There is an aura of mystery surrounding Kevin Mitchell.
Which San Diego high schools did the New York Met rookie really attend? How did someone who never played high school baseball get signed to a major league contract?
When and how did he get rid of his “attitude”? And what is all this about a family feud between Mitchell’s mother and grandmother?
This is a story about how a kid from Southeast San Diego, who reportedly was involved with street gangs, has suddenly become a key member of the Mets’ impressive lineup.
While consistently batting between .290 and .300 this season, Mitchell has played every position except pitcher, catcher and second base, and he has batted in each of the first eight spots in the batting order.
Mitchell, 24, is as versatile on the field as his past is controversial and intriguing.
He has told team members that he was a member of street gangs and was stabbed on more than one occasion. He has said that he got into fights and broke windows.
“Kevin got in a lot of things,” said his mother, Alma Mitchell, 41. “He was a busy boy. Everybody in town knew Kevin got in trouble.”
Most people also think that Mitchell graduated from Clairemont High School, where he was reportedly a star football player.
Wrong on both accounts.
Despite a note in the Mets’ media guide and numerous references in newspaper stories that Mitchell graduated from Clairemont High, Mitchell never graduated from high school and he played football at Clairemont for a very brief time.
Because Mitchell struggled academically, he bounced from high school to high school in an attempt to attain good enough grades to compete in sports.
Mitchell, whose family was continually moving from one part of San Diego to another, went to Lincoln High before transferring to Clairemont. He attended Clairemont from September, 1978, until the end of October, 1978, according to the school’s registrar’s office.
After that stay at Clairemont High, Mitchell moved to Crawford, where he was enrolled for only two weeks, according to a school official. Mitchell said he played water polo at Crawford.
“Baseball was boring to me then,” Mitchell said.
Then why did Kevin’s mother say her son spent his youth playing baseball?
The mysteries and incongruities continue.
After Monday night’s game at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, Mitchell was asked whether he had ever played in that stadium before. Said Mitchell: “I played here in the CIF championship football game when I was at Clairemont.”
Clairemont has been in only one championship game, and that was in 1981 when Mitchell was in Kingsport playing in the Appalachian League.
There are very few straightforward, simple facts to this story.
“He went to a lot of schools,” Alma said. “I even had him in private school (at around 16). Sometimes he would leave school and go play baseball. He was so obsessed with playing baseball that he would play with the Mexicans even though he couldn’t speak Spanish.”
He spent most of his time playing baseball and three-pitch softball on the Southeast Sports Field.
But it was at Grossmont College that Mitchell got his big break.
“I was out there playing around,” Mitchell said. “And some scouts were there and they saw me.”
On Nov. 16, 1980, Mitchell was signed by the Mets as a non-drafted free agent.
“I remember the scout (Dean Jongewaard) telling me how he signed Kevin on the hood of his car,” said Stephen Schryver, Met director of minor league operations. “Kevin had an interesting and different way of progressing to the big leagues. But behind that 747 body of his lies an extremely good athlete.”
Asked if he knew about Mitchell’s alleged involvement with gangs when he signed him, Schryver said: “Kevin tells the stories about the gangs he belonged to. Sometimes I think he embellishes things.”
His signing was the start of Mitchell’s five-year minor league career, which for the most part was impressive.
“When I first saw him I said he was the best prospect in the organization,” said Met Manager Davey Johnson, who was a roving minor league instructor for the Mets when Mitchell played in Lynchburg, Va., in 1982.
In 1984, while playing for the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate in Tidewater, Va., Mitchell hit just .243 with 10 home runs and 54 runs batted in. “He wanted to quit baseball and go back to football when he was in Tidewater,” said Josie Whitfield, who is Mitchell’s grandmother and good friend. “He said: ‘I’m tired of Tidewater.’ Kevin gets a little impatient. I told him he had made a lot of notches and to wait. I told him to keep a clear mind and just play ball. He’d get his chance. Maybe they felt he wasn’t quite mature enough last year.”
Mitchell was called up to the Mets late in the 1984 season. He had 14 at-bats, but more important, that’s when he got to know Bill Robinson, Met first base and batting coach.
“When he came up he had a terrible attitude,” Robinson said. “I sat him in front of me and told him how much I disliked him. I jumped all over him. I told him about life. I told him that baseball doesn’t owe him a damn thing. If he didn’t change, he’d be out of the game. . . .
“At that time, I also knew he was going back (to San Diego) to try and avenge his brother’s death. I advised him not to do that. I talked to him like he was my son. He’s a tough young man and I was prepared to battle. Maybe I said some things that helped. He has really changed his life around.”
Mitchell’s step-brother, Donald, was killed in a gang fight that Mitchell, his mother and grandmother won’t discuss.
