The flowers were what surprised him. And the texts. Doug Mientkiewicz hadn’t been on the Twins’ payroll for years, had played for seven other organizations and worked as a coach in the Dodgers’ system, yet every June 19 his phone would buzz and he’d see Terry Ryan’s name, and when his wife took ill a bouquet showed up, signed by his first team.
Mientkiewicz’s departure from the Twins was abrupt, even rude. After he played first base for the group of young Twins who rescued the franchise, Ryan, then and now the Twins’ general manager, traded him from one Metrodome clubhouse to the other during a 2004 series with the Boston Red Sox. Mientkiewicz strolled down the hall, pulled on the cap with the ‘B’ on it, won a World Series and never again wore Twinstripes as a player.
So it’s odd to see him on the back fields at the Twins’ spring training complex these days, working as the new manager of Class A Fort Myers, wearing what looks like his old game uniform, looking like he hasn’t aged a day. “How about this,” he said recently to a visitor, looking down at the Twins’ script on his chest.
Mientkiewicz has lived the baseball life in full. He was a key prospect, then a faltering prospect, then a winning big-leaguer eventually made expendable by the arrival of a more talented prospect. He became an Olympic gold medal winner and World Series champion and role player and glove-for-hire and pinch-hitter who became, like so many former athletes, a fledgling employee at 38.
For all his travels, he considers himself a once and future Twin.
“You never forget where you came from,” he said. “You don’t forget running around on these fields when it’s August and September and it’s 1,000 degrees and you’re sweating to get up there, to the big leagues.”
He caught the last out of the Red Sox’s first World Series title in 86 years but says even that moment of baseball history can’t match his band-of-brothers experience with the Twins.
“Definitely, turning this franchise around was more rewarding,” he said. “It’s really ‘1’ and ‘1A’. That group I played with in Boston was extremely special. They deserved that ring more than anybody on the planet. To do that for a city after 90 years of losing meant the world. But I’ve always said my most prized achievement, through the Gold Glove, the gold medal, the World Series, was what we did with the Twins.
“Not only did I play with a group of guys who got the most out of their ability, I played for a franchise they tried to squash. The timing was huge. Right group, right time. Our group was very headstrong. And I think that starts here.”
He pointed to Field 3 of the Twins’ complex, where he grew up with such teammates as A.J. Pierzynski and Torii Hunter, and 20 other players he mentions by name. Last spring, he roomed with Pierzynski in spring training in Arizona, and says if he ever became a big-league manager, Pierzynski would be his bench coach.
“He used to drive everyone crazy down here,” Mientkiewicz said. “People have no idea how much he’s matured, and how brilliant he is when it comes to how the game is played.”
Mientkiewicz’s playing career ended in 2010. He became a hitting coach for rookie-league Ogden in the Dodgers’ organization in 2012. Last winter, Brad Steil, the Twins’ farm director, pursued Mientkiewicz for the Fort Myers job. Mientkiewicz wanted to work in Florida because his wife’s mother is ailing.
“I was going to go back to the Dodgers, but wherever I would have been based would have been too far,” he said. “If the Dodgers were still in Vero Beach, I’d still be with them, but this turned out to be a no-brainer. I appreciate what the Dodgers did for me, and they have great people there, but I’ve always been a Twin and I felt like I wanted to be back with an organization that does it right whether you’re 18 or 38. This is how I was brought up.”
He sounds astonished that Ryan would text him on his birthday, although Ryan insists “I do that with a lot of our alumni.”
“That just does not happen,” Mientkiewicz said. “Terry would call and ask about Jodi’s mom. No respect to Bill Smith, because he was in the regime, too, but Terry becoming the full-time GM again had a lot to do with this. I respect him. Outside of my dad, he’s probably No. 2 on my list of men I respect.”
Not all of his Twins’ memories are as comforting. Mientkiewicz once said he felt like he was walking “on eggshells” when he played for Tom Kelly.
“It never goes away,” he said. “Paul Molitor and I were hitting ground balls the other day, and I heard TK’s voice, and I could barely make contact. I said, ‘Molly, isn’t it amazing? I hear his voice and my swing goes to crap.’ Molly said, ‘Don’t feel bad, he has the same effect on me.’
“TK always demanded respect, and he deserves it. Now I’m going to pull out a lot of the stuff that he taught us as young players. I’ve been very lucky, to play for Tom Kelly to Gardy to Terry Francona to Joe Torre to Tommy Lasorda. It’s no coincidence that these men who commanded so much respect from their players would wind up being not only among the best managers of their era but of all time.”
At 38, Mientkiewicz is again a prospect, sweating and hoping on the back fields in Fort Myers.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org