The Red Sox sued Doug Mientkiewicz for the 2004 World Series final out ball

It is the most replayed baseball moment of a generation. “Back to Foulke. Red Sox fans have longed to hear it: the Boston Red Sox are world champions.” The call, from Joe Buck, remains iconic, but the play it described was poignantly routine – the Cardinals’ Édgar Rentería tapping back to Red Sox closer Keith Foulke, who assisted first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz in recording the final out of the 2004 World Series, banishing the ghost of Babe Ruth and crowning Boston baseball champions for the first time in 86 years. 

From Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Portland, Maine, church bells tolled. From Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Burlington, Vermont, navy hats with crimson B’s marked the graves of departed loved ones who missed the unthinkable. From Concord, New Hampshire, to Providence, Rhode Island, generations congealed over a shared and unprecedented joy. Catharsis coloured the provincial milieu, and life was forever altered for baseball acolytes of The Hub.

But as ecstasy lingered in spirit, inflecting the local zeitgeist, perhaps the most tangible souvenir from the historic event – the baseball used to record that final out of World Series Game 4 in St Louis, Missouri, clinching the hallowed title – became a source of controversy. More, it became the central trinket in an ugly fight that required legal intervention. This is the full story of that weird, surreal episode, which irked everyone involved and created a struggle most want to forget. 

* * *

Mientkiewicz joined the Red Sox on 31 July 2004 in a four-team blockbuster that included Boston folk hero Nomar Garciaparra. A former Olympic champion, the sure-handed Mientkiewicz played 49 games for the Red Sox down the stretch, hitting .215 with one home run and 10 RBI. He had a terrific impact defensively, however, spelling the ham-fisted Kevin Millar and David Ortiz at first base in key moments. Overall, Mientkiewicz helped cleanse the Red Sox’ clubhouse, and his professionalism helped Boston to a wildcard berth. 

Increasingly influential, Mientkiewicz also appeared in 11 postseason games – exclusively as a defensive replacement – as the Red Sox dispatched Anaheim, stunned New York and swept St Louis. Doug entered Game 4 of the World Series with nine defensive outs remaining and Boston up 3-0 – Red Sox manager Terry Francona taking every precaution against a Buckner-esque implosion.

Derek Lowe, Bronson Arroyo and Alan Embree stitched together six outs while preserving the shutout, then passed the baton to Foulke in the bottom of the ninth. Albert Pujols greeted the Red Sox’ closer with a single up the middle, igniting flickers of fear across New England, but Foulke rebounded by retiring Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds and Rentería – clinching Boston’s first World Series championship in 31,459 days.

A lunar eclipse decorated the skies above, red hues shrouding the moon. A dogpile sprawled across the Busch Stadium infield, randomly encompassing Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon, among others. A Nation exhaled, finally free from perpetual nightmares. It was all just meant to be, after decades in delay. The Idiots actually did it, and wild celebrations greeted their historic zenith.

* * *

After making the final out, Mientkiewicz put the baseball in his back pocket, then later transferred it to his glove. It was not until his wife, Jodi, joined him on the field, almost 20 minutes after the game ended, that Doug looked into the glove and found the holy grail still nestled within it. As chronicled by Wayne Drehs for ESPN, Mientkiewicz then transferred the baseball to Jodi’s purse, its capsule for the return trip to Boston.

Back at Fenway Park the next day, authenticators from Major League Baseball stamped a wide array of memorabilia from the cherished game. Mientkiewicz produced the final out ball and agreed to have it authenticated. As often relayed by Doug, during that process, Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino walked by and asked whether it was the ball, which Mientkiewicz confirmed. Lucchino said it was ‘cool’ but never pressed for it to be handed over. Mientkiewicz then took the baseball home and stored it in a safety deposit box.

Save for occasional queries from inquisitive teammates, Mientkiewicz heard little about the baseball for weeks after the World Series parade. In fact, it did not re-enter public discourse until December 2004, when Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy mentioned it tangentially in a piece about the Red Sox’ impending logjam at first base. When asked, Mientkiewicz made a pithy, off-the-cuff remark about still having the final out ball and using it to put his kids through college. He was obviously joking, and Shaughnessy included it rather innocuously in his column, but a furore ensued. Red Sox Nation was apoplectic.

As retold to Drehs, Mientkiewicz received a slew of missed calls and text messages when the Globe story ran. “The next thing I know, people are on the street taking photos of my house,” said Mientkiewicz. “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.”

Ever the lightning rod, Shaughnessy mentioned the final out ball again in a 7 January 2005 Globe column. Referring to it as the ‘Hope Diamond of New England sports,’ Shaughnessy quoted Boston sports memorabilia dealer Phil Castinetti, who valued the baseball at $1 million. Nobody actually offered Mientkiewicz money to sell the artefact, and he always said such advances would have been dismissed, but a narrative began to form. Mientkiewicz was portrayed as a selfish, greedy villain who held the team hostage. In actuality, it took the Red Sox three months to even formally ask about the baseball. They had other priorities, apparently.

