It was a cold afternoon, April 28th 2006 in Cleveland Ohio, too cold for a game meant to be played under the warm summer sun. Two days earlier Kevin Mench extended his consecutive games with a home run streak to six games with a Grand Slam against the Oakland A’s, a Texas Rangers franchise record. Ranger fans watching from the comfort of their homes knew what was at stake. No right-handed hitter had ever hit a home run in seven consecutive games. Ever. Mench stepped into the box to face Guillermo Mota down two runs in the top of the eighth inning. The rest is history and Kevin Mench is still the only right-handed hitter in the history of Major League Baseball to have a home run in seven consecutive games.
Although Mench now lives in a quiet suburb of Fort Worth, it’s clear talking to him that the memories of his playing days are still fresh in his mind. From being called up to play for the Rangers after an early season injury to Juan Gonzalez and an unlikely friendship with Alex Rodriguez, to the culture shock of playing for the Hanshin Tigers in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league, Mench has had a memorable career.
Mench was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the 1999 draft with the 118th overall pick. He was coming off an incredible season with the University of Delaware Blue Hens where he led them to a NCAA Tournament birth and was selected as the Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Year. While making his way through the Rangers minor league system, he had the opportunity to play for Bobby Jones and remembers hearing he had been called up to the play for the Texas Rangers as Jones yelled through the clubhouse.
“Go get that big head mother-fucker and tell him to pack his shit.” Mench remembers fondly. “If you ever knew Bobby Jones, he could take a whole sentence and put it into one word. Best manager I ever had”
In Mench’s first year in the big leagues he found himself becoming fast friends with some of the Ranger veterans including Rafael Palmeiro, Kenny Rogers, and Rusty Greer. It was Greer that gave him the “Shrek” nickname that friends and family still use.
“It was the first or second day of spring training and Shrek had just come out when he said ’Man, you look just like Shrek’ and I told him that it would never stick.”
Mench hit 15 home runs and drove in 60 runs in his rookie season. This earned him 7th place in the AL rookie of the year voting as well as his status a fan favorite thanks to his humble approach to the game and fun-loving attitude.
In 2003 Mench suffered a broken wrist after being hit with a pitch which required him to rehab it back to playing strength. He remembers when notorious micro-manager Buck Showalter tried to call him out in front of his teammates.
“Buck walked in and says ‘Who here thinks Mench should go play winter ball?’ Alex stands up and says ’I don’t think he needs to go anywhere. I think he needs to be here playing with us.’ Buck turned around and walked out.”
That was part of a friendship that Mench has maintained with the oft criticized Alex Rodriguez. “Alex took care of me when I was just coming up. On the road we would have dinner. He would look out for me.” Mench also talked about the professional/rigid demeanor ARod has in public, “You have to be that way when you’re in the position he’s in, but if he came in and sat down, he would have a conversation with you like anyone else.”
On July 26th 2006, Mench hit a double against the New York Yankees for the 50,000 hit in Texas Rangers franchise history. He still looks at that as his proudest moment in his career. “With the home run streak, someone can break that one day. No one will ever have the 50,000 hit again.”
Unfortunately that proud moment was followed up by a shocking phone call from the Rangers the next day. “I was out picking out countertops for our new house when I got the call I had been traded.”
Mench was sent to Milwaukee with Coco Cordero and Laynce Nix for Carlos Lee and minor league stud Nelson Cruz. Talking with Mench its clear that this was never just a business to him and being traded wasn’t easy on him or his family, “Nobody is truthful with you, nobody is honest.”
Mench spent two years with Milwaukee and then signed a minor league deal with the Rangers only to be traded to the Blue Jays before getting the chance to be called up. Then, after the 2008 season, Mench decided to accept an opportunity to play in Japan. He wasn’t prepared for the culture shock he would face playing in the Nippon Professional Baseball league, the same league that new Ranger Yu Darvish made his claim to fame.
“My wife was pregnant at the time so that was the hard part…It was completely different, you’re used to playing a certain way and then you have to change everything. It’s run like the military.”
“Their spring training runs from 9-5 everyday. They will sit there and hit for hours and hours. The final straw was when a kid got picked off second base and all of a sudden I see the bench coach slapping the kid in the face…they beat those kids down.”
The way things were run in Japan was such a change from MLB. “If I had a stolen base, I would have a case of energy drinks sitting in my locker. They just throw money at you.”
After not ever getting much of an opportunity to play in Japan, Mench returned to America. He signed a minor league deal with the Washington Nationals where he was called up and after the 2010 season he decided to call it quits.
His decision to leave baseball after only eight season in the major leagues wasn’t forced on him by a catastrophic injury like so many athletes dread. Instead, he decided the decision should be one that he gets to make. “I wanted to go out on my own terms”
Now Mench spends his time in Keller where he feels totally at home. He has his group of friends and knows everyone from the mayor to the police chief. He occasionally does private hitting lessons for local kids and enjoys being able to watch his own kids grow up. He is a huge hockey fan and calls local hockey legend Mike Modano a friend. You might even catch him calling into local sports talk radio about his beloved Philadelphia Eagles. Life is a little slower than the grind of a Major League baseball season, and that’s just how he likes it.