ALL-STAR GAME : THAT RECORD EDGE : Mitchell Finds That Chasing History Can Catch Up With You
He has just been knocked off the cover of Sports Illustrated by a golfer, a newspaper photographer is trying to get a shot of him in black leather and a television camera crew is looking for new and exciting ways to record him putting on his socks.
Needless to say, the King of the Wiffle Ball is not happy.
Kevin Mitchell, left fielder for the San Francisco Giants, National League All-Star and latest challenger to Roger Maris’ record ( that record), is a nice enough guy.
For all of his menacing physical features--Popeye chest and forearms, the scar from a shotgun blast on his back, reminder of a tough upbringing in San Diego--he goes by the cute and cuddly nickname of Boogie-Bear. He has a ready grin, topped by a gold front tooth, and he’s quick to thank his grandmother and a plastic bat and ball for his success in major league baseball.
But people have been known to change according to circumstance. In this case, Mitchell seems to be experiencing the initial pangs of adjustment because he’s hitting the holy circumstance out of the ball this season.
His 31 home runs and 81 runs batted in through 87 games lead the major leagues and already have surpassed the statistics of last season’s National League most valuable player, Kirk Gibson (25 homers, 76 RBIs). Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961; he got No. 35 in the Yankees’ 86th game.
Bob Melvin, of the Baltimore Orioles, who played with the Giants in 1988, summed up Mitchell’s first half of 1989 when he said: “Kevin has already had my dream season.”
Which, of course, means that the weight of national attention has fallen on Mitchell. For the most part, he has handled it well. But on this day, winding down to the All-Star game, he’s not feeling particularly chatty.
Dusty Baker, Giant hitting coach, has told Mitchell there would be days like this. Baker was a teammate of Henry Aaron’s when the Hammer chased the all-time home run record in 1974 and would like to see Mitchell become a little less accessible.
“I remember Hank would take two rooms in every hotel we stayed,” Baker said. “One room was just to take phone calls, the other was in another part of the hotel and it was for sleep.
“Your game has got to come before interviews. You have to escape, mental rest is just as important as physical rest. I’d like to see Kevin get away from all this a little more.”
To that end, his teammate and roommate, outfielder Donell Nixon, has had the phone number at their house changed.
“It’s getting ridiculous,” Nixon said. “It never stops. I don’t know how these people are getting our phone number, we’re not giving it out.”
It was only a couple of years ago across the bay that Oakland rookie Mark McGwire hit 33 home runs by the All-Star break and endured the same kind of attention Mitchell is getting. McGwire tried to accommodate all and eventually found it too much. He slumped during the second half of the season and hit 16 homers.
So far, the attention hasn’t stopped Mitchell. Nor has a chronic inflammation of his right knee, which sometimes makes it painful to run.
Since 1982 there have been 39 instances where hitters have hit 20 or more home runs by the All-Star break. But only two players, Andre Dawson in 1987 and Tony Armas in 1984, have hit 20 or more in the second half of the season.
Fast starts mean a lot of attention and something is bound to give.
Baker says that when Kevin Mitchell is your friend, “he’s the best friend you can have. But if he’s your enemy, he’s your worst nightmare.”
Mitchell is usually the first player to arrive in the Giants’ clubhouse before a game. It’s not unusual for him to show up five hours before game time.
But on this day, Mitchell is late. The Giants are scheduled to stretch at 4:30 p.m. for their 7:30 game against the Houston Astros, but when 4:30 comes and goes, Mitchell is nowhere to be seen.
No one knows where he is, not Manager Roger Craig, not Nixon, not Matt Fischer, the Giants’ director of media relations who’s trying to soothe the frayed nerves of two fashion reporters and one photographer.
Because Mitchell is not around, Fischer offers the trio first baseman Will Clark as a substitute model. Clark is hitting .332 with 14 homers and 64 RBIs and is generally regarded as the best first baseman in the National League.
“Who? Which one is he?” one of the reporters asks.