However, as detailed by Mientkiewicz on the Section 10 podcast, Lucchino finally called him following the Globe coverage. Alas, Mientkiewicz was dealing with a hurricane near his Miami home and asked Lucchino to speak with Greg Landry, the player’s agent. Negotiations became contentious when Mientkiewicz, via Landry, insisted on a charitable donation to the Jimmy Fund for every ticket sold to see the final out ball in a Fenway exhibit. Lucchino demurred, saying ‘rent-a-players’ do not get to tell the Red Sox how to spend their money. An impasse emerged. 

As the debacle raged on, many bystanders vilified Jodi Mientkiewicz, accusing her of calling the shots and telling her husband to play hardball – quite literally. Ultimately, though, Doug wanted the baseball to be publicly accessible while also achieving some communal good. Mientkiewicz did not like the Red Sox’ plans to monetise an inanimate object, and some say that rebellious streak played into Epstein’s analysis of the aforementioned first base logjam. Regardless, when Mientkiewicz was traded to the Mets for a marginal minor leaguer on 27 January 2005, he took the beloved baseball with him. 

Thankfully, Mientkiewicz softened a few days after the trade and agreed to loan the baseball to the Red Sox for a year so fans could see it as part of a World Series victory tour. As such, on 2 February 2005, the final out ball returned to Fenway in an armoured Brinks truck. “Two armoured guards carried the ball in a black canvas bag down a red carpet that had been laid out along Yawkey Way and brought it inside the ballpark,” wrote the Boston Dirt Dogs blog. “It was then whisked up to the .406 Club elevator near Gate A. The ball was then carried to the Hall of Fame Club and handed-off to Red Sox president/CEO Larry Lucchino and placed in a custom-made presentation case.”

Even with the ball temporarily on display, debate swirled about its long-term future. Per the terms of their loan agreement, the team was required to return the baseball to Mientkiewicz by year’s end. A 13 February 2005 edition of Boston Globe Magazine even had esteemed reporter Bill Nowlin debate the issue with Professor Alan Dershowitz, who said Red Sox fans should ultimately decide the ball’s fate, with charity benefiting somehow. In reality, though, meaningful discussions between Mientkiewicz and the Red Sox stalled throughout the 2005 season, as the World Series victory tour snaked through all 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts.

Interest intensified in October 2005, however, as the Chicago White Sox inched towards their first World Series title since 1917. With obvious parallels between the curse-afflicted teams, extraneous talk about the Red Sox picked up, and USA Today published a piece about the final out ball in which Mientkiewicz received support from Yankees legend Bernie Williams, no less. “I think that whoever catches the final out has the right to do whatever he wants to with the ball,” said Williams, who kept the equivalent token from the Yankees’ 2000 Subway Series triumph. “If he wants to donate it, fine. If he wants to sell it, fine. If he wants to keep it, fine. It is fate.”

Mientkiewicz told USA Today that he received death threats and hate mail as misinformation spread about the final out ball. “I was on that CNN crawl,” he remembered, “sandwiched between the Laci Peterson murder trial and tsunami victims. I didn’t do anything wrong, but it’s no fun when the whole world thinks the opposite. You would have thought I stole Ted Williams’ body and wasn’t going to give it back.”

To that end, seemingly out of the blue on 30 November 2005, the Red Sox sued Mientkiewicz to try and gain ownership of the baseball. Led by John Fabiano, the Red Sox’ legal team filed suit in Suffolk Superior Court, alleging Mientkiewicz ‘obtained the baseball through the course of his employment, and the Red Sox are the rightful owners of the baseball.’ The Red Sox even asked for the baseball to be held independently until long-term ownership could be ascertained. This provoked Keith Olbermann to name the team his ‘worst person in the world’ during a nightly skit for MSNBC. Opinions were seemingly divided, but everyone was duly engrossed.

Of course, the Red Sox gained a parallel reputation for shamelessly wringing every last cent out of their halcyon age and the growing fanbase that accompanied it. Lucchino became increasingly enamoured with attention-grabbing superstars who fuelled perpetual interest. Likewise, team co-owner Tom Werner, a television impresario, pushed to exploit the Red Sox’ newfound popularity, orchestrating – via public relations czar Charles Steinberg – appearances on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and monetising the ‘Fenway Park experience,’ among other barefaced initiatives. Indeed, Epstein was so annoyed by mismatched priorities to ‘feed the monster’ that he resigned in the winter of 2005, only to return after three months away. Accordingly, to some, the final out baseball – and the struggle to secure and profit from it – became emblematic of the Red Sox’ awkward corporatisation.

In truth, though, the Red Sox soon realised the futility of their lawsuit, which was withdrawn after just one week on the Superior Court docket. Only after exhausting the formal MLB grievance process – agreed through collective bargaining with the MLB Players’ Association (MLBPA) – would a civil lawsuit be seriously considered. As such, after quashing their suit, the Red Sox engaged MLB and the MLBPA, whose legal representatives met to discuss The Ball and its fate throughout December 2005 and January 2006. 

