Mientkiewicz excited for season
Reinvigorated first baseman eager to contribute to Yanks
TAMPA, Fla. -- The expectations of the Yankees' universe seem to center upon Alex Rodriguez's shoulders every spring. His high school buddy, Doug Mientkiewicz, isn't offering the third baseman much sympathy.
"I always tell him, 'You think you've got it rough? Try playing the game with these skills and see how much fun the game is,'" Mientkiewicz said.
A hard-working first baseman who considers himself a "grinder" and a "lunch-pail-type guy," Mientkiewicz offers the Yankees some extra grit. He wields a self-deprecating sense of humor and shuns batting gloves in favor of hearty helpings of pine tar.
Mientkiewicz, who teamed with Rodriguez to help mold a few title-winning sports clubs back at Westminster Christian (Fla.) High School in the early 1990s, also offers the clubhouse some accumulated hotel points.
Originally a product of the Minnesota Twins farm system, Mientkiewicz has become nomadic in the last three years, playing for the Red Sox, Mets and Royals.
The experience hasn't been all bad. Mientkiewicz picked up a 2004 World Series ring after being traded to Boston in midseason, but he struggled with injuries and fell out of favor with Mets manager Willie Randolph in 2005, eventually losing his starting job to rookie Mike Jacobs.
"Trust me, I don't like bouncing around from team to team every year," Mientkiewicz said. "But you also learn a lot from each stop that you go to. You try to take what you've learned and apply it to the next year. I've been well-versed in travels."
Twice a .300 hitter with Minnesota, Mientkiewicz was probably at his lowest professional point following his 87-game experience with the Mets.
The game had humbled him; Mientkiewicz claimed he would retire if the Mets picked up his option, which they didn't. Eventually, Mientkiewicz latched on with the Royals for a 2006 campaign that he believes renewed his energy and spirit.
It wasn't that the Royals were very good; 100 losses and a fifth-place finish in the American League Central were proof enough of that.
But his production returned, batting .283 with four home runs and 43 RBI in 91 games before undergoing season-ending surgery to repair a herniated disc in August.
The birth of his son, Steel, last Oct. 11 -- Mientkiewicz wears No. 11 with the Yankees for that reason -- also worked wonders in calming his demeanor and expanding his outlook.
"I enjoy the game again," Mientkiewicz said. "I had a good time last year -- I really did. I know people think I'm crazy when I say that, and the losing was awful. On the other hand, I got to play with some amazing teammates and a great coaching staff. I played for a franchise that deserves a winner."
Now, Mientkiewicz is taking his first hacks with a franchise that expects to win. The Yankees' early plans are to use Mientkiewicz as the left-handed batting half of a first-base platoon that would include either Josh Phelps or Andy Phillips.
Mientkiewicz said he would have no problem with the reduced workload, batting only against right-handed pitching, even though his career splits are quite similar -- .269 against lefties, .271 against righties.
"The people who make decisions are a heck of a lot smarter than I am," Mientkiewicz said. "Everything else will take care of itself. That's part of being a team. All the 'I' stuff stops when you walk in the door."
Recently, manager Joe Torre floated the possibility of Mientkiewicz serving as an everyday first baseman as a potential scenario under which Bernie Williams could make the club. Clearly, the platoon is not set in stone, and Torre said he is comfortable with what Mientkiewicz offers.
"He's going to put the ball in play and he's not a strikeout guy, which, to me, is hugely important -- especially on our club, where we feel we can move runners and do some things," Torre said. "I think his ability certainly allows us to do that."
A .270 career hitter, Mientkiewicz knows what it's like to play on a winner, a quality the Yankees appreciate.
Four years before he rode a parade duck boat down Boston's Charles River in October 2004, Mientkiewicz experienced the thrill of victory on Tommy Lasorda's gold-medal-winning Team USA Olympic squad, playing alongside teammates like Ben Sheets and Roy Oswalt in the 2000 Sydney Summer Games.
"No one remembers what you hit or what you did," Mientkiewicz said. "They just remember that you're part of a group that did something special."
A parade down the Canyon of Heroes would be a great cap for Mientkiewicz's career. He can envision it, but is insistent that no matter what, he'll enjoy every moment of the Yankees' season -- the good and the bad.
"I'm upright, I'm standing and I've got a uniform on," Mientkiewicz said. "Besides, my son is going to love me regardless of whether I go 0-for-4 or 4-for-4."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.