Fighting his way back

The game wouldn’t start for nearly six hours, but Doug Mientkiewicz, T-shirt soaked in sweat, was already well into his 12-hour workday.

On the left-field grass in an empty stadium, with nothing but his conscience and his work ethic to push him, the Gold Glove first baseman sprinted around plastic obstacles of assorted shapes and sizes. Back and forth he went, dashing and cutting through a course designed to test his speed and agility.

But the mind-numbing repetition, the pain, the loneliness were also testing his resolve.

“A lot of frustration, a lot of sweat,” said Mientkiewicz, who has been in the Dodgers’ dugout every game, home and away. “But you know what? To me, it’s your job. It’s your job to get back on the field.”

Consider it a job well done then, because three months after suffering a shoulder injury doctors thought would prevent him from throwing until October, Mientkiewicz has already begun a minor league rehab assignment that could have him back this month, maybe even as early as next week.


That, however, would be just the latest in a series of improbable turns Mientkiewicz’s career has taken this season.

Invited to spring training as a non-roster player, he earned a uniform the old-fashioned way -- by playing himself onto the team. Then, 10 games into the season, he separated his right shoulder diving into second base. Surgery immediately followed.

Mientkiewicz wasn’t expected to be able to hit until at least September. But he was four for five with a home run and five runs batted in on Thursday in his third of four games as the designated hitter for triple-A Albuquerque before returning to the Dodgers’ spring training facility in Arizona on Saturday to be checked out.

He has yet to play in the field, a hurdle he’ll have to clear before being reactivated. But Mientkiewicz has been throwing -- something doctors didn’t think would happen for at least 10 more weeks.

And although Dodgers trainer Stan Conte isn’t ready to say Mientkiewicz’s rapid comeback has defied medical science, it has, Conte said, defied belief.

“Some people can work really hard for short periods of time. And then it’s like, ‘You mean I’ve got to keep doing this?’ ” Conte said. “This guy’s done this solid for three months. And is not slowing up. And he’s been persistent.

“And he’s been driving me nuts.”

Mientkiewicz probably has spent more time with Conte than with his wife, Jodi, over the last three months. Before Mientkiewicz’s rehab assignment began 12 days ago, the two men often arrived at the ballpark before noon and didn’t leave until after midnight, working in the batting cages and the weight room, running obstacle courses and playing catch with footballs and baseballs to strengthen Mientkiewicz’s shoulder.

“I have good days and bad days,” Mientkiewicz said. “There’s some days where it’s a grind to get through it.”

A left-handed hitter with a sweet swing, Mientkiewicz was expected to be Manager Joe Torre’s primary pinch-hitting option this season -- a role he thrived in before the injury, collecting two pinch-hits in four tries in the first 10 games of the season.

Without him, however, opposing bullpens have been able to exploit righty-lefty matchups in the late innings, adding insult to Mientkiewicz’s injury.

“I want to strangle him every game,” Conte said. “Because when it comes up a right-hander against a right-handed pinch-hitter, he goes crazy. Every game, every time. I said, ‘Doug, I know, I’ve got it. Left-handed, right-hander, you’d be perfect here. Sorry.’ ”

After one mini-tantrum, Mientkiewicz demanded to know why he couldn’t play the next day, and Conte reminded him he still couldn’t raise his arm above his head.

“Then he’d start trying to raise his arm over his head,” Conte said.

“He’s just absolutely hit his head against the wall. And you know what? He’s moving the wall.”

Adds Torre, who also managed Mientkiewicz while with the New York Yankees: “He’s a very determined guy.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Mientkiewicz, who as a senior was the best player on a powerhouse Westminster Christian High team in Miami -- better even, then-Coach Rich Hofman said, than junior teammate Alex Rodriguez. Mientkiewicz went on to play three years at Florida State, won a gold medal with the U.S. Olympic team in 2000, then hit .306 and won a Gold Glove in his second full big league season, with Minnesota in 2001.

But he hit .300 just one other time (he has a .271 career batting average) and has never matched the 15 homers and 74 RBIs he had in 2001. As a result he has gone from young standout to a 35-year-old veteran role player, a lefty bat off the bench and a late-inning defensive replacement who has been with seven big league teams over the last six seasons.

At each stop since leaving Minnesota he has exceeded expectations, only to be cast aside at the end of the season. But if any of that has diminished Mientkiewicz’s desire for the game, he’s done a good job of disguising it.

“Doug Mientkiewicz is definitely a throwback,” Conte said. “It’s becoming maybe more rare, the guys who are willing to go out there not at 100% and not worried about their stats but worried about helping the team. Doug Mientkiewicz is one of those guys.”

In fact, Mientkiewicz is so focused on helping the Dodgers this year he could be threatening his baseball future. Although he hits left-handed, Mientkiewicz throws right-handed and that has meant pain. To compensate, he has altered his throwing motion.

But he is not one to look too far ahead.

“I’m not really thinking about that,” Mientkiewicz said of next season. “I’ve been fighting Stan every day. It’s like ‘we don’t want to rush you back to where you don’t have a throwing motion.’ I’ve got all winter to worry about that. I have to show Joe that he can throw me out there.

“Joe deserves it. The team deserves it.”

And, said Conte, Mientkiewicz deserves it too.

“Holy mackerel,” Conte said. “We’re talking getting in here at 11 o’clock every morning. Leaving after midnight. Doing stuff during the game. That’s one of those things that people just don’t see. And we see it.

“I thought he was going to drive me nuts at the beginning. And don’t tell him I said this, but I’ve actually got to where I like him.”