Will Clark might as well be Roy Clark. The trio wants Kevin Mitchell and will accept no substitute.
When Mitchell does show up, at 4:50, he sees the fashion reporters, the photographer, a television crew and a reporter from Los Angeles, all there to capture the real him and greets them with hostile indifference, utters an expletive and walks to his cubicle.
Sitting there, he gives off near-tangible vibrations that he does not want to talk. In this case, when Kevin Mitchell doesn’t talk, people listen.
His mood is dark because he has been holed up in an Oakland television studio for a couple of hours doing an interview. He’s late, and he hates to be late to the park.
But what he’s most angry at is the news that he was knocked off the cover of Sports Illustrated by Curtis Strange, who won his second consecutive U.S. Open.
Mitchell says he was promised the cover and to such ends had been tied up last weekend taking pictures and doing interviews. His family, including his grandmother, Jesse Whitfield, whom Mitchell credits with just about everything that’s right in his life (“A great woman, she’s everything to me”), had been in town for that same weekend, but the demands of the magazine meant he could spend very little time with them.
“This really hurts,” he says.
Mitchell’s accomplishments this season are all the more stunning because he has never hit more than 19 home runs in his professional baseball career. Not with Tidewater (nine) or Kingsport (seven) or Lynchburg (one).
There’s the possibility that he will hit more home runs this season than he hit his first three years in the major leagues (53).
At 5-foot-11 and an oil tanker-solid 210 pounds, Mitchell definitely has the body to hit home runs. During the off-season he conferred with Willie Mays and Tony Gwynn. Mitchell was told he needed to stay on his back foot more on his swing and that he needed to be more patient on breaking pitches, which he has done.
“He’s letting pitchers come to him,” Baker said. “He’s sitting back in that chair.”
But the practical application of such things destined to have such profound effects on his career came via a plastic ball that cost about 89 cents at better toy stores everywhere.
Wiffle Ball made Kevin Mitchell.
“It gave me the quick bat speed and taught me to wait for the breaking pitch,” Mitchell said.
During the off-season he and Nixon played in the driveway with such players as Chicago White Sox third baseman Eddie Williams and Boston Red Sox designated hitter Sam Horn.
“I get so pumped up to play Wiffle Ball, I don’t know which I like better, Wiffle Ball or baseball,” Mitchell said.
Considering that baseball pays a smidgen more, he might want to stick with the national pastime. Anyway, Mitchell’s contract with the Giants ends at the conclusion of this season, which means he’ll probably have the financial stability to build his own Wiffle-ing process plant by next year.
As good a year as Mitchell is having on the field, Nixon finds Mitchell’s feats on the driveway just as impressive.
“He’s the King of the Wiffle Ball,” Nixon said. “Oh my goodness, he hits some incredible shots. Across the street is routine for him. He hits the kind of balls that you have to go searching for in the neighbor’s bushes. I’m telling you, he’s the King of the Wiffle Ball.”
Nixon is asked if he has ever beaten Mitchell at the game. There’s a long pause accompanied by an incredulous stare.
“He’s the King of the Wiffle Ball.”
Other, more conventional reasons for Mitchell’s season: He’s wearing contact lenses at the suggestion of Jesse Whitfield.
When Whitfield talks, Mitchell listens. He credits her with saving him from the mean streets of San Diego, where he grew up and ran with a gang called Pierules. She offers advice on hitting, life style, etc.
“I want to have a statue made of her and put it in my house,” Mitchell said.
Then there is his general obsession with hitting.
“If you let him, he’ll talk about hitting all night and some of the morning,” Nixon said.
He swings bats in swimming pools, he sits in his room the night before a game and reviews what the next day’s opposing pitcher has done against him, he dreams about what he’ll do the next day.
“It’s like I have a fatal attraction,” he said. “I’m crazy about the game.”
His teammates would agree, especially after a recent and particularly quirky episode involving a bat.
