Joe Mauer, Kirby Puckett and the role of memory in ascribing value
Think quickly: Who has the stronger body of work over his career–Joe Mauer or Kirby Puckett?
My immediate response was Puckett, whose remarkably solid 12-year career would have been all-the-more impactful had he not been forced to retire due to glaucoma in 1996. My earliest memories are of living in Minnesota in the mid-80s, where Puckett was a god on the level of a Cal Ripken or Ryne Sandberg or another Twin icon, Harmon Killebrew, beloved by fans and tremendous ballplayers in their own right.
I remember the 1987 and ’91 World Series championships, the Homer Hankies, postseasons where Puckett elevated his game–figuratively and literally–and cemented a Hall of Fame resume with two of the most dramatic plays in modern World Series history.
On the other hand, Mauer? My immediate response was to marginalize Mauer in comparison to his Hall of Fame counterpart. Not to say that Mauer’s career has been terrible or that Mauer sucks, mind you–that’s the kind of silliness that is reserved for 1 PM barstool conversations with no one in particular or Twitter hot takes.
It also happens that I didn’t grow up with Mauer. And I think this is indicative of a more general bias we all have: a deference to the times and experiences most associated with childhood or innocence–nostalgia bias.
In case you missed it, Joe Mauer’s overall body of work has placed him in the good company of all-time Washington Senators-Minnesota Twins greats: third in WAR, fifth in OBP, seventh in games played, runs scored and plate appearances, sixth in hits–did you realize no exclusively Twin/Senator-prime ever got even 2900 hits? Old-time Senator Sam Rice has the franchise record at 2889. Mauer is flirting not only with Puckett, but Rod Carew in a number of counting stats and metrics. Amongst other franchise greats, he has surpassed Tony Oliva and is there with Joe Judge, Mickey Vernon and Clyde Milan. Amongst the HoFers within the organization’s history, Mauer’s numbers surpass Joe Cronin, Goose Goslin. And he did no small portion of all this at catcher.
Your reflexive response to Mauer is likely that he was hurt a lot and disappeared in the postseason. Those are not unfair positions to take; with the benefit of health, like Puckett, who could have had a lot stronger stats had his eyes not betrayed him, Mauer could well have closer to 2300 hits or more. In reality, his career has not been as injury-plagued as the outsider might think–he only lost 2011 to injury and played at least 100 games in 10 of 13 full-time seasons.
And some of Baseball’s preeminent minds have noticed his resume, as well:
A plain look at Puckett’s career betrays nothing but excellence: his weakest full season (1993) is still better than your average ballplayer: a .296/.349/.474/.824 All-Star with 184 hits and 39 doubles who scored as many runs (89) as he drove in while playing in 156 tilts. It’s a tight resume with no holes, great counting stats and recognized by peers and media alike in his time as one of the best and most valuable players of his era (top-ten MVP vote-getter in seven of 12 seasons). Puckett is also the genesis of a lineage of good-to-dynamic Twins centerfielders including Matt Lawton, Torii Hunter, Ben Revere, Denard Span, Carlos Gomez, Aaron Hicks and Byron Buxton, all of whom carved (or are still carving) out respectable-to-very good careers in the bigs. None of them are Puckett, to be sure, but you could do a lot worse, *ahem**BrewerscenterfieldersfromRobinYounttoGomez**ahem*.
And while Mauer’s resume is longer by seasons, as I was reminded by a Twitter user on the Fourth of July, he has equivalent plate appearances and will likely surpass everything Puckett has done except for home runs by the time he’s finished. My reflexive Twitter response was, again, not to denigrate Mauer, but it also failed to acknowledge the fact that Mauer’s career has been firmly in my blindspot the entire time. The guy has quietly amassed a not-overstated Hall of Fame catalog of work that needs to be seriously considered when he becomes eligible for Cooperstown.
How do we know what we know?
The philosophical discipline of epistemology is literally the study of knowledge, and the conventional definition of knowledge is a belief that is justified and true. Puckett’s career has been overshadowed by the likes of Junior Griffey and even his contemporary, San Diego Padre legend Tony Gwynn, as well as his own personal pratfalls (putting it lightly) post-playing days.
Puckett’s career is prima facie Hall-worthy, where Mauer’s is commonly perceived to not be. Why is that?
For me, it’s nostalgia bias, or rosy retrospection. As I’ve mentioned here before, my late maternal grandmother was a diehard Twins fan in rural Minnesota who sent us Homer Hankies during the Twins 1991 championship run, I vividly remember the Twins-Cardinals ’87 World Series and Twins-Braves ’91 Series, both on CBS (with the immortal, also Hall-worthy Jim Kaat doing sideline color commentary.) My brother had a Kirby-Kent Hrbek growth chart poster for years in his bedroom, while I had my own Puckett poster hanging in my room. (Remember, I didn’t come home to my beloved Milwaukee Brewers until my college years.)
In short, I thought Puckett’s career was better than Mauer’s simply because my assumption was housed within a happier, innocent childhood. This is the essence of nostalgia bias: the root of justification simply being in a pleasant memory of the past. That’s admittedly faulty reasoning, as any reminiscence of the ‘good ol’ days’ necessarily will be. (Were those days really good? The 1950s were the golden age of baseball and America, but they concealed significant social evils and the Norman Rockwell-type astroturfed memories we have of that era were nothing more than wistful wishing even then.)
Few have the gumption to admit their faults, particularly on platforms where doubling-down is accepted and even encouraged like social media. And while it still bristles me even now, I have to concede that Joe Mauer’s career is on par with Kirby Puckett’s, championships and highlight reel plays notwithstanding. In time, he will have had the better and stronger one. The facts may not be as strong to me as my memories, but they also cannot be doubted.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.