Mitchell Has Held Interest in Sports for Half a Century : Baseball: Maine senator is leaving politics "to consider other challenges," perhaps as commissioner of the National Pastime.

THE SPORTING NEWS

Sen. George Mitchell, D-Maine, probably is going to be the next commissioner of baseball, but no stain on his character--or reservation about his suitability--is intended in noting that his earliest sporting influence came from basketball.

In the late 1940s, when Mitchell was a teen-ager, pro basketball had a slight toehold in Boston, and none at all in central Maine, where Mitchell grew up. But semipro basketball flourished. One of the best semipro players was John (Swisher) Mitchell, George's older brother, a small, deft ball-handling guard. Swisher, who starred at the University of Rhode Island, is said to be the only college player to hold Holy Cross' Bob Cousy to less than 10 points.

In those postwar years Swisher organized semipro teams that barnstormed through Maine. The players, mostly former college players, including another Mitchell brother, Robbie, were paid $50 or $60 a game and a hotel room. The youngest member of the entourage, however, was paid almost nothing and forced to carry equipment. Once, when a car broke down near the Canadian border, he was sent home on a bus. George Mitchell, short and slow afoot, was considered more a manager than a player. He didn't mind that. But he minded one aspect of the arrangement.

"I had to stay in the homes of the local promoters," says Mitchell, 60, the memory galling more than 45 years later. "My brothers and the other players lodged at the hotels. I guess my brother figured he could save a few dollars."

Money was indeed a factor, Swisher recalls. But so was seniority, as well as an incipient threat to young George's innocence. As Swisher tells it, Maine's small-town hotels were veritable dens of iniquity.

"George was low man on the Mitchell brothers totem poll," Swisher says. "Besides, my mother would have killed me if George had got corrupted."

Semipro basketball barnstorming may not have put much money in George Mitchell's pocket, and it did not gain him entry to the hotel rooms of his adolescent fantasy. But it enabled the future senator to get out of his hometown of Waterville and explore his vast home state.

"George always was outward looking, even then," Swisher says.

George Mitchell appears not to have changed much. This spring he announced he is leaving the Senate, at the end of his term, January 1995, "to consider other challenges." He also removed himself from the top of President Clinton's list to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. The reason he gave is he wants to focus on legislation.

Both decisions stunned the political world, but in George Mitchell's quiet way they made sense. As baseball commissioner, he will routinely barnstorm 28 major league cities. He won't have to carry equipment or be sent home if a car breaks down. He will lodge in the plushest suites in the most luxurious hotels and get the best seat in every ballpark. The teen-age boy inside of him should be fulfilled. At long last, he will be high man on a totem poll at the center of America's biggest and best party.

To understand why Mitchell might want to be baseball commissioner, you first must know that for millions of first-generation Americans, sports once was the transforming experience. In an earlier era, before multiculturalism became an end in itself, immigrant families strived to be American. When Americanism was in full flower, in Mitchell's youth, where did it exist more tangibly than at the heart of the national pastime? Who was more American than the commissioner of baseball?

"Sports have meant so much to this family," Swisher Mitchell says. "Sports lifted us up."

On a cloudy spring afternoon, Swisher Mitchell shows me the important places of his brother's youth. First, the old Lebanese neighborhood in Waterville, now a sloping green field and a parking lot between the Kennebec River and the Maine Central Railroad tracks. Here, Swisher says, their parents settled in the late 1920s. George Mitchell Sr., the orphaned son of Irish immigrants and adopted son of Lebanese immigrants, and Mary Saad, his Lebanese wife, had four boys and a girl. Paul, John, Robbie and George, the youngest boy, followed by their sister, Barbara. George Sr., who spoke fluent French and Arabic, held jobs as a laborer and janitor. Mary Saad, who never learned to read English, worked a graveyard shift in cloth mills.

When George was a small boy, they moved into a larger house on Front Street, on the other side of the tracks, closer to St. Joseph's Maronite Church, where George became an altar boy. During World War II, George and his friends sat on the Mitchells' front porch and waved to soldiers in the transport trains. The two-story frame house still stands, distinguished by its plainness and one curiously ornate leaded window.

