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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

For now, he's having a ball

Doug Mientkiewicz has the ball. The Red Sox want it back. Stay tuned.

Certainly you know which ball we're talking about. By now you've seen the video a couple million times.

Edgar Renteria hits a hard hopper bound for center field. Keith Foulke raises his arms, snags the ball, then trots toward first base -- just to be safe. After seven or eight steps, Foulke underhands the ball to Mientkiewicz and the Red Sox win the World Series for the first time since 1918. It is the Boston sports equivalent of Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon. Small steps for Foulke. A giant leap for Red Sox Nation.

After the historic moment, there is a huge pile of happiness and hair on the Busch Stadium infield. Then there is a champagne-drenched celebration, a joyous plane ride home, a parade with a couple million people, and a World Series trophy tour that covers more ground than the combined campaigns of Kerry and Bush. Soxapalooza.

But no one ever asks about the ball. What happened to the baseball that ended 86 years of Red Sox frustration?

"I've got it," Mientkiewicz said from his Miami home Wednesday. "It's in a safety-deposit box with my Olympic gold medal [Sydney, 2000]. We had it authenticated by Major League Baseball the day after the World Series so no one can claim they have it. That's my retirement fund. A guy offered me 500 bucks for it, but I think it's worth more than that."

Not so fast, Doug.

"We're going to make a request of him to return it to us," Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino said late last night. "We want it to be part of Red Sox archives or museums so it can be shared with the fans. We would hope he would understand the historical nature of it."

Mientkiewicz understands. We all understand. The ball is the Hope Diamond of New England sports. When Steven Soderbergh gets around to making "Ocean's Thirteen," he can have Clooney, Damon, and friends stealing a piece of Red Sox history. Compared with the ball the Faberge Egg is a prize you'd find in a box of Cracker Jacks.

Some $highball $hardball $history: The ball that skipped between the legs of Bill Buckner in 1986 was picked up by umpire Ed Montague, who gave it to Mets traveling secretary Arthur Richman (now with the Yankees). Richman auctioned that ball in 1992 and actor Charlie Sheen bought it for $93,500. In 1999, former Reds left fielder George Foster came forward with the ball that Carlton Fisk clanged off the foul pole in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. The Fisk ball fetched $113,273. A collector paid a half million for Eddie Murray's 500th home run ball and a couple of Giants fans went to court after wrestling for Barry Bonds's 73d home run ball, which sold for $450,000. The most expensive baseball of all time is still Mark McGwire's 70th homer, which went for $3 million.

And now there is the Renteria-to-Foulke-to-Mientkiewicz ball, which drew the curtain on the Curse of the Bambino. Phil Castinetti, owner of Sportsworld in Everett, New England's largest sports memorabilia shop, last night said, "It might be worth a million dollars. Who knows?"

There some confusion regarding legal ownership of the ball. Is possession nine-10ths of the law?

Carmine Tiso, spokesman for MLB, said, "Doug Mientkiewicz owns the baseball and we authenticated it. Anything beyond that would be between the Red Sox and Doug Mientkiewicz."

Joe Januszewski, Red Sox director of corporate partnerships, said, "I believe we own the ball, though I don't know of any precedent for a team saying we need it back. Like, `Hey, Doug, we'd like to have that for our museum.' I'm sure ownership would treat that delicately . . . It could be Doug's lasting legacy as a member of the Red Sox."

According to Januszewski, MLB has authenticators from the consulting firm of Deloitte & Touche on site for every game of the baseball season. If a team needs something authenticated, the Deloitte rep is there to slap on a hologram sticker, attach a number, and register the item with MLB. During the World Series, MLB owned (among other items) the bases, the pitching rubber, home plate, and the lineup cards. MLB gave the Red Sox those items from the World Series games in Boston.

Sox publicist Glenn Geffner said, "I remember being in the tunnel in St. Louis, waiting for the last out and as we went out to the field and the team went out to celebrate, there was a team of MLB people right behind us, doing their thing -- grabbing the lineup card, the bases, bats, and balls, whatever there was to grab at that point. Later, they were in the clubhouse picking up empty bottles. Every time a champagne bottle was emptied, some guy came up and put a sticker on it."

"It's a recent undertaking by MLB," said Lucchino. "Once you get to the postseason, they want to keep track and authenticate. It's a way to make it less arbitrary and capricious, instead of just leaving things up to the clubhouse people or the players."

MLB's authentication program started in 2001 and more than 650,000 items have been authenticated. Terry Francona's Game 4 lineup card fetched $165,010 in the Red Sox World Series auction on MLB.com. Proceeds go to MLB's central fund, which is shared equally by all 30 major league teams.

Mientkiewicz did little to deserve his position as trustee. Like a woman who walks into a department store and wins a grand prize because she is the store's 1 millionth customer, Mientkiewicz's good fortune was quite inadvertent. He played for the Sox for fewer than three months and batted a mere .215 in 49 games with Boston. He won't go down in Sox history as a pivotal player in the championship run. He was simply the man who filled in as a defensive replacement in the late innings. (Kevin Millar and David Ortiz must wish they'd worked harder on their glove game.)

Playing first base in the final innings made Mientkiewicz most likely to be holding onto a piece of history if the Sox won. Check the video of the final out of Game 7 of the American League Championship Series in New York. Pokey Reese gloves an easy grounder and fires to Mientkiewicz for the final out. Mientkiewicz gave that ball to Derek Lowe.

After catching the final out in St. Louis, Mientkiewicz put the squeeze on the ball and jumped into the pig pile. The ball never left his glove. He put it in his locker when he got to the clubhouse. When family members came into the locker room to join the celebration, Mientkiewicz's wife, Jodi, asked him where the ball was.

"I got it for her and she put it in her purse and the next day she went to Fenway to have the guy from Major League Baseball authenticate it," he said.

Lucchino said, "This is a gray area as to what players think they can take with them. We're going to ask Doug for the ball. I think it would be a nice gesture on his part to return it to Red Sox Nation."

Indeed, it would be a grand gesture -- a potential million-dollar gift -- from a player who might be traded by the Red Sox at any moment.

But does it truly belong to him?

Mientkiewicz could not be reached for comment last night after Lucchino indicated the club's request, but on Wednesday the first baseman left no doubt that he believes the ball belongs to him.

"I know this ball has a lot of sentimental value," he said. "I hope I don't have to use it for the money. It would be cool if we have kids someday to have it stay in our family for a long time. But I can be bought. I'm thinking, there's four years at Florida State for one of my kids. At least.

"I see the money going for home run balls by McGwire and [Sammy] Sosa and Bonds. Those are important and all, don't get me wrong, but there are always going to be more home runs. This is something that took 86 years, and 86 years is a long time. Personally, I went through hell and back this year. But winning the World Series is something I'm going to remember for a long time."

The Red Sox will certainly remember him even longer if he holds onto the ball that the club thinks belongs to the Nation.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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