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03-16-2006, 02:18 AM

Mientkiewicz gets comfortable
Royals quickly win over veteran

The Kansas City Star

SURPRISE, Ariz. — First baseman Doug Mientkiewicz knew all about the Royals from his years with the Twins. So, no, they weren’t high on his list last winter when he pondered his options as a free agent.

“You don’t understand,” he explained. “I’ve played against this team for five or six years. Our philosophy against (the Royals) was always just stay close — they’ll screw it up.

“Every starter they would send out against us, we knew they were going to walk eight guys. We knew if we kept putting pressure on them, they’d crack because they’re scared of contact.

“When the other team is scared of contact, we’re going to win games. We’re going to go first to third for three hours in a row. That’s exactly what we did against the Royals.”

So how did Mientkiewicz get here? Where on a March day, midway through spring camp, he could look around the clubhouse — the Royals’ clubhouse — and pronounce himself content?

More than that, actually.

“I feel like I did back in Minnesota,” he declared. “The guys in the room are great. We work together well. We work hard. The manager has fun, but you also understand that you have to play hard for him.

“To sum it up, I have freedom to fail.”

Mientkiewicz knows that sounds strange, especially to a fan or any nonplayer, so he downshifted into a more complete explanation.

“When you have the freedom to fail as a player,” he said, “you play better. You’re not under scrutiny all of the time. You don’t feel like you have to prove yourself every day.

“When you feel like you can screw up and still have a chance to play, it’s a great feeling as a player. I’m extremely grateful for the fact that they thought highly enough of me to bring me in here.

“They weren’t my first choice.”

OK, back to that. How did he wind up here?

“Allard,” he said simply.

The Royals’ offseason shopping list included a defensive first baseman, preferably one who could contribute offensively. They quickly zeroed in on Mientkiewicz, a former Gold Glove winner who became available when the Mets declined to pick up a $3.75 million contract for 2006.

Mientkiewicz, 31, figured to fall into the Royals’ price range after two straight disappointing years. He batted just .240 last season in 87 games for the Mets while spending two tours on the disabled list — for a strained hamstring and an ailing lower back.

“He fell right in with the direction of where we’re going,” general manager Allard Baird said. “I still felt there was some offensive value there if he got back to being patient at the plate. And, of course, the defense.”

So Baird arranged a December meeting in the Florida Keys and made his pitch.

Mientkiewicz arrived willing to listen — no more. He wasn’t desperate. He had other offers. But he was open to the idea of playing for manager Buddy Bell. He also recognized that the Royals were trying to inject a veteran presence into the clubhouse.

Still, these were the Royals, the sad-sack franchise that he viewed so often from across the diamond while playing for the Twins. But the more Baird spoke, the more Mientkiewicz heard Twins general manager Terry Ryan.

“I respect Terry Ryan more than any man in the world behind my old man,” Mientkiewicz said. “He never lied to me. He always spoke the truth.

“That was Allard. He was up-front and honest with me from the start. He told me how it was and how it was going to be. Whether I chose him or not, he was willing to take time out of his busy schedule to come talk to my wife and me.

“Once I spoke to him, there was no doubt in my mind as to where we were going.”

Mientkiewicz agreed Dec. 16 to a one-year contract for $1.85 million that contains bonus clauses, based on games and plate appearances, that could add $700,000 more. He could have made more elsewhere.

Still, he chose the Royals.

“Honesty is very unusual (in this business),” he said. “It should be the norm, and it’s the exception.”

A scout charting the Royals for another team this spring suggests Mientkiewicz could have the greatest impact this season among all of Baird’s veteran additions.

The reasoning goes like this: Mientkiewicz should get regular duty if he rediscovers the line-drive swing that enabled him to bat .300 or better in two of his final three full seasons in Minnesota.

If so, his defensive abilities, in addition to fielding his own position, will aid shortstop Angel Berroa and third baseman Mark Teahen — and therefore the entire pitching staff. It would also allow the Royals to employ injury-prone Mike Sweeney, almost exclusively, as a designated hitter.

“He’s going to help a lot,” Bell said. “That’s the reason we brought him in. He’s played first base more than anyone we have on our team right now. Mike’s been hurt. Matty (Stairs) hasn’t played an awful lot of first base.

