From where Josie Whitfield sits in the stands behind home plate at Candlestick Park, Kevin Mitchell looks very small, a lot like the little boy who used to hit Wiffle balls in her driveway in southeast San Diego. "Come on, Kev," she yells, snapping open a cold San Francisco peanut. "Pop one like your Granny taught you to. Come on and rip one for me."
Kev's Granny is 67 years old and looks great. She's a warm, comfortable woman in black slacks, a black Giants windbreaker, a black Giants cap and black running shoes she calls her "joggers." She wears big harlequin glasses. four massive rings on her right hand, three more on her left, and gold heart-shaped earrings that weigh maybe a pound and a half each. Dangling from her neck is a diamond-encrusted brooch that spells out JOSIE.
"Lift your shoulders!" she shouts. 'Watch your follow-through! Don't open up your body so wide!" Granny is the biggest booster of Mitchell, the Giants' leftfielder. and—at 5'4"—his littlest batting coach. "I don't want to nag," she says, "but I've flown all the way up here, and I'd sure like to see a three-thirty-five off the wall."
June 25, 1989
"That's how many feet it is down the leftfield line. Kev doesn't need to get a homer for me. I'll settle for a triple. He doesn't have too many of them, anyway."
Only one all season, in fact. But Mitchell has 24 home runs, tops in the majors. And 19 doubles, fourth in the National League. He's batting .301, and six of every 10 of his hits are for extra bases. He has driven home more men than Ralph Kramden, and his slugging percentage is higher than Mike Tyson's. "The only other player I've seen have a year like Kevin was Dick Allen in 1972." says teammate Goose Gossage. "Allen never drove in a run that season that wasn't what we call damage. Very few of Kevin's hits haven't caused some kind of damage."
Mitchell is busting up the bleachers at a pace that puts him just barely behind that of Roger Maris's 61-dinger campaign in 1961. He has put himself up there in the Giants' home run pantheon with Mel Ott, Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey and Duane Kuiper.
"Kevin hasn't hit any cheapies," says Kuiper, now a Giants broadcaster and famous for his one tater in 3,379 career at bats. "They're all no-doubters."
"In my 40 years of baseball, I've seen a lot of great hitters," says Roger Craig, the San Francisco manager. "But I can't remember anything like this. It's unbelievable."
"Unbelievable?" says Mitchell with mock indignation. "You think I can't keep this up for the whole year? You think it's impossible? Well, I can. Hitting is easy for me."
In the immortal words of Reggie Jackson, It ain't braggin' if you can back it up, and Mitchell has been backing it up since spring training. But nobody can honestly say they saw it coming. This is a guy who in 1986-87 was traded twice in seven months and tabbed as a utility player. He has never before hit even 20 homers in an entire season. "I was this hot during my first year as a pro, in 1981," says Mitchell, referring to his days at Class A Kingsport (Tenn.). "Then I found out about sliders."
The San Diego sun presses warm and full of promise on Mitchell as he walks out to Granny Whitfield's driveway. Desert flowers stand in rows guarding the frontiers of her tidy lawn. Swallows swoop in low arcs. The morning stretches on and on at a drowsy, hazy Southern California pace.
Mitchell, 27, is a square-shaped, affable fellow, who comports himself with a certain burly panache. His bulging shoulders and menacing bulk are buried beneath a web of clanking gold chains that announce his presence as he walks. In the middle of his smile is a gold tooth, which fills the gap created when a fan threw a large metal screw at him in the Mexican Leagues back in '82. The tooth flashes defiantly as he squints into the sun, grips a Wiffle ball in his right hand, leans in and begins his windup. His roomie, Giants outfielder Donell Nixon, waits at the plate in front of Granny's garage.
Inside, inside, inside, inside, outside.
Mitchell wears Nixon down with his "devil ball"—a slow, demonic rainbow lob that whiffles here and waffles there and often plops on his best buddy's head.
Inside, inside, inside, inside, outside.
Nixon swings at outside in graceful annoyance and pops up.
"I've been playing Wiffle ball since I was in diapers," says Mitchell. "That and Granny made me a great hitter. Wiffle ball gave me the confidence to hit breaking pitches. Granny taught me patience."
Mitchell's parents split up when he was two years old, and he spent his youth being lateraled off like a football. He stayed mostly with his mother. Alma, in a housing complex ten blocks from his grandmother's house. "They call the neighborhood Little Africa because all the black folks live here," says Granny. Life with Mom was sometimes rough for Kevin. "They had their differences." Whitfield recalls. "He'd get into it with her and run over to my house to get out of it." Granny was indulgent, but firm. "When you're under your mom's roof," she told him, "you have to live by her regulations." So Kevin often camped under Granny's roof and lived by her regulations. "She was there when I needed her," says Mitchell, "and I did, lots of times."
Mitchell's father. Earl, who now lives in Chicago, was a brisk, bluff, no-nonsense guy. "If I came home beaten-up. Dad would take his strap out and whip my butt," he recalls. "Then he'd send my butt back out and say, 'Don't come home till you've whipped the butt that whipped yours." I started whipping other butts to save my own."
Mitchell swung from the hips. "I didn't mess around," he says. "If anybody looked at me funny, Pow! I'd knock him out." He landed with a street gang called Pierules, whose members were known by the green rags they carried around with them. "If another gang caught you and burned your rag, you'd have to fight out of honor," he says.
Years of defending the rag left Mitchell's young body looking like a relief map of an old battlefield. A .38-caliber bullet incised a thin white line on his right thigh. A smaller slug put a welt on his right wrist. A shotgun blast of rock salt inscribed a crescent on his back. "Of course, I packed a gun," he says. "I wasn't gonna get shot and have nothing to shoot back with. I only have a certain amount of lives: One."
And he didn't want to use it to play baseball. "I hated the game," he says. "Baseball diamonds were too boring, and there weren't enough women around them." He preferred football fields, where at least he could dish out punishment. A tailback and middle linebacker in high school in San Diego, he was hoping to win a football scholarship, until somebody called the Mets after spotting him at a coed softball game. The Mets signed Mitchell as a free agent in 1980. "Granny convinced me to go with baseball," he says. "She thought it was safer and would get me out of San Diego."
Mitchell was playing for the Mets' Triple A team in Tidewater, Va., in 1984 when Whitfield called to tell him that his 16-year-old stepbrother, Donald, had been shot and killed by a rival gang. The cops had found Donald's body lying across a railroad track. "I was so sad that I just walked to the outfield and cried." Mitchell says. "I knew who'd done it, and I was prepared to go home to take care of the situation."
Mitchell was talked out of his revenge mission by coaches and teammates, who feared that a return to San Diego could end in disaster. They had cause for such concern. The hostile Mitchell had walked into camp that spring with his fuse lit, hitting as soon he arrived: baseballs, water coolers, teammates. It had been that way from the beginning with Mitchell and the Mets.
Back in 1981, in the instructional league, Darryl Strawberry had scolded him during a pickup basketball game. "Don't be a hogger," Strawberry said. "I'm a hogger?" Mitchell snapped. "You're the biggest hogger I've ever seen." Soon the two hoggers were slopping it out in the mud. When teammate Lloyd McClendon pulled them apart, Mitchell chased after him with a bat. "Kevin needed a lot of guidance," says Bob Schaefer. Mitchell's manager for three years in the minors. "You couldn't challenge him. You had to reason with him one