A great catch at first base

A great catch at first base

"Do you believe the great DiMaggio would stay with a fish as long as I will stay with this one?" he thought. "I am sure he would and more since he is young and strong. Also his father was a fisherman."
-- Santiago from Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea"

Hemingway was a great baseball fan. A fishing expert. And adept at understanding how life's struggles form each person.

"Papa" would like to have known Royals first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz. Besides the love of baseball that the two share, Mientkiewicz, like Hemingway, has a true passion for fishing.

"My wife knows that during the winter, times for seeing me are slim and none," says Mientkiewicz, who lives in Coral Gables, Fla., during the offseason. "Fishing's almost like baseball. It's a game inside the game, figuring out weather patterns and fish migration."

The birth of Doug and Jodi Mientkiewicz's first child last October changed how much time Doug spends on the water. That was by choice. After all, the birth of son Steel was an experience of life-changing proportion. That's usually the case. But it was the only bright thing in a series of offseason events that changed Mientkiewicz's outlook on baseball and on life. Besides the rush when fighting a sailfish or a swordfish, Mientkiewicz used fishing as a getaway. He needed it.

"But man is not made for defeat," he said. "A man can be destroyed but not defeated."

Last offseason provided a lifetime of difficulties for Mientkiewicz. On the same day as Steel's birth, Mientkiewicz's grandmother passed away. Two months later, his mother, Janice, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"That was pretty much the first time anything tragic has hit our family," Mientkiewicz said of Janice's diagnosis. "But my mom's the strongest person I've ever met, so it happened to the right person in our family. She always looks at the bright side of things.

"It was a trying time, but my mom is the rock of our family. She pulled through like I knew she would."

Although Janice missed Spring Training for the first time in her son's 12-year professional career, she is now cancer free.

As if the death of his grandmother and his mom's fight with cancer weren't enough, Mientkiewicz's good friend, Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett, died unexpectedly in March.

"The biggest thing I took from [Puckett] is that he lived his life the way he wanted to live it -- with a smile on his face. He never looked to tomorrow. He lived for the now," Mientkiewicz says, studying his hands as he wrings them together. "To lose someone as influential in your life as Puck was for me, it changes you. You look at things in a different light.

"I wasn't a loose cannon before, but I was out there a little bit. I realize I can't do that anymore."

Adding to the offseason's pressures was the continuing saga of the 2004 World Series ball that Mientkiewicz caught for the final out on a flip from pitcher Keith Foulke, sealing Boston's world championship. Mientkiewicz kept the ball that the Red Sox front office wanted. Although the feud between the two sides had been going on for more than a year, it was beginning to come to a head during last offseason.

"That was really rough on my family and on me," Mientkiewicz said of the ordeal that ended this spring with the ball at the Baseball Hall of Fame. "My family exhaled a lot once everything got worked out."

The combination of the events with Puckett, Janice and Steel reminded Mientkiewicz that as much as he enjoys baseball, it's only a game.

"All of this changed me a ton," he said. "It makes one-on-one time with my wife a little more special. I've also learned to realize that the 0-for-4 nights still hurt, but they don't linger like they used to. I want to play this game to the best of my ability every night, but when that doesn't work out, and I come home and see a slobbering boy with two little teeth sticking out, it makes everything go away.

"There's no doubt that all of this has grounded me a little bit."

The Royals are the benefactors of that.

"He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength ... He only dreamed of places now and of the lions on the beach. They played like young cats in the dusk and he loved them as he loved the boy."

Mientkiewicz would rather forget about his wretched season of a year ago with the New York Mets. It was his worst since first being called up by Minnesota in 1998. Hampered by two injuries that placed him on the disabled list, Mientkiewicz played in only 87 games, batting .240. The game wasn't fun.

It was a far cry from the three previous seasons when he reached the playoffs with Minnesota in 2002 and 2003, and won a World Series with Boston in 2004. Nor was it close to his form of 2001 and 2003, when he batted .306 and .300, respectively, with the Twins.

So when the Royals called in December, Mientkiewicz felt he could rejuvenate himself in Kansas City.

