Spring Training: Mientkiewicz challenges new teammates
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Doug Mientkiewicz is a long shot to make the Pirates' roster out of spring training, and he knows it. He is a left-handed bench bat and a first baseman on a team that has plenty of both.
But he apparently has zero intention of being bashful while he tries.
Already, in the two days this 10-year veteran and World Series champion has been in camp, he has gone out of his way to demonstrate that he would embrace the role of being a leader -- perhaps be the leader -- on the team.
That began Saturday morning, just hours after he reported, when he took the initiative to sit down with All-Star second baseman Freddy Sanchez for what Mientkiewicz described "a really good conversation" about winning.
What did he tell him?
"It's time," Mientkiewicz recalled in a lengthy, often emotional interview at his Pirate City stall. "I told Freddy it's time for you to start taking a little bit of a role here. There are too many good players, too many good guys in here. But it's easy to fall into the rut of losing. It's time to be a big-leaguer, and winning is what big-leaguers are all about."
"I was, like, 'Wow,' this guy's awesome.' It was unreal," he said. "The things Doug had to say, with all the knowledge he has about things on and off the field ... it was only about 45 minutes or so that we talked, but it was incredible. That attitude he can bring is something we really need."
Yesterday, he pulled aside rookie outfielder Nyjer Morgan during batting practice for tutelage on keeping the ball on the ground.
"This guy's great," Morgan said.
There will be more, too.
Mientkiewicz pledged to address, at some point, any players who feel that management should have made more roster moves this offseason. Left fielder Jason Bay expressed public disappointment to that end Jan. 25, and there is no shortage of teammates who share that view.
Mientkiewicz, it is safe to say, will not be among them.
"You don't worry about what you don't have," he said. "You worry about what you do have and go from there. Trust me: I've been there."
He went back to 2002, when he played for Minnesota and pleaded in vain with then-general manager Terry Ryan to trade for Ellis Burks as the final chip in a run for the World Series.
"I was at fault. I was always the guy talking about what we didn't have. But I've learned. You're wasting energy on something you can't change. Let's just get better. How are we going to do that with this group? How are we going to gain respect?"
Mientkiewicz can draw other parallels.
"I was on a team that lost 97 games in Minnesota in 1999 and, three years later, was three games away from going to the World Series. I went through it later in Kansas City, too. There was a lot of negativity in those areas. But you have to worry about what you can change."
He shifted his thoughts to the Pirates' 15-year losing streak, something he has heard about often since signing his minor-league contract last week.
"Look, this group can't change the 15 years that just happened, but they can be remembered as the one that started to turn this franchise around. I've heard a lot since I signed here that they're preaching the word 'accountability.' It's an easy word to fall into. It means something different to everybody. But the bottom line is that the player has to go out and do it. It's a matter of saying, 'You know what? I'm sick of this.' "
"Earn some respect around the league. Play the game right. Play your tail off until the last out. It might not equate to wins right away, but you change the way people think about you and, as a result, how you think about yourself. Hey, we would get our heads kicked in sometimes with the Twins, but we never lost sight of the fact that we would be returning the favor someday."
He shook his head.
"I almost don't want to talk about this. The fans in Pittsburgh probably have heard it all before. But you know what? I've won a lot of different things in my career, but what I'm most proud of was that, when I got to Minnesota, I knew the city would give us a ticker-tape parade if we finished .500. And, when I left there, it was seen as failure if we didn't go to the World Series. We gave respectable baseball back to a city that deserved it. Trust me: I've seen it work with a lot less talent than what's in this room."
Mientkiewicz, 33, was released by the New York Yankees after last season, one in which he was limited to 72 games by a broken wrist. He returned in September and batted .429 that month, best in the American League, to finish at .277.
For his career, he has a .271 average, an Olympic gold medal for the United States in 1994, a Gold Glove with the Twins in 2001 and, most famously, he caught the final out for the Boston Red Sox in the 2004 World Series. It was famous, many will recall, because he refused to give up the ball until months later, when he and the team, which was plenty displeased about the matter, finally agreed to send it to the Hall of Fame.
What will he do with the ball if the Pirates win the World Series?
"I'm giving it back. I'm never going through that again."
When no team offered full-time duty this offseason, he signed with the Pirates on what amounts to a tryout contract. If he makes the roster this spring, he earns $750,000 with the chance of doubling that through incentives. If not, he is a free agent again.
General manager Neal Huntington was blunt in telling Mientkiewicz there really was no need for someone of his profile on the Pirates' roster. He signed, anyway.
One reason was that he wants to establish himself as a super-utility player at this late stage of his career, and the Pirates will give him that chance. He has played second base, third base and the corner outfield spots as a professional, and he was drafted as a catcher. He will be tried at all of them except catcher this spring, and that began yesterday: He took grounders at second, with some tutelage from Sanchez standing nearby.
"At some point in your career, you're going to have to make a club this way," Mientkiewicz said. "I know with Adam LaRoche here, with Jason Bay, with Xavier Nady, that those guys are going to play. But I know I can back those guys up. I can play the outfield right now. Third base is going to take some reps."
Huntington is making no promises.
"If Doug is able to move around the diamond, he'll make our decisions very interesting at the end of camp," he said. "And that's because of what he can do for us on the field and off the field."
Mientkiewicz's other reason for choosing the Pirates, one he seems eager to downplay, is his longtime connection with manager John Russell. Russell was his manager in two of his first three seasons in Minnesota's system, including his rookie-ball debut in 1996.
"John changed my swing on day one," Mientkiewicz said. "Everybody tried to change my swing in Little League, high school and college, and I never allowed it. Well, he mentioned just a couple things, and I embraced it right away. I won a batting title with him two years later."
He quickly caught himself.
"That said, John's harder on me than anybody. I know what I'm up against to make this club. He's not going to have any problem with calling me into that office if I don't make it. He's tough, and he does what it takes for his team to win. One thing I know about this manager is that he'll get the job done. We will be the most fundamentally sound team Pittsburgh has seen in a long time. And we won't quit on anybody."
The respect seems mutual.
"Doug's the type of player who has never been given anything," Russell said. "He's always had to work hard for what he's got. That's an attribute you like to have on a team. He understands, with LaRoche there, he's going to have to do some different things. He's up for it."
There is another connection: Mientkiewicz named his son Steel, after Russell's son of the same name.
"John's boy was 5 and I was in A-ball," Mientkiewicz said. "He would tell me, 'I don't like it when you throw your helmet,' and things like that that he picked up from John, and that made an impression on me. I don't know how to explain it. Certain people change how you think in life, and this little guy did. Years later, when he was more grown up, I asked if he would mind if I named my son after him, and he said he'd be honored."
Again, Mientkiewicz caught himself.
"I don't want people to think I'm here mainly because of Russell, but there are two main people in my life: One is my father, and the other is John. I know how hard he's worked to be here, and I'd love to be part of it."
Someone also told Mientkiewicz, it would appear, about management's standard line that the 2007 Pirates underachieved.
"I hate the term 'underachieving.' That means you didn't do your job. I know the manager we have now is not going to stand for it. And I'm going to do my part, too, if they'll have me."
First Published February 18, 2008 12:00 am