For a guy being paid $21 million to play baseball, Joe Mauer has sure had a tough season. Mr. Mauer only participated in about half of the Minnesota Twins' games this year, and only about one-third of them at his customary catcher position. His performance in these games was respectable in absolute terms, but far below the high bar he established in previous seasons.
According to SI.com
, Mr. Mauer missed games for
myriad maladies, including bilateral leg weakness, viral infections, undisclosed soreness, general soreness, stiff neck, upper respiratory infection,
and, finally, mild pneumonia
. Since General Soreness is not the sort of injury that typically knocks a superstar from the lineup, rumors and speculation have arisen to explain the real story
behind his absences.
As regards a Minnesota icon like Mr. Mauer, such gossip occurs in a wide range of social settings. As Gary Alan Fine and Nicholas DiFonzo
note in their new Contexts
rumor is "knowledge filtered through social process," depending on local networks for verification. This means that the rumors swirling around Mr. Mauer -- as well as those not
swirling around him -- say as much about the hometown as they do about the hometown hero. I've heard four basic categories of rumors and will speculate about a fifth.
First, when the team remained in contention a few months ago, one heard that the Twins were intentionally concealing a more serious injury that would have provided a strategic advantage to opposing teams. If he had a "bad wing," as a neighbor suggested at my community center this summer, opposing baserunners would steal more aggressively against the Twins. Such interpretations seem credible and rational, given the game's competitive nature and high stakes. Moreover, the guy was coming off knee surgery and he has a history of (unquestioned and legitimized) injuries in the recent past.
Second, I heard rumors of career-threatening (and, in some cases, life-threatening) physical health problems. These rumors ranged from Lyme disease, to rheumatoid arthritis, to multiple sclerosis, to ALS. Some of these appeared in print, I think, but most came from people claiming inside knowledge -- "a guy who knows a guy" within the Twins organization or the Mauer family. Some were repeated by Patrick Reusse and others on talk radio, though the local media have been guarded about making such attributions. Nevertheless, these rumors were considered plausible, in part, because of the local setting: Lyme disease is quite prevalent in Minnesota and familiar to Mr. Mauer's fans, while ALS is literally synonymous with another baseball great struck down in his prime -- Lou Gehrig.
Third, as the team's fortunes sank and their highest-paid player remained out of commission, some fans began grumbling about Mr. Mauer going "soft" -- that he was spoiled by the big contract or, worse, that he was a "cake-eater" all along, who lacked the toughness needed to play with pain. These are fighting words for athletes, of course, but such interpretations seemed plausible for those suspicious of the team's new big-money approach and expensive new stadium, funded in part with taxpayer dollars.
To the extent he is cast in the "sick role," Mr. Mauer is exempted from responsibility for his conditions and from the normal role obligations and responsibilities of his profession. But if he's just soft, he's judged against all manner of personal and professional gendered role expectations. Today, there's a passionate local debate between those who view Mr. Mauer sympathetically and attribute his absences to physical health problems and those who view him unsympathetically and vilify him for weakness and moral failure.
A fifth category of non-rumor is conspicuous by its absence, however: the possibility that Mr. Mauer might be wrestling with some unseen and unsharable mental health or chemical health problems. Given his status as a white St. Paul native with middle-class origins (like me, I suppose, though a generation removed), it is especially easy for many of his fans to identify with Mr. Mauer and, perhaps, correspondingly difficult for them to imagine him in a more stigmatized role.
Of course, mental illness and substance use problems are managed and treated just as effectively as those physical ailments that more typically put players on the disabled list. And, just to be clear, I am not suggesting that Mr. Mauer has ever had any problems with substance use or mental illness. I'd just hate to think that fear of adverse public reaction would keep a public figure from seeking help, especially here in the land of 10,000 treatment centers (in 2011, no less). It just strikes me that it might still be difficult -- if not unimaginable -- for Minnesotans to accept our native son as mentally ill or "addicted." Somehow, despite much evidence to the contrary, the community may simply be more comfortable imagining the twenty-eight-year-old athlete as terminally ill or incurably lazy. While the latter rumors have been much discussed, the former have scarcely been mentioned.
For my part, I'm attributing the rumors to what professors Fine and DiFonzo call a "shared commitment to sense-making" in the absence of clear information. As for the vague injury reports, I'll chalk them up to the local context as well. For the team's baffling public relations work and passive-aggressive motivational strategies seem as Minnesotan as walleyes and honeycrisp apples.