"As a player who's had the game taken away from him, so to speak, I've never felt more confidence from a coaching staff as I do here," says Mientkiewicz, dripping with sweat from batting practice, with photographs of Steel taped inside the locker behind him. "It's tough to play this game when you don't have that confident feeling from the people around you. Playing for [manager] Buddy [Bell] and all of these coaches has been great."

At the same time, coming to Kansas City has given Mientkiewicz a chance to help mold some of the younger players.

"I try to tell the core young guys that they may not leave their legacy like George Brett, Frank White, Dan Quisenberry and those guys," Mientkiewicz says, "but they have a chance to set a precedent as part of the group that turned this franchise around."

Mientkiewicz knows all about that. He was with Minnesota in 1999 when the Twins lost 97 games -- and nearly repeated the feat in 2000, losing 93. But then they went 85-77 in 2001, before climbing to the top of the American League Central with 94 wins in 2002 and 90 in '03.

"People ask me if I'm most proud of the [2000 U.S. Olympic] gold medal or World Series ring," said Mientkiewicz, a member of the U.S. team in Sydney. "Honestly, I'm most proud to say that I was part of that group of guys in Minnesota that turned things around and brought some life back into a city that deserved a good baseball club.

"We had a family atmosphere, caring for one another, each guy taking pride in his job, and caring more about the team winning than saying 'I won.' That's what we're trying to get across here."

Although this season has been frustrating at times, baseball is once again fun for Mientkiewicz. After the personal and professional turmoil of the previous 12 months, he dreams about fishing and baseball. And about Jodi and Steel. And his mom.

Of course, sleep doesn't come quietly for Mientkiewicz. Not with the cats that will begin their racket soon after the room goes dark.

Even though Doug wanted a dog, Jodi is a cat person. She won, but as a compromise, Doug wanted the biggest cat they could find. They ended up with two unusual house cats. A Savannah cat, which is a cross between an African Serval and a domestic cat, and will nearly double its current weight of about 25 pounds. It resembles a miniature cheetah. And there's the Bengal.

"Both of them are great," Mientkiewicz says. "But it's like the 'Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom' every night. The lights go off and they're back and forth, chasing each other around the house. When we wake up, one of them has a big ball of fur in his mouth after ripping it off the other one's head.

"They keep things interesting and fun. They're definitely a part of the family."

"Now is no time to think of baseball, he thought. Now is the time to think of only one thing. That which I was born for."

Mientkiewicz has been hooked on fishing since he was a runt, going out on the boat with his dad, Len. It's from his father that Mientkiewicz gets his on-field, blue-collar work ethic that makes him hustle, grind it out and get his uniform dirty. It's the same mentality he hopes to pass along to Steel.

Living two miles apart in Coral Gables, Len and Doug remain fishing buddies, now going out on Doug's 36-foot fishing boat. It's common for Doug's brother-in-law and a few friends to join them, also. Their day of fishing generally starts the night before, catching their bait. Then they get up at four or five the next morning, returning home after dark.

Adding to the obsession, Mientkiewicz recently started entering various fishing tournaments. Last year, not catching two sailfish cost him about $40,000.

"I think I take more pride placing in a sailfish tournament than I do playing the game of baseball," he said. "Once you get out there and the competitive juices start flowing, you want to win so badly. That's what it's all about."

"Remember we are in September. The month when the great fish come," the old man said. "Anyone can be a fisherman in May."

Even though he fishes during the season on off days, Mientkiewicz can't wait to get back on the water this fall. That's the way it is every year. Then, one of these summers, he'll head to the Bahamas during the prime summertime yellow-fin tuna or blue marlin fishing.

Mientkiewicz is quick to point out, though, how much he enjoys playing baseball in spite of his zeal for fishing. He definitely isn't ready to hang up his spikes just yet, even if a Santiago-esque catch awaits him.

"I'd like someday to go to Panama or Australia and try for a 'grander,' a thousand-pound black marlin," Mientkiewicz, who turned 32 on June 19, says with some anticipation in his voice. "That'll be my end-all, be-all. I hope to strap in one of those before I die.

"I don't want to speed up the end of my career, but it gives me something to look forward to in the 'after life,' as we call it. On the same token, I know they're going to have to rip this jersey off my back when it's over. I'm going to keep finding a way to play."