Not far away lived the town's dominant ethnic group, the French Canadians, and farther on was a Jewish neighborhood. Ethnic peace prevailed, usually, and many of the town's ethnic youth congregated at a Boys Club to play basketball.

"Up that street," Swisher Mitchell points, "was the way to the Boys Club. That was our second home."

Swisher, Robbie and Paul were crackerjack athletes. Swisher and Robbie played basketball at Rhode Island, Paul played baseball at the University of Maine in Orono.

George tried to match the athletic exploits of his gifted brothers, but he was smaller and slower. One of his childhood friends, Paul Maroon, remembers him dragging a bat and ball to the field. "If he didn't bring them, he couldn't play," Maroon says. Mitchell's father was sympathetic and advised him to make his mark with his brain. With his father's encouragement, George practiced oratory at home, reading aloud the Epistles and poetry. He easily mastered his studies and graduated from Waterville High a year ahead of his class. But he was not content to be just a bookworm. He became involved in school politics, made the basketball team as a reserve and played Junior Legion baseball.

Meanwhile, George's mother, concerned about his slow physical development, served him goat's milk--an Old World remedy--without telling him. Something worked. George grew two inches in one year and reached 5-11 1/2, taller than his three brothers. By the time George entered Bowdoin College in 1950, he was tall and fast enough to make the basketball team. For four years, he worked a succession of jobs--dorm proctor, fraternity steward, truck driver, night watchman, construction worker--to pay tuition and bills. Yet he held his spot on the basketball team and started at guard his last two years.

Mitchell went on to work his way through night law school at Georgetown University as an insurance claims adjustor. His earnings have been modest, and according to public record, he ranks in the bottom 5% of U.S. senators in personal wealth. The commissioner's salary of $1 million is not the decisive inducement, says his brother Robbie. But it is an important one. "He doesn't have a lot of money," Robbie says. "He's got houses to keep up in Portland and Washington, and he's always going back and forth. Contrary to what people think, money is a factor."

At the nation's Capitol, on a weekday afternoon in late May, reporters wait for Mitchell to emerge from a closed caucus of Democratic senators. Most of them will write stories on health-care reform--the issue that is consuming most of Mitchell's final months in the Senate.

First reporter: "Will he answer questions?"

Second reporter: "Mitchell always answers questions."

Third reporter: "He stops and talks. There's a difference."

Mitchell can be coy. Baseball owners, fans and media will have to get used to him. A profile in Congressional Quarterly's "Politics in America" describes him thusly: "As a lawyer, judge and a politician, Mitchell relates to interviews as debates and treats questions as three-dimensional traps. He often responds to questions not by answering them but by questioning their premises--usually with a few words of courteous preface such as 'with all due respect.' "

When Mitchell appears, reporters engulf him beneath oil portraits of a few unsmiling 19th-century senators, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Charles Sumner and Daniel Webster. Mitchell has been a competent lawmaker, but his undramatic personal style is unlikely to stir historians or portrait artists. He is outwardly judicious, prim, soft-spoken, and wry, qualities that wear well and invite trust but are not charismatic or glamorous. Only once has Mitchell roused the public with emotion, and it was memorable. That came during the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings, when he tired of Oliver North's self-righteous bombast. He cut off North with a stern admonishment, "Please remember that it is possible for an American to disagree with you on aid to the Contras and still love God and still love this country, just as much as you do. Although He is regularly asked to do so, God does not take sides in American politics."

The questions come hard and fast: When will the health-care bill in Finance be marked up? What will you discuss with the president tomorrow? Your reaction to Senator Breaux's plan to trigger employer mandates on health insurance? Are you disappointed in the pace of the health-care debate? The Republicans are talking about turning up the heat on Whitewater--does that concern you? (Mitchell: "I get the heat turned up on me every day. I'd feel lost without it.")

Mitchell fields the questions with varying degrees of factuality and evasion, in a calm, considered voice devoid of Maine's "Down East" inflection. After satisfying the print reporters, he repeats the process before a bank of TV cameras. Finally, all of the TV people have enough.

"More questions?" Mitchell asks.

"If you become baseball commissioner, will you bring major league baseball to Maine?"

For a long instant Mitchell gives me the twice over. Then, a wide grin.

"We have a good Double-A team in Portland this year," he says. "A Florida Marlins team. My friend, Dan Burke, runs it. I haven't had the opportunity to see them play yet. But I hope to do so soon."

