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'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Friday, Aug. 29, 2008

The Pirates face a difficult decision this winter about Doug Mientkiewicz.

For Mientkiewicz, deciding whether or not to return next season may be even tougher.

The team hasn't approached Mientkiewicz about a contract for 2009. General manager Neal Huntington prefers to conduct that sort of business in the offseason.

Huntington declined to comment on the Pirates' plans for Mientkiewicz.

Without knowing what -- or even if -- the Pirates might offer him, Mientkiewicz already is battling mixed emotions.

"If I'm going to be a bench guy, I'd like to see what else is out there," Mientkiewicz said. "I would like to play more."

The nine-year veteran signed a one-year, $750,000 deal in February. Mientkiewicz knew entering spring training he would have to battle just to win a roster spot as a backup.

Mientkiewicz has gotten ample playing time, appearing in 102 of the Pirates' 133 games. He enjoys playing for manager John Russell, with whom he has been friends for years.

"It crushes you when you can't get him in the lineup," Russell said. "But even when he's not playing, it's nice to know he's sitting there in the dugout. He talks to guys, gives them advice."

Mientkiewicz is a clubhouse leader and a mentor for many of the team's greener players. He enjoys the added responsibility, a responsibility he appreciated earlier in his career.

In 1999, Mientkiewicz played for a rookie-laden team in Minnesota. He remember the help he received from vets such as Terry Steinbach, Ron Coomer and Brent Gates. Mientkiewicz played in 118 games as a rookie that season and batted .229. The Twins won 63 games and finished last in the American League Central Division.

Three years later, the Twins ran away with the division title. Steinbach, Coomer and Gates were gone, but their contributions aided holdovers such as Mientkiewicz, who hit .261 as the everyday first baseman.

Knowing the Pirates' roster was set for upheaval this year, Huntington and Russell brought in Mientkiewicz to provide experience and stability.

Doug Mientkiewicz
102 252 33 71 19 2 28 37 26 .282 .370

Next year, with Jason Bay and Xavier Nady gone, the Pirates will be even younger. Mientkiewicz, 34, who believes he's in good enough shape to play for at least another five years, figures he still will be an asset in Pittsburgh.

"There's room on this roster for even a couple more guys like me," Mientkiewicz said. "They need guys to show how it's done right, how to prepare every day.

"You can't send out all kids (every day). It's not fair to the fans, it's not fair to the team. If you throw them out there with no veteran guys, it's a tough go."

So, if the Pirates extend Mientkiewicz an offer similar to what he has now, it would be hard for him to turn it down.

"It will take a lot for me to leave here if they want me back," Mientkiewicz said. "A lot of things go into it. and I don't want to feel like I'm turning my back on John because I want to see him be successful. I want to see this team be successful."

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