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CEDAR RAPIDS — You’d think selling cars and managing a professional baseball team would have nothing in common.
You’re hawking the latest Chevy Malibu, finagling with a customer over price and trying to get them to add rust proofing. You’re deciding whether to remove your starting pitcher and what to do to get your cleanup hitter out of a slump.
It’s apples and oranges. Or maybe not.
If you talk to Jake Mauer, the former has helped him with the latter, and vice versa. The Cedar Rapids Kernels manager has hawked vehicles for years in the offseason, helping out his brother, Billy, at his dealership in the Twin Cities.
When you tell him you might be in the market for a new vehicle, he goes into full-seller mode.
“It sounds funny, but working in the car business maybe helps me here. And my baseball mentality probably helps in the car business,” said Mauer. “The competitiveness and all that. Bargaining, talking, dealing with people. You’re not always going to agree with an umpire, you’re not always going to see eye to eye with the guys. But we’ve got to figure out a way to make it work. Different situations arise that you’ve got to be able to work through.”
Mauer’s Kernels begin the Midwest League playoffs Wednesday night at Wisconsin. The best-of-three Western Division semifinal series shifts to Cedar Rapids for Games 2 and 3, if needed, Thursday and Friday nights.
This is the fourth year the Kernels have been an affiliate of the Minnesota Twins, the fourth year Mauer has led them. The fourth year they’ve qualified for the postseason.
The 37-year-old best known by most as Twins star Joe Mauer’s big brother is carving out quite a career himself in baseball. He is the second-winningest manager in Cedar Rapids history, picking up his 300th victory in mid-August.
Mauer is 316-242 here. He, pitching coach J.P. Martinez and hitting coach Brian Dinkelman have done exemplary work with a team that isn’t rife with a bunch of big-named prospects.
Cedar Rapids finished the regular season with a 78-61 record.
“Obviously winning is more fun than losing,” Mauer said. “Off of this club, if we can get three, four or five guys to Minnesota, or just to the big leagues period, that’s what we’re here for. What we tell these guys is not everybody here is going to make it to Minnesota, but if you can do something one night and show somebody something, (maybe) you can make it with another team. That’d be a feather in your cap. You’re all here, you all have an opportunity, everybody is going to play. There’s nobody that’s not getting innings or not getting at-bats. It’s up to you with what you’re going to do with them.”
Mauer was drafted by the Twins in 2001 and played five seasons in the minor leagues. He then immediately went into coaching, assigned his first managing gig in 2008 with the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Twins.
Two seasons there were followed by a stint with high-A Fort Myers.
“I wanted to stay in the game, there’s no doubt. I was done at age 27, and that’s relatively young,” Mauer said. “It all kind of happened quickly. Literally, I took my stuff out of the player’s clubhouse in Fort Myers and went over to the coach’s side. I got released, and I got hired within, like, five seconds. So it was kind of a whirlwind that first year. You’re kind of quiet, just seeing what’s going on, how things operate. That was the toughest thing, not being able to do anything. You can’t grab a bat or catch a ball. That probably took a year or two to figure out.”
But he figured it out and developed his style. Mauer generally is easy going with his players (with everyone, really) and has their respect.
There is no doubting that.
“I think he just keeps everyone at ease and confident,” said Kernels first baseman Zander Wiel. “He never gets down on a guy. We can tell that he believes in all of us, and he wants what’s best for us as a team and as individuals. Obviously he’s got rich baseball bloodlines. It’s been really an honor to play for him. He’s been a great manager and a great leader all year.”
“You’ve got to just prepare them and let them play,” Mauer said. “I’ll still get worked up if we’re terrible, or excited sometimes if we’re doing good. But you try to temper both feelings. We play so much, you can’t get too excited, and you can’t get too down ... Just keep your approach, maintain it, and see how things shake out.”
It will be interesting to see how things shake out moving forward. The Twins have fired General Manager Terry Ryan, and whomever is hired as his replacement, he’ll want his own guys in place.
That includes on the player development side. With his track record, it’d seem dumb for the Twins not to retain Mauer, let alone promote him.
He helps develop players, moves them on and wins games. That’s checking all the boxes.
“You learn something every night,” he said. “I’ve learned things from Brian and J.P., whether they know it or not. That’s the thing about baseball. Some of the old way of thinking, guys don’t want to change. The game has changed so much even from when I started in 2001. It is completely different now than it was. It’s like the dinosaur. The reason dinosaurs are extinct is because they couldn’t adapt. It’s the same thing with baseball. There are going to be different ideas. Are you going to buy in all the way? Well, maybe not.”
Mauer pointed to the advent of video in the game. Every pitch, every at-bat, every play is recorded, uploaded and ready for viewing and analysis virtually immediately.
The Twins installed a TrackMan system at Veterans Memorial Stadium last year that measures everything from the exact spin on a pitch to the way a ball comes off a bat. The information is almost overwhelming.
“We didn’t have video when I first started,” Mauer said. “We had VHS tapes, even in Double-A. There is just so much information we’ve got now. It can short circuit your brain box, you could over-expose guys to it all. But you takes bits and pieces, take bits and pieces of it here and there. You figure out which guys can maybe handle more and which guys maybe not so much.”
Even after four seasons in Cedar Rapids, Mauer remains optimistic about his future in the game. He was asked where he sees himself in five years.
It’s not managing the Kernels.
“Hopefully in the big leagues. That’d be nice,” he said. “That’s still the goal, in whatever capacity. Managing, there are only 30 of those jobs, so you’ve got to be realistic with it. What it all boils down to is I really enjoy it. I like being around the guys, and I like teaching the game of baseball. I like competing. Really, as long as my (three) kids are happy, my wife’s doing a great job minding things at home and allowing me to chase my dream here, I’ll keep going. As long as everything is fine and (wife) Rachel is fine with everything, we’ll kind of see where the road ends up. Hopefully that’s in the big leagues.”
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