I give Mitchell a chance to duck another question.

"Can you talk about becoming baseball commissioner?"

"Nobody's offered me anything," Mitchell says. "I haven't accepted anything. I'm getting a lot of proposals from other fields. Corporations, businesses, universities, law firms and others. My intention is to wait a period of time and see what interests me the most."

Mitchell's office had warned me that the senator is not discussing baseball issues of substance: the antitrust exemption, expansion, collective bargaining, cable copyright law. That leaves softball.

"Generally speaking, would you talk about your connection to baseball?"

"I've been a lifelong baseball fan. I played Junior Legion baseball through high school. I've been to Fenway Park hundreds of times. My three older brothers were great athletes. One of them, Paul, played baseball in college. I was a second baseman. My brother, John, says that I was a good fielder with a lousy arm who couldn't hit. I guess that means all I could do was pick up the ball."

Mitchell chuckles. Over the years, he has endeared himself to Maine voters with self-deprecating tales of athletic ineptitude.

"Old Orchard Beach used to have a Triple-A team called the Maine Guides," he goes on. "It came from Charleston and now it's in Wilkes-Barre. Gary Thorne was the play-by-play announcer. On a few occasions I sat in with Gary and did color."

"How did it compare with being a senator?"

"It was different."

"Do you remember your first trip to Fenway?"

Mitchell appears stumped, gazing at the Capitol's fancy marble work. He ruminates.

"I can remember one of my brothers taking me to see the Yankees," he says finally. "I remember DiMaggio hitting a long ball that was just foul. It must have been just after the war."

"Is baseball in trouble?"

Mitchell winks.

"Nice try," he says.

Although Mitchell says he has not been offered the commissioner's job, many baseball observers say he and the owners already have reached an agreement. One of the Boston Red Sox's limited partners with close ties to Mitchell says the deal is "99% certain." Mitchell was seen shopping with his fiancee for an apartment in Manhattan this spring, fueling speculation.

If the deal is done, Mitchell is in character; he has a history of quietly getting what he wants. In 1988, he went after the majority leader's job against two better-known senators with more seniority. His opponents campaigned openly. Mitchell worked privately to overcome several handicaps: his lack of seniority, regional rivalries and reservations about his liberal views. Not until a few days before the vote did he publicly acknowledge that he might win. He won on the first ballot.

Once elected majority leader, Mitchell had a seat at an exclusive poker game whose stakes included the White House. Part of Mitchell's job was to prevent a second term for former President Bush. Political writer Sidney Blumenthal described part of Mitchell's strategy in The New Yorker: "With exquisite politesse and delicacy, through a protracted budget summit in 1990, Mitchell coaxed George Bush to abandon his iron-clad campaign pledge, 'No New Taxes'--an act that repudiated the Reaganite theology and proved devastating to Bush politically."

Thanks in no small part to Mitchell, Bill Clinton won the presidency. With Mitchell working the inside levers, Clinton's controversial first budget was enacted and NAFTA narrowly passed. This year, Mitchell ultimately will shape the health-care bill that will be Clinton's most profound legacy.

But Mitchell has paid a price. Mitchell's marriage of 26 years was said to be a casualty of politics--his former wife, Sally did not like Washington, and they divorced in 1987. Their daughter, Andrea, a social worker, lives in Portland, Maine.

Comedian Jay Leno, meeting Mitchell backstage at a taping of "Meet The Press," asked him, "Is it true you're engaged to a 35-year-old woman?" Mitchell nodded. Leno cracked, "No wonder you're interested in health care."

Last winter, at the University of Maine's Hot Stove banquet, Mitchell gave a short talk about the benefit of athletic competition and teamwork. His end remarks, at once soothing and challenging, could well have been a commissioner's inaugural address.

"We're the most fortunate people ever to have lived, to be citizens of the most open, most just, most fair society in all of human history," Mitchell said. "To be sure, we are an imperfect society, as are all human institutions. But one in which we continually strive to identify problems and work toward solving them.

"That's what we need, not just those in the Maine baseball program, but all of us: an appreciation of our good fortune to be Americans, a willingness to identify what's wrong and a willingness to work to correct those problems. I look forward to working with all of you."

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