After playing at Tidewater in 1985 (with a .290 average), Mitchell spent the past off-season playing winter ball. He came home from Mexico after just one week of winter ball because he said he didn’t like it.
But then he went to the Dominican Republic, where he said he hit 13 home runs in a month and became friendly with veteran catcher Tony Pena.
“That experience gave me a lot of confidence,” Mitchell said. “Tony gave me a lot of talking to in terms of attitude and how to approach the game. Every time he saw me lacking, he got on my case.”
A much more mature Kevin Mitchell showed up at the Mets’ training camp in St. Petersburg last spring.
“After he played in winter ball, I could see a glow in him,” Robinson said. “Kevin Mitchell was not even mentioned in our plans as far as making the ball club this year. But in spring training he was hitting balls over the center-field backdrop and he was opening eyes.”
Monday night, wearing a devilish smile and a baseball cap with the beak cut off, Mitchell slipped away from batting practice long enough to pour a sticky orange drink on pitcher Bob Ojeda’s glove. Then, for good measure, he rubbed the glove in sand.
Ojeda yelled out: “No, that’s my game glove!” Mitchell smiled with the confidence of someone who feels accepted by his peers.
“Kevin has gone from being the most unliked player on the ballclub to the most liked,” Robinson said. “Now, Kevin is also the brunt of practical jokes. If you had joked with him before, he’d have wanted to kill you.”
On Monday, his teammates got him back. They cut up his new Fila shoes and tore his cap.
“I feel like part of the family,” Mitchell said. “They took me in and that feels good. I’ve never had this much fun in my life.”
Said outfielder Darryl Strawberry: “He definitely is having a better attitude and better approach. At first, he didn’t really know how to adjust. He was young. I told him to relax and to have confidence in himself. There has been a big change in his life. It’s good to see that happen. . . .
“I read that stuff about him being in gangs. He had mentioned it several times. We don’t really ever get into it. It was at a young age when he didn’t realize he could be somebody. Now the good thing is that it’s over.”
Mitchell’s baseball success has created a family feud between his mother and paternal grandmother.
“I was very depressed about articles written saying that his grandmother raised him,” said Kevin’s mother, Alma. “That wasn’t true. It is a hurting situation. Raising them (the family) by myself was hard. All the tribulations, and then someone else gets the credit. I can’t go to lunch or dinner without someone saying that his grandmother raised him. I’m very depressed about it. I cry for three weeks when I read some of those things.”
She said she was separated from Kevin’s father, Earl, when she was 19 and Kevin was not even 2.
A former electrician for the Navy, Alma said she “had such a good job that she couldn’t get child support.” For years, Alma said she worked and raised a family.
“My grandmother raised me,” Mitchell said. “She took me out of the trouble I was in. I was never closer to anyone else.”
The debate goes on.
“Nobody else was ever around,” Alma said. “People only started being around after Kevin signed a professional contract. Kevin did not go to his grandmother’s until then. I had no help from her. It bothers me to see a lie go forth.”
Alma said she suffered a heart attack seven years ago. She is no longer working for the Navy, that she is now a prison counselor and designs clothes.
And she is hoping that someday she will be able to work things out with Kevin.
“Kevin and I were always close,” Alma said. “We were closer until he started playing the big leagues.”
Kevin talks more about his grandmother than his mother.
After Monday’s early-evening game, Mitchell took Robinson and some Met players to his grandmother’s house in Southeast San Diego for dinner.
His mother was there to share the roast, potato salad, turnip greens, apple pie, pecan bread and lemon cake. But once again, she was in the background.
“My mom--she’s always there,” Mitchell said. “But it’s different. I just got along with my grandmother more. I lived at home, but my mother is real religious and is always going to church.”
On Tuesday morning, Mitchell went to visit his grandmother.
“I always tried to be his support,” said Whitfield, 64. “He’s my oldest grandson and he sticks kind of close to me. I try to understand him and get him to understand me. We’re good friends. Him and I have been through a lot. . . .
“When his mom wouldn’t let him have his way, he’d run here. I have more patience with him than with my own children. Kevin has always stuck by me.”
But Mitchell has not always told his grandmother everything.
“There was all that talk about Kevin and gangs,” Whitfield said. “This is the part I didn’t know about. It’s kind of shocking. When Kevin was around me, he always showed respect for me. I never saw that side of his attitude. He said, ‘That’s how smart I was.’ I said I could never tell that you had a bad attitude. Maybe it’s different when a bunch of men get together.”
Alma is not surprised that Kevin’s grandmother was surprised.
“She (the grandmother) had never gotten involved until now,” Alma said. “I’ve been very disappointed with all this. But Kevin is very emotional and I have to let it go until he finishes playing.”