilty of the same thing as the main characters in the play, namely, investing too much significance in one player's reappearance?
Let's forget for a moment that Mauer is the face of the franchise.
Let's push aside the mounting evidence that Mauer is not only one of the best-hitting catchers in the game, perhaps the very best in history, and that he's a marvelous defender who can bring an opposing team's running game to a halt.
Let's even ignore the perception, which is true, that in a sports world filled with anti-heroes like Michael Vick, Terrell Owens, and Allen Iverson, Mauer is a positive role model, one parents can point out to their children with pride.
Will his return really be a magic elixir for the Twins?
That's what we're led to believe by the voluminous literature that's already been created in the wake of Mauer's injury and the incredible interest in his recovery.
Tracy Ringolsby thinks that Mauer is nothing less than Godot incarnate:
"Face it. As good a manager as Ron Gardenhire is, having Mauer makes him that much better, and not having Mauer makes the Twins mediocre."
Ditto for Rob Neyer:
"Of course, it's terribly early to suggest that Mauer will miss the whole season or even most of it. And there's nothing particularly special about the Twins; with the exception of perhaps the Red Sox, few contenders can easily shake off the loss of their best player."
And here's Jayson Stark's take:
"Joe Mauer, after all, isn't just another name in the Twins' scorecard. He's a Minnesotan, a No. 1 pick in the whole country, a two-time batting champion, the centerpiece of what they do and who they are."
Yet, will his presence, for instance, help Francisco Liriano avoid the gopher ball?
Will Mauer's return improve Carlos Gomez's batting eye?
Will Mauer's sturdy presence behind the plate suddenly inspire the Twins' on-again, off-again middle relief staff corps to hunker down and stop surrendering unnecessary runs in the late going of tight games?
One of the statistics that spotlights Mauer's importance to the Twins is that the Twins are 211-170 with Mauer in the lineup, but 56-59 with someone else behind the plate.
Mauer's career, though, overlaps that of teammate Justin Morneau, who has averaged 29 home runs and 123 home runs over the past three years. Note that Morneau, without Mauer in the lineup, is off to a quick start in 2009 with eight RBI in nine games.
The dearly departed Torii Hunter also enjoyed marvelous success in a Twins uniform in both 2006 and 2007. During that time frame, he belted 59 home runs and drove in 205 runs.
Pitchers Johan Santana and Joe Nathan continued to forge impressive links in their resumes while Mauer has been a member of the Twins' regular lineup.
Was their success due solely to Mauer's presence?
Is it too much to suggest that if one of these players had succumbed to an injury, the Twins wouldn't have enjoyed nearly as much success?
The point that I'm coming to in a roundabout way is that the Twins' fate will likely be sealed before Mauer returns to the field and squats behind the plate.They don't have the luxury of Waiting for Mauer. The adjustments that the Twins make in the next few days will likely determine their status as a potential playoff contender, irrespective of whether Mauer fully recovers.
The best-case scenario is that Mauer returns to the lineup without suffering any ill effects from his back condition that would impede his free-flowing swing or his ability to throw out baserunners.
However, it's not even a given that Mauer, whose back ailment is described as rare, will be able to catch for an extended period of time. He may be forced to take up the role of the designated hitter more often than not, which would remove a potentially dangerous bat from the Twins' lineup.
The worst-case scenario is that Mauer will be in and out of the lineup for the rest of the season, with intermittent but recurrent back pain that hampers his full effectiveness.
In a sense, the Twins have been waiting on Mauer for several years now. Since making him their starting catcher in April 2004, the Twins have played 819 games and counting; Mauer has played 561. That's a problem, and it's one of their own making. His injuries aren't likely to subside until they move him to a new position.
Mauer's propensity toward injury has even led to the uncharitable hypothesis, promulgated by one prominent columnist, that Mauer is somehow responsible for this lack of durability and that perhaps he somehow lacks the intestinal fortitude to play hurt.
Waiting can take you to strange places. It can lead one to untenable conclusions. It can also lead one to invest magical powers in a ballplayer.
The fact is that Mauer is inarguably one of the best ballplayers in the business, one who can make a substantial difference in a team's fortunes if there are some other pieces of the puzzle in place. But in and of himself, he can't carry a team to the promised land.
After all, baseball history is littered with examples of exceptional talents who never tasted a division title, much less a pennant or a World Series crown, due to a lack of pitching or the absence of another power hitter in a lineup.
It's only natural to breathlessly anticipate the return of a rare talent. But isn't it silly in its own right to suggest that the ballplayer, if he returns to full health, will skyrocket a team into first place?
The baseball world should color itself content if it gets to see Mauer once again draw a bead on a fastball and send it on a line shot over second base.