DETROIT -- He's a Larry Bird guy, a pal of Mike Eruzione, and a friend of John Havlicek. Oh, and Doug Mientkiewicz fell for something else about the Boston experience.
"I'm not a Neil Diamond fan," the newest Red Sox first baseman said, "but the last time I left Fenway Park, `Sweet Caroline' was in my head for about 10 days."
He better get used to it. One of two players the Sox acquired in the four-team megadeal Saturday involving Nomar Garciaparra, Mientkiewicz is the only one who is all but guaranteed to return to his current team for the 2005 season. He is playing the first season of a two-year, $6.55 million contract, which includes a $3.75 million option for '06.
Good thing Mientkiewicz (pronounced mint-KAY-vich) got to know the city while he hung out with his best friend, who attended Boston University and lived in an apartment with a view of the Citgo sign. The fact is, Mientkiewicz hungered to play for the big-market Sox for about two years before the landmark trade.
"It was never much fun playing there with the Twins because I had to face Pedro [Martinez] and Derek Lowe and now Curt Schilling," he said. "But now that I won't be coming in as a visitor, I'm thrilled."
For one thing, Mientkiewicz will see a whole lot more of his buddy, Alex Rodriguez, who used to borrow lunch money from him in high school. It's funny how the world turns, how Mientkiewicz went from hanging out in his family living room as a kid with A-Rod to watching Garciaparra clean out his Sox locker for the last time Saturday at the Metrodome as Mientkiewicz waited to move in. Over the winter, Mientkiewicz worked out with Garciaparrra at the Athletes' Performance Institute in Tempe, Ariz., amid the bitter aftermath of the Sox trying to replace their franchise shortstop with Mientkiewicz's high school pal. Strange, indeed.
"I would have listened if Nomar wanted to talk about it," Mientkiewicz said. "But he never said anything, and I didn't bring it up. It was none of my business."
Mientkiewicz's last conversation with Garciaparra unfolded last Friday as Sox general manager Theo Epstein was engineering the deal that sent Garciaparra to the Cubs and brought Mientkiewicz from the Twins and shortstop Orlando Cabrera from the Expos. The Sox also picked up outfielder Dave Roberts from the Dodgers in a separate deal. Garciaparra apparently had seen reports that the Sox were angling to land Mientkiewicz before the Saturday trading deadline.
"He looked at me in BP and said, `We ought to be teammates soon,' " Mientkiewicz recalled. "I said, `I hope so.' "
So imagine Mientkiewicz's shock to discover Garciaparra departing the Sox clubhouse after he made a short walk through the bowels of the Metrodome from Minnesota's clubhouse to Boston's.
"I said, `People, please tell me I didn't get traded for Nomar Garciaparra,' " Mientkiewicz said, "because I know what he meant to Boston."
He meant a little something like Rodriguez has meant to Miami, where Mientkiewicz and A-Rod played football, basketball, and baseball for Westminster Christian High School. In football, they set school passing records with Rodriguez as the quarterback and Mientkiewicz his tight end. And they fared well enough in baseball that Rodriguez was selected first overall by the Mariners in the 1993 draft and Mientkiewicz, who was a year ahead of A-Rod, went to Florida State after rejecting the Blue Jays, who drafted him in the 12th round.
By the time Mientkiewicz finished amateur ball -- he led FSU to the College World Series in '95 -- and was toiling in the low minors in '96 as a fifth-rounder for the Twins, Rodriguez was hitting .358 with 36 homers and 123 RBIs at age 20 in his first full season with Seattle. But Mientkiewicz took strength from his friend's achievements.
"I was in [Single] A ball going, `You know what, if he can do that in his first year, I can at least get to the big leagues and be an average player," Mientkiewicz said. "I'm not an idiot. I didn't have the same talent as Alex, but just the fact that he had so much success switched on a light for me."
Mientkiewicz made his debut in the bigs for the Twins Sept. 18, 1998, and collected his first hit the next day against Detroit's Frank Castillo, now a Sox farmhand. A line drive hitter, Mientkiewicz has since batted .276 with a .368 on-base percentage. He won a Gold Glove at first base in 2002, and he helped lead the Twins to the postseason in '02 and '03.
But his most precious memory is carrying the US team to the gold medal in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. He hit .414 with two game-winning home runs after entering the Opening Ceremonies with the likes of Mia Hamm, Kevin Garnett, and Alonzo Mourning. He departed with a better understanding of what it takes to win.
"It's the name on the front of the uniform, not the name on the back, that wins games," Mientkiewicz said. "I've been fortunate to play on a lot of teams that get that."
Last he knew, his gold medal was en route from Minnesota to Boston with his wife, Jodi, who was handling the relocation while he completed his new team's longest road trip of the season.
"We didn't take the medal with us in '02 and I didn't have a very good season [offensively]," he said. "So now it goes wherever I go."
He needs it around.
"When I'm struggling, I rub it," he said. "Or when I'm down on myself, I look at it and go, `You know what, I've done something that not a lot of people can say they did.' "
The Sox like what Mientkiewicz does just fine. He has hit .545 (6 for 11) in his first three games for the team and has made every play in the field.
"He has kind of been lost in the aftermath of this trade and he shouldn't be," Epstein said. "He's a really good player. He has terrific on-base skills and he's a really good contact hitter. He's very confident with two strikes, sprays the ball over the field, and hits good pitching. He's a good, functional part of our lineup."
"He's one of the best in the game reputation-wise, and the numbers back it up," Epstein said. "He creates outs defensively as much as any other first baseman in the game right now."
Mientkiewicz has plenty of friends on the Sox. He played on a high school All-Star team with Johnny Damon and Mark Bellhorn that won a national title in '92. He played with Bellhorn on Team USA in '94. He played against Jason Varitek (Georgia Tech) in college, knows Gabe Kapler from the minors, worked out with Schilling as well as Garciaparra in Arizona. He also is one of three former Minnesota first basemen for the Sox (David Ortiz and David McCarty are the others).
"He'll be a good fit for this clubhouse," Bellhorn said, "because he's kind of laid-back and goofs around."
No question about it.
"Hey, Snook," Ortiz shouted across the clubhouse, using the nickname derived from Mientkiewicz's passion for fishing. "Did you hear what I did to Corey [Koskie]?"
Off they went, with Ortiz recounting the practical joke he played last weekend in Minnesota on Koskie (in part, Ortiz rubbed eye black on the inside of Koskie's cap so when Koskie removed the cap during an interview a black ring appeared across his forehead), and Mientkiewicz filling in Ortiz on Koskie's latest prank (Koskie took a pair of scissors to his teammates's clothes, including the sleeves of Torii Hunter's suit).
The former Twins shared a hearty laugh as they prepared for another round of batting practice.
"Everybody seems upbeat on this team," Mientkiewicz said. "I'm very fortunate to be here."