BRADENTON, Fla. – Sometimes, the game and the body become inflexible at about the same time, the winter goes too fast and the market goes too dry, and, turns out, everybody's already got a stinkin' first baseman.
Enough of that aligns and you end up here, in a March morning gale that's threatening to pull your sideburns off, breaking in a new glove on the wrong side of the infield, wearing the colors of a team that hasn't done anything for going on a generation.
Doug Mientkiewicz, who has seen some interesting stuff in his 30s, starting with the 2004 World Series in Boston and concluding with the 2007 Joe Torre departure from New York (the Mets and the Royals came in between), is working on his sixth team in a little more than four years, the latest being the Pittsburgh Pirates, who called Mientkiewicz not because they needed a first baseman but because they needed almost everything else.
The Yankees had been Mientkiewicz's first choice, and he even telephoned Brian Cashman in the offseason to tell him so. But the Yankees were intent on adding a right-handed bat, a bit of bad news that led Mientkiewicz eventually – and somewhat desperately – to John Russell, who'd managed Mientkiewicz in the Minnesota Twins system for two seasons and had just been named manager of the Pirates.
Seeing as the Pirates already had an everyday first baseman in Adam LaRoche, they came up with a whole new plan for Mientkiewicz, who, they hope, can win a roster spot and fill in at third base, right field, left field and maybe, occasionally, even at first base, where he won a Gold Glove a few years back.
So, here he is, a non-roster guy wearing a glove that could still use a little softening, sharing ground balls at third base with Jose Bautista and Neil Walker, wondering, maybe, how that gusty wind is going to impact his outfield experience. Mientkiewicz hasn't played any third base since the minor leagues and has played three big-league games in right field, all of them for the Twins over three glorious days in 2003.
Maybe that doesn't sound so promising, but, as far as Mientkiewicz is concerned, it's better than sitting at home, explaining to everyone how healthy he is and how that allowed him to work off 25 pounds over the winter, meaning he's prepared – physically – to play a full season for the first time in several years.
"I've been moving around all spring," he says. "My arm's killing me. Other than that, it's gone well. I haven't embarrassed my family yet."
But, this could work out in several directions.
First, the Pirates, for all their changes in the front office and on the coaching staff this winter, basically return the same players who cost the previous front office and coaching staff their jobs. Considering the players are still trying to get a handle on this concept of winning, a spirited and veteran personality such as Mientkiewicz could be beneficial.
Second, assuming Mientkiewicz stays healthy, the Pirates could get something from a contender for him come mid-summer.
Third, Mientkiewicz could, with a little luck, play himself back into a pennant race. Who knows, maybe back to the Bronx, even.
He'll start here, taking innings and at-bats where he can get them.
"He knows what it's supposed to look like," Russell says.
Mientkiewicz saw the Twins rebuild early in the decade, then saw the Red Sox bury nearly a century of misfortune. Maybe that counts for something. Russell likes that kind of perspective on a roster that's lost a lot of games, among players who've proven they can be average big-leaguers, but not much more than that.
And Russell, incidentally, seems to be a pretty serious guy, with pretty serious intentions. Like more than a few men before him, Russell takes over talking about changing the culture and the expectations of the franchise, about playing the game right, about making the fans proud again. Close your eyes, feel the sun, and he could be Gene Lamont, or Lloyd McClendon, or Jim Tracy.
"They're looking for direction," Russell says. "Some people have said I'm a disciplinarian. I've never thought of myself as a disciplinarian. I expect things to be done the right way. If that's discipline, it's discipline."
That's all good by Mientkiewicz, of course.
"I still think I can play every day in the big leagues at first base," he says. "A lot of teams that didn't want me from April through July, maybe they'll want me in August and September.
"Nothing's out of the realm of possibilities. I know if I don't play well, I have no chance to go anywhere. I'm here. I want to help these guys, first and foremost."
Make that, first and third. Along with left and right.