Mauer near-unanimous pick as American League Most Valuable Player

NEW YORK — Joe Mauer sat behind a table on a podium in a conference room at the Metrodome when Justin Morneau shouted out the last question of the day.

Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer speaks about winning the American League Most Valuable Player award

Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer speaks about winning the American League Most Valuable Player award

NEW YORK — Joe Mauer sat behind a table on a podium in a conference room at the Metrodome when Justin Morneau shouted out the last question of the day.

“Are you finally going to buy dinner now?” Morneau said to his teammate from the audience, one MVP to another.

Mauer became only the second catcher in 33 years to win the American League Most Valuable Player Award, finishing first in a near-unanimous vote Monday.

The Minnesota Twins star received 27 of 28 first-place votes and 387 points in balloting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

Yankees teammates Mark Teixeira (225 points) and Derek Jeter (193) followed. Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera drew the other first-place vote and was fourth with 171 points, one point ahead of the Angels’ Kendry Morales.

Mauer became the second Twins player to win in four years, following Morneau in 2006. Morneau, a New Westerminster, B.C., native, gave Mauer a bottle of champagne.

“Hopefully we can pop that open here a little later,” Mauer said.

Born in St. Paul, the 26-year-old can leave the Twins and become a free agent after the 2010 season, when he is to make $12.5 million. Minnesota is expected to try to sign him to a new deal.

“I’ve always said it will happen when it needs to happen and I truly believe that,” he said. “I’m not the kind of guy that, you know, says by this date we need to have something done.”

He enjoys playing in front of his family and friends and his preference is to stay with the Twins.

“Can we win here? Yes. Definitely. I think so,” he said. “And that’s ultimately what I would like to do.”

For now, Twins general manager Bill Smith didn’t want to address the business side.

“All that contract stuff, that’s for another day,” he said. “I’ll just say one thing: If you think if he finished second that the price is going to come down … No.”

Morneau, signed at US$14 million for each of the next four seasons, usually picks up checks as the highest-paid member of the Twins. He might be losing that status to Mauer sometime soon.

“We’re going to do everything we can to keep him here as a Minnesota Twin,” Morneau said. “The biggest thing now isn’t the money. It’s going to be whether or not he feels like we can win every day.”

Mauer set a major league record for highest batting average by a catcher and won his third batting title, becoming the first repeat batting champion since Nomar Garciaparra in 1999-00.

“I love catching. I love the demands that are put on me and the responsibilities that I have, although it might beat you up a little bit physically and mentally,” Mauer said. “I like being back there making those decisions, you know, for my team.”

After missing April with a back injury, Mauer homered on his first swing of the season and went on to lead the AL in batting average (.365), on-base percentage (.444) and slugging percentage (.587), the first AL player to top all three categories in the same season since George Brett in 1980.

Mauer set career bests with 28 homers and 96 RBIs. He had more walks (76) than strikeouts (63) and batted .378 from Sept. 13 on after Morneau’s season-ending back injury, helping the Twins overtake Detroit for the AL Central title. He was voted to his third All-Star team and won his second straight AL Gold Glove.

Mauer said the injury and his minor rehabilitation assignment might have been a “blessing in disguise.” He was forced to do more core work on his abdominal muscles.

“In April, I couldn’t watch a whole lot of the games,” he said. “I’d watch for a little bit and I’d get so frustrated that I wasn’t out there.”

Ivan Rodriguez in 1999 had been the only catcher since Thurman Munson in 1976 to win the AL MVP. The other catchers to win in the AL were Mickey Cochrane (1934), Yogi Berra (1951 and 1954-55) and Elston Howard (1963). NL catchers to win were Gabby Hartnett (1935), Ernie Lombardi (1938), Roy Campanella (1951, 1953 and 1955) and Johnny Bench (1970 and 1972).

In addition to Mauer and Morneau, other Twins to win were Zoilo Versalles (1965), Harmon Killebrew (1969) and Rod Carew (1977).

Mauer receives a $100,000 bonus for winning the award, and Cabrera gets $200,000 for finishing fourth. Cabrera’s first-place vote came from Keizo Konishi of Kyodo News, a member of the Seattle chapter.

Teixeira led the AL with 122 RBIs and tied for first with 39 homers. Jeter was second to Morneau in the 2006 voting and finished third behind Juan Gonzalez and Garciaparra in 1998.

The NL MVP is to be announced Tuesday, and Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals is favoured to repeat.

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