“Doug is a guy who can really help solidify our infield — and not only help us at first base. He’s an active guy. He talks a lot.”
Especially to the club’s young pitchers.

“What we tell these young guys all of the time,” Mientkiewicz said, “is just throw the ball over the plate. We’re going to catch the ball. We can’t defend against you guys going 0-2 on everybody, then back to 3-2 and a walk.

“What happens then is you turn good, defensive teams into crap. Because you’re out there not knowing when they’re going to put the ball in play.”

Example: Earlier this spring, Mientkiewicz asked a young pitcher how he did that day. The answer — two scoreless innings — triggered a sharp response.

“That’s not what I asked,” he barked. “Did you get accomplished what you wanted to get accomplished? It’s not results-oriented. Not now. Did you have a plan when you went into your outing? Did you work on your slider? Did you work on first-pitch strikes? That’s what I’m asking.

“Have a plan when you go out there.”

Mientkiewicz has his own plan, too. That’s a necessity after two disappointing years.

“I used to approach spring training,” he said, “as something to get through without getting hurt. I just wanted to be fine when the bell rings.

“But after last year, I had to get my confidence back up to where I knew I could hit at this level again. This year, I feel I’m doing things right that I did in the past — in Minnesota, where I was comfortable. Everything is fluid. It’s not piecey like it was last year.”

Mientkiewicz is batting .478 this spring with 11 hits and five walks in 28 at-bats. But when he whiffed, uncharacteristically, earlier this week on a hard grounder, he sought extra time in defensive drills to “work on closing up the five hole.”

That, too, is reflective of a growing comfort level.

“It comes from freedom,” he said. “I don’t feel that if I have a bad BP that I’m not going to play. I don’t have to look over my shoulder. It helps me, too, that Buddy’s seen me play when he was in Cleveland. These guys have seen me play. I’ve played against most of these guys in the room.

“They respect me as person, and that goes a long way. Walking in here was like a breath of fresh air. To come into this clubhouse every morning, I can’t wait to get up and get here.

“I didn’t have that feeling last year. I was so bad that I didn’t enjoy the game at all. But here, every time I get here, there are a bunch of good guys to get around, and you have a good time. You work, but then you’re done and you go home but you can’t wait for tomorrow. You’re excited to come to the park.”

All of that came out in one breath. Effortlessly. With Mientkiewicz, words wash past like a steady breeze. And keep coming.

“This team is going in the right direction,” he insisted. “They’re doing things small-market teams need to do. You can’t just throw money out and get players. You have to do background checks.

“For guys like me, that’s huge. Because nothing I do, on paper, stares out at you. You have to watch me for a couple of years to figure out what I do best.

“I think it’s the same thing with a guy like (Mark) Grudzielanek. Grud doesn’t do anything that makes you say, ‘Wow,’ but he can play.

“Allard brought in guys who, if you come watch us play two nights a year, you’re not going to understand what we do. But if you could see us 81 times a year … we’ll grow on you.

“We may not be the best players — guys who hit for the highest average or hit the most homers — but one thing about us is we’re going to give our best effort every single night. What happens might be good or bad, but we’re survivors. And you can win with guys like that.”

03-16-2006, 02:19 AM
Hope he doesn't get too comfortable. It is KC ya know.

03-16-2006, 02:33 AM
Wheew, that article is almost as long as his name.
Hope he does well.

03-16-2006, 02:41 AM
i just wish i could get excited about the royals. i love them, and i love baseball, but i wish i could hope for anything better than .500. sounds like doug will help out. hope its not a juan gone type run.

03-16-2006, 02:55 AM
we are in kansas city! who cares if we **** up

03-16-2006, 02:55 AM
Ah I have forgotten the Royals has signed the game ball guy. Hopefully he plays well for you guys. I like his defense even though it is not expected out of that position.

03-16-2006, 04:20 AM
Nice article! I like Dougie, he's keepin' it real. We might only lose 87 this year...

03-16-2006, 09:59 PM
we are in kansas city! who cares if we **** up
And that's exactly what the f#cker said. :grr: