June 19 – Happy Birthday Doug Mientkiewicz
When I was a kid, pick-up baseball games were commonplace. Back then, there seemed to be at least ten guys you could call at any time of day or night to meet up for a game. You’d decide where to play based on the total number of kids who showed up. Four man sides worked just fine in the old mill yard across from my Grandmother’s house. It was a small area, boxed in by buildings on both sides and a huge green fully enclosed metal walking ramp that led from the third floor of the mill to the street level in dead center. That ramp served as our version of the “Green Monster.” We also played in a Veterans’ park at the western most end of our city, where a huge memorial with a life-sized bronze soldier standing guard at the top, served as both our center field wall and permanent spectator. Second base at the park was a cast iron silver painted urn that caused lots of bleeding injuries to both aggressive base runners and inattentive fielders.
When we could get eighteen guys together, we’d head down to the huge grass field that sat alongside one of the locks on the Mohawk River. Even back in the early sixties, when neighborhood kids use to actually play with each other, getting eighteen kids together was not easy and usually required a mixing of ages. That’s why, whenever we’d play down by the river, there’d always be at least one “older” kid who was strong enough to drive a ball the three hundred or so feet that separated home plate from the then-pretty-polluted Mohawk. Every official home run down by the river was a “Walk-off” home run because it meant the ball needed to play the game was gone for good and everyone had to go home.
It was always a lack of a simple ball that disrupted many of those glorious contests during my childhood. After all, most kids brought their own gloves to these games and at least a couple of the guys would bring bats. Gloves and bats weren’t perishable but those damn balls seemed to disappear in a hurry. That’s why, the most serious offense any kid could commit was taking the game ball home with him before that game was actually over. We used to let guys from our neighborhood who didn’t know a baseball bat from an umbrella play in those games simply because they owned a new baseball. Of course, the older guys who ran the games then pulled every trick in the book to prevent the talentless ball-owners from coming to bat or making a play in the field during the contest.
One of their favorite techniques was ”No Ralph you’re not up this time around, Joey is going to pinch hit for you.” In those long ago games in the Veterans’ park, I can remember kids being told to go play the field behind the huge memorial, where they would stare up at the butt of the huge bronze soldier waiting for a ball to fly over the huge granite edifice so they could retrieve it. Eventually, some of these persecuted ball-suppliers would get wise to the exploitation being put upon them and would grab their ball and go home. This of course was considered a mortal sin in our neighborhood, punishable by banishment from all future neighborhood sporting activities, sometimes for life, or at the very least until you showed up at one of these future events with the only ball again.
The above memories were the first things that flashed through my mind when I heard that today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant grabbed the game ball after the last out of the final game of the 2004 World Series and brought it home with him. Doug Mientkiewicz had replaced David Ortiz at first base for the Boston Red Sox earlier in that game which is why he caught pitcher, Keith Foulke’s throw to first to end that contest and complete Boston’s four-game sweep of the Cardinals in that Fall Classic. He then just kept the ball and took it home with him. When someone from the Red Sox eventually asked for it, Mientkiewicz refused to hand it over, explaining he could sell it for enough money to cover his own kid’s college costs. Needless to say, that line did not go over to well with Red Sox Nation. He eventually agreed to loan the ball to the Red Sox.
Unfortunately for Mientkiewicz, keeping that ball will be what he’s remembered for most. Even though he was one of baseball’s best defensive first baseman during his 12-years in the big leagues and a Gold Glove winner, it will be the baseball he wouldn’t give back that defines him.
Three years after the incident, the Yankees signed the player nicknamed “Eye Chart” to play first base so that Jason Giambi’s porous glove could be removed from the lineup. He got into 72 games that year and hit a respectable .277. A broken wrist he suffered when Mike Lowell collided with him at first base disrupted his season and then he went hitless for New York during the 2007 postseason. The Yankees let him go and he signed with the Pirates the following year.
Mientkiewicz was a high school teammate of A-Rod’s in Florida when their team won that state’s baseball championship. He also won a Gold Medal as part of the US baseball team that beat Cuba in the 2000 Olympics. His last big league game was in a Dodger uniform in 2009. He retired with a .271 career average, 899 hits and that damn baseball. He also happens to share his birthday with another Yankee first baseman who I’m sure was the source of plenty of lost baseballs when he was a kid.