Mitchell used pitcher Rick Reuschel’s bat--a thick piece of lumber reminiscent of a table leg--to hit a home run. Mitchell liked the bat so much that he ordered a dozen for himself.
The bats were shipped to him with his name, instead of Reuschel’s, burned into the barrel. Mitchell claimed that the change in signature messed up the bats’ aerodynamics and refused to use them.
Such attention to detail might seem surprising considering Mitchell’s major league resume and reputation.
The New York Mets, with whom he hit .277 with 12 homers and 43 RBIs in 1986, the team’s World Series championship year, traded him to the San Diego Padres in 1987. After the trade, mention was made that Met officials feared Mitchell might be a bad influence on Dwight Gooden or Darryl Strawberry.
Mitchell’s background of gang violence in San Diego made him hardheaded and untrusting as a young player.
“Because of the way I grew up, I was a bit protective of myself,” he said. “I thought I always had to watch my back.
“I heard the talk after I left (New York),” Mitchell said. “I never understood it. Maybe they rated me as a bad guy from the start and I never got rid of that tag.”
The tag was just as difficult to shed in San Diego, where those friends from gang days started coming around again.
Jesse Whitfield tried to shield Mitchell from it, but he started to slide. He was hitting only .245 after 62 games with seven home runs and 26 RBIs.
Midway through the 1987 season, the Padres traded him to the Giants. With his third team in less than two seasons, Mitchell was feeling like so much lost luggage.
“I couldn’t understand why people couldn’t see the Kevin Mitchell who played every game like it was the last game of his life,” Mitchell said.
A television camera is focused on Mitchell as he gets dressed. It’s incredible how many angles there are of a man putting on his clothes. Kevin Mitchell may put his pants on one leg at a time, but he gets national exposure when he does it.
Mitchell pretends he doesn’t notice the camera as he dresses, but it’s hard to ignore instructions such as, “let’s get a tight shot of him buttoning.”
Mitchell is still smarting from the Sports Illustrated snub and is refusing to acknowledge the presence of any media-types, let along speak to them. As he tells one reporter who requests five minutes for a story he’s working on: “I’m tired of stories.”
Once dressed, he heads out to the field, talks with teammates and then some batting practice.
It’s a very windy day in Candlestick--which is redundant--and the wind is blowing in toward home plate, kicking dirt into the Giants’ dugout and prohibiting every hit ball from going over the fence.
Mitchell steps in and hits a few wicked line drives, then launches a couple of shots that clear the fence with room to spare. The wind is still blowing hard, but it makes no difference. The ball is flying off his bat.
He bounds out of the cage and walks through the tunnel back to the clubhouse screaming: “I feel good. I feel too good.”
Mitchell goes on to say that he prefers to have a headache, an ingrown toenail, anything to make him a bit angry while he’s playing. Still, the crack of the bat has transformed him. He’s ready to talk. He’s ready to be photographed, he tells the fashion people he’ll make a special trip to Candlestick at 9 a.m. the next day and put on the leather.
While talking to a reporter he is absolutely charming, bristling only at the suggestion that his present performance might be a fluke. Mitchell believes he can continue this type of hitting, and more.
“I know I can do better than I’m doing now,” he said.
Nixon agrees, saying nothing Mitchell does surprises him--except the barehanded, over-the-shoulder, crossing-into-foul-territory catch he made against the Cardinals in St. Louis.
“Now that was unbelievable,” Nixon said. “But nothing amazes me about him. Guys think that he’s having one awesome season. I tell them this is the real Kevin Mitchell and that he can do this every year.”
Which may mean that the King of the Wiffle Ball may end up as the King of the ‘90s, but there are still 80 or so games and 1989 to traverse.
Last week, a big man in a San Francisco Giant uniform did make it onto the cover of Sports Illustrated. But it was Rick Reuschel, not Kevin Mitchell.
Mitchell hit five home runs last week. Apparently, the King wasn’t feeling too well.