As those arbitration sessions rumbled on, arbiter Shyam Das tabbed to make a definitive ruling, but Mientkiewicz finally agreed to donate the final out ball to the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, where it would be displayed in perpetuity. Somewhat strangely, the agreement was only announced on 26 April 2006, at least three months after it was reached, presumably allowing for logistics to be confirmed.

“An amicable agreement was reached many weeks ago,” Lucchino decreed via email. “It provides a permanent home at the Hall of Fame with opportunities for some public display as well at Fenway Park.” For his part, Mientkiewicz expressed relief after gaining closure on the entire debacle. “Me, my family – we went through hell and back,” he told the Associated Press. “I’m glad it’s over.”

Mientkiewicz later expanded on the ordeal in a radio interview with WXYT in Detroit. Asked by host Doug Karch about the final out ball, Mientkiewicz detailed how, during the saga’s sorry nadir, someone rang his cell phone and threatened to kill Jodi, even accurately relaying the clothes she was wearing at that precise moment. “Just because it’s the Red Sox doesn’t give them the right to bully someone,” Mientkiewicz concluded. It is difficult to disagree.

Interestingly, a few weeks later, Mientkiewicz returned to Fenway Park as a member of the Kansas City Royals. Peppered with questions about The Ball, Mientkiewicz caused a stir by singling out Lucchino as a serial agitator. "I just want to be remembered as a small piece,” said Mientkiewicz. “Not someone that stole a baseball. It's not even the Red Sox. It's just one person. Everyone outside of Mr. Lucchino has been phenomenal. This could have been cleared up behind closed doors, but I'm not going to be bullied around. I’m not going to accept jabs from someone who never put on spikes.”

Lucchino issued a passive-aggressive rebuttal, expressing surprise at Mientkiewicz’ characterisation of their interactions while saying the Red Sox were more concerned about their next World Series ring than their last one. Werner then defended Lucchino by saying the Red Sox just wanted to do right by their fans. But as for the players who actually won that storied championship? Well, Mientkiewicz never wore his World series ring for two years. He felt betrayed by the people who once paid his salary.

Such hard feelings may have influenced Mientkiewicz’ decision to sign with the hated Yankees in January 2007. While returning to Fenway with the Bronx Bombers in a June series, Mientkiewicz was badly injured in an ugly play at first base – Boston’s Mike Lowell colliding with Doug on a bang-bang play. Mientkiewicz lay prone on the Fenway field for several minutes – ‘someone take the damn ball,’ one fan yelled, humorously – and was eventually carted off to hospital with a mild concussion, fractured right wrist and cervical sprain. He missed three months and returned as New York lost the ALDS to Cleveland.

Incidentally, Boston won a further World Series championship that year. Another awkward situation swirled around that final out ball, too, when charismatic closer Jonathan Papelbon claimed his dog, Boss, ate the pivotal pill. No lawsuits were forthcoming, though, perhaps due to Papelbon’s integral status among a prized homegrown core. “He jumped up one day on the counter and snatched it,” Papelbon told the Hattiesburg American. “He likes rawhide. He tore that thing to pieces, but I’ll keep what’s left of it.”

If only Doug Mientkiewicz had a dog.

* * *

In sum, the ballad of Doug Mientkiewicz and The Final Out Ball has entered Red Sox lore, passed down from one generation to the next like a quirky urban legend. To this day, Mientkiewicz is regularly asked about the incident, which overshadowed a productive 12-year career spanning 1,087 games, 899 hits and a Gold Glove. 

Just last year, for example, Mientkiewicz appeared on the Foul Territory YouTube show and provided fresh details, including the fact he did not even have kids at the time of the original Shaughnessy piece. Besides, even if he did, more than $13 million in career earnings would have taken care of their tuition without the need to sell baseball memorabilia on eBay. Mientkiewicz also joked that he caught the final out of World Series Game 2 and may have mixed up the baseballs. You have to appreciate his levity.

Regardless, it was great to see Mientkiewicz return to Fenway in better circumstances last month, as the Red Sox held an Opening Day ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of their magnum opus. There, he was reunited with another piece of obscure curse-related arcana: the Storrow Drive road sign I campaigned so hard to repatriate. It feels good to close these long-forgotten loops, because they matter to obsessive fans like me. They matter to the denizens of Red Sox Nation, whose passion must be respected.

In closing, I offer a minor footnote to this rambling saga: Doug Mientkiewicz also recorded the final out of ALCS Game 7 in 2004, completing that unprecedented comeback against the Yankees. That baseball is pretty valuable, too, but nobody mentions it. Nobody knows where it is, in fact – a seemingly peculiar oversight. Part of me hopes Doug Mientkiewicz has it tucked in a drawer somewhere, a cryptic relic of his absurd Red Sox tenure. Perhaps he even put his kids through college with it, just to prove a point. You could only applaud such temerity, after all. It would reflect the Boston psyche in pastiche.


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