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Wednesday, April 20, 2011
The lesson of Doug Mientkiewicz

By Wayne Drehs
ESPN.com

As he stood next to first base with two outs in the ninth inning and the Boston Red Sox on the verge of their first World Series title in 86 years, Doug Mientkiewicz began to think. He thought about the first day he put a glove on. He thought about the day he won Olympic gold. And he started to imagine the next dream, the one that was seconds away from coming true.

Doug Mientkiewicz
Red Sox pitcher Keith Foulke, center, and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, left, celebrate after St. Louis Cardinals' Edgar Renteria grounds out to give Boston a 3-0 win and a sweep of the 2004 World Series.

Little did he know that the moment he had waited his entire career for, the moment Red Sox Nation had dreamed of for more than eight decades, would lead to his own personal nightmare. But when Mientkiewicz caught the final out that night of Oct. 27, 2004 -- and later suggested he was keeping the baseball -- that's just what happened. There were death threats, a lawsuit and, even now, nearly seven years later, an uneasiness about going back to Boston.

"If they have a 10-year reunion," he said, "I'm scared to death that if I go back, there might be a red dot on my chest."

Mientkiewicz, 36, retired last year and lives in Florida. He said he doesn't blame the Red Sox or Boston fans. He acknowledges that he made mistakes and says that, if he could go back, he wouldn't have been so headstrong and stubborn, especially in his dealings with Boston owner John Henry. But still, no matter how hard he tries or what he says, the story of the famous baseball follows him almost everywhere he goes.

"I'm the running joke," he said. "But I don't want to be remembered by this. I don't want to be known as the guy who stole the ball."

Still, when told recently about the saga of the missing Patrick Kane puck, Mientkiewicz joked, "I know what you're thinking. But I don't have it."

Mientkiewicz's problems began two months after the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series, when he joked to a Boston Globe columnist that the ball was his "retirement fund." He later added, "I'm thinking there's four years at Florida State for one of my kids." But no one in Boston -- especially within the Red Sox -- thought that was funny. The morning the story ran, Mientkiewicz returned home from the gym to find 67 missed phone calls on his cell phone.

"My first thought was, 'Who died? Is my family OK?'" he said. "And the next thing I know, people are on the street taking photos of my house. I had people knocking on my door, looking through my windows, tailing my sister and my parents on the road. It was crazy. You would have thought I took the Green Monster and said I was never giving it back."

Mientkiewicz said he never thought about the ball until there were two outs in the ninth inning that night. But during the on-field celebration with his teammates, he forgot about it. Not until his wife, Jodi, joined him on the field, some 20 minutes after the game, did he look into his glove and remember he had the ball.

"I looked down and saw, '2004 World Series,' and I thought to myself, 'Holy s---,'" he said. "I need to make sure this doesn't get thrown into a bucket of balls. I didn't want it to end up a batting practice ball somewhere."

So, he put the ball in Jodi's purse. The next day at Fenway Park, Mientkiewicz said, Major League Baseball authenticated the baseball in front of team president Larry Lucchino, who Mientkiewicz said never asked for it.

"He said, 'Is that the ball? Pretty cool,'" Mientkiewicz said. "And I swear on my son's life -- if he would have asked for it, I would have handed it to him right there and none of this ever would have happened."

In most World Series leading up to 2004, the player who caught the final out typically decided what to do with the ball. Some kept it, some gave it to the owner, others gave it to family. When the Red Sox never asked Mientkiewicz for the ball, he assumed they were going to let him keep it. He said his plans were not to sell it but rather to put it in a commemorative case with his glove.

Doug Mientkiewicz
Mientkiewicz makes the final out of the 2004 World Series. At this moment, Mientkiewicz still had the ball in his glove.

"No one ever called me and offered me money, and if they did, I would have told them to go 'F' themselves," Mientkiewicz said. "You can't put a price tag on that. It's baseball history."

After the story appeared in the Globe and the avalanche of negative publicity followed, the Red Sox asked Mientkiewicz to return the ball. That's when Mientkiewicz said that Lucchino referred to him as a "rent-a-player." Negotiations grew contentious, and Mientkiewicz decided he wasn't going to give in that easily. The two sides eventually agreed the Red Sox would hold the ball temporarily so it could be displayed across New England along with the World Series trophy. At the end of the year, the ball was supposed to go back to Mientkiewicz.

But by then, the story had become national news and Mientkiewicz a household name. The Red Sox traded him to the Mets, where, in the middle of the season, he received a phone call in which a stranger described exactly what his wife was wearing that day and insisted that if Mientkiewicz didn't give the ball back, his wife wouldn't be home that night.

Two years later, as he was being carted off the field after suffering a concussion in a collision with Mike Lowell, Mientkiewicz said he heard a fan yell, "Quick, somebody get the ball while he's unconscious."

"Granted, that one was hilarious," Mientkiewicz said. "But good Lord. I know what that ball meant. I know how important it was to people. But it wasn't worth having some nut job hog-tie my wife and put duct tape around her mouth."

At one point, the Red Sox sued Mientkiewicz before the sides agreed in 2006 to donate the ball to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

"I remember the day they came to take the ball," he said, "and I kept thinking to myself, 'Thank God this is over.'"

Larry Lucchino
Boston Red Sox President and CEO Larry Lucchino receives the ball that was caught for the final out of the 2004 World Series. Mientkiewicz had originally kept the ball as a souvenir.

Mientkiewicz said he knows it will never go away completely. The first baseman played with five teams after the Red Sox: the Mets, Royals, Yankees, Pirates and Dodgers. With each organization, he would insist that, by the end of spring training, the general manager tell him what to do with the ball if they won the World Series at the end of the year.

"Omar [Minaya] told me, 'Big guy, if we win, you can keep the ball and do whatever you want with it," Mientkiewicz said. "Brian [Cashman] said, 'You've got something mentally wrong with you.' He thought it was a little premature to be talking about a World Series ball."

Since the Red Sox and Mientkiewicz came to their agreement in 2006, the organization has had little to say about what happened. "It's a closed issue," Lucchino told the Globe in 2006. "We're worried about the next World Series ball, not the last World Series ball."

The next World Series ball came a year later, in 2007, with closer Jonathan Papelbon keeping the final out. When asked a couple of months later what happened to the ball, Papelbon told reporters his dog ate it.

If the Chicago Cubs were to win a World Series, the ball from that final out undoubtedly would mean as much to Cubs fans as the 2004 ball meant to Red Sox Nation. When asked whether he had any advice for the Cubs player who might catch that final out, Mientkiewicz didn't hesitate.

"Catch the ball, look at the umpire, make sure he calls the final out, then take the ball out of your glove, drop it on the ground and run to the pile to celebrate with your teammates," he said.

"Or I guess just tell them your dog ate it."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn.com.