FORT MYERS, FLA. – Doug Mientkiewicz loves his job. Knows he’s good at it, too. He had his heart set on a different job, though.
If he had his choice, Mientkiewicz would be managing the Twins this season. He interviewed twice for the opening and wanted it badly. The team chose Paul Molitor instead.
Mientkiewicz received a consolation prize — overseeing the development of the organization’s top prospects, namely Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano and Jose Berrios, as manager of the Class AA Chattanooga Lookouts this season.
Mientkiewicz knows he holds an important role, both short term and for the organization’s future. He admires those young players. He’s become so attached to them the past two years that he says he feels like their father sometimes.
But he’s still disappointed he didn’t get a chance to manage his former big-league team.
“I’m crushed,” he said. “I thought I was ready.”
He paused before continuing, and the competitive fire that Mientkiewicz displayed through 12 major league seasons began to bubble to the surface.
“If I’m worried about where I’m going, I’m losing focus of why I’m here,” he said. “I’m here for them. I lived the dream. I want them to feel what I felt. But I want them to feel what I felt on a winning club. No disrespect, but those guys up there have no idea what it’s like to win. My guys have an idea of what it’s like to win and to finish something. That doesn’t go away.”
So he wants to change a negative culture of four consecutive 90-loss seasons from the ground up?
“Correctamundo,” he said.
Mientkiewicz had a nice career as a player. The guess here is that he’ll be a better manager, which is why the Twins were smart to entrust him to develop their crop of top prospects.
He’s had most of them in his care the past two seasons in Class A — Buxton, Sano, Berrios, Eddie Rosario, Kennys Vargas, Jorge Polanco, the list goes on.
Mientkiewicz led the Miracle to two first-place finishes and the first Florida State League championship in the team’s 22-year history last season. The core of that team advanced with him to Class AA and will begin the season with Buxton, Sano, Berrios, Polanco and a bullpen filled with hard throwers.
The group might not stay intact very long because, as Mientkiewicz puts it, “I’m trying to get them to the big leagues.”
“We’ve gotten a lot of publicity, which is well deserved,” he said. “But now the eyes really start to focus on us. See what they can do with expectations.”
Mientkiewicz’s personality and coaching style mesh well with the organizational blueprint for developing young prospects. As a player, he was a clubhouse leader who kept meticulous notes about his at-bats and obsessed over every detail. He was hard on himself in good times, self-deprecating when he struggled.
He takes that same approach as manager.
“I will poke and pry and prod and antagonize,” he said. “I’m provoking to get a reaction. I want to see fire that they didn’t know they had.”
He’s close enough in age (40) that he relates well to prospects, but he never allows mistakes to go uncorrected or boundaries to be crossed. He’s tougher than a $5 steak on his players and admits they think “I’m crazy at times.”
“I’m sure I’ve said some things to them that no one has ever said to them,” he said. “I’m hard, but I’m fair. And I’m honest.”
And he loves nurturing their development. He knows Buxton and Sano reside under a particularly bright spotlight, but he cautioned that “they’re going to take their lumps just like every other big leaguer. We’re trying to have them have substantial careers, not just get there and be a flash in the pan.”
Mientkiewicz shared a story about each guy. He gave his players a day off recently but warned them to return with energy. The opposite happened. They had a terrible infield practice.
Sano called the entire team together and admonished them. The Lookouts crushed their opponent that day.
“It was like, ‘OK, there’s your leader,’ ” Mientkiewicz said.
Buxton is less vocal, but Mientkiewicz sees so much talent and desire in him.
“This kid was bawling his eyes out in center field last year when he hurt himself [wrist injury] because he thought he was letting everybody down,” he said. “And I don’t mean his team. I mean the whole entire organization. That you don’t get every day.”
Mientkiewicz knows he probably won’t have Buxton and Sano very long. They’re on a fast track. He thinks he has the right plan to help others climb that ladder, too.
“I was born to do this,” he said.
He’d love to prove that in the big leagues someday.
“If I keep getting the best out of 25 guys,” he said, “eventually somebody will have enough faith to give me the keys.”
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org