Jim Souhan
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MILWAUKEE -- A hirsute man in Miller Park turned his shirtless back to the TV cameras. Someone had shaved the word "Mauer" and the number "7" into his back hair.

Maybe it was Joe. He seems to have time on his hands.

That Mauer didn't start at catcher on Sunday wasn't a crime. His manager, Ron Gardenhire, is determined to protect Mauer's legs and back by keeping him from catching in day games following night games. Mauer didn't beg out of the game; Gardenhire never gave him the chance.

Mauer's crime is that he didn't volunteer to play first base for a team desperate for hitting, leaving Gardenhire to play Luke Hughes out of position at first.

Two weeks ago, everyone in the Twins organization knew that Mauer's buddy Justin Morneau was headed to the disabled list. This week, the Twins announced that Morneau would undergo neck surgery that will sideline him until at least August. Meanwhile, the Twins have been fielding a lineup that Bud Selig will use as Exhibit A in his case that baseball players no longer use steroids.

With Delmon Young, Denard Span and Jason Kubel on the disabled list, Michael Cuddyer is needed in the outfield, meaning the Twins are desperate for Mauer to play first base on the days he doesn't catch.

Mauer has not only avoided volunteering to play first base for a team that wants him to do so, he has yet to even practice taking ground balls at first.

Sunday, his decimated team lost a fifth consecutive game. Mauer pinch hit in the seventh inning and caught two innings, and the Twins lost 6-2.

With Mauer out of the lineup, Cuddyer had to bat third, followed by Danny Valencia (.216 average), Hughes (nine RBI), Jason Repko (.194), Tsuyoshi Nishioka (.200), Drew Butera (.175) and pitcher Carl Pavano (.000).

It's time for Mauer either to start playing when and where his team needs him, or to start writing refund checks.

The guy had a lousy week. He proved he needs dozens more at-bats to regain his timing. He's hitting .200 in late June.

He got called out by a lefthanded middle reliever over his pitch calls, a sure sign that Mauer is less popular in the clubhouse than the IRS. Can you imagine Jose Mijares jabbing Mauer if Mauer's average were .340 and he was playing every day?

Today, Mauer's status in his clubhouse must be even worse than it was when he was slowly mending in Florida.

He spent more than two months rehabilitating his mysterious injuries. He returned to the big leagues 10 days ago. He played in three consecutive games, then the Twins had Monday off.

Mauer caught on Tuesday and Wednesday, then took Thursday off. He caught on Friday and Saturday, and then took Sunday off. The manager can keep him from behind the plate. Only Mauer can keep himself out of the lineup.

He should have played on Sunday. He did not need a second day of rest in a span of four games, a third day of rest in the past seven.

With his team desperate for runs and wins, Mauer has relaxed. That's why some of his teammates have been rolling their eyes this season whenever his name is mentioned.

He has proved to be the softest of stars, and if that wasn't bad enough, his $184 million contract could prevent the Twins from retaining a valuable veteran who plays whenever and wherever the Twins need him.

Mauer makes $23 million a year. Michael Cuddyer is making $10.5 million in the final year of his contract.

While Mauer seems intent on turning his name into a punch line, Cuddyer offers everything you would want from a professional athlete.

While Mauer has balked at playing a position other than catcher, Cuddyer has moved from high school shortstop to minor league third baseman to outfielder to fill-in at first and second base.

While Mauer is visible mostly on video game commercials, Cuddyer constantly promotes or serves charities, acts as a public spokesman for his team, and tries to lead younger players.

While Mauer has yet to start even breaking in a first baseman's mitt, Cuddyer has told Gardenhire he's willing to play anywhere at any time.

Sunday morning, Gardenhire said Cuddyer should finish his career in Minnesota. Meanwhile, Mauer is causing dread over the remainder of his eight-year contract, a deal so immense it could prevent the Twins from affording Cuddyer or any high-profile free agents.

Detroit Tigers catcher Alex Avila is playing third base, to keep his bat in the lineup.

Asked how he took the move to third, Avila said, "I take it as a way to help my team."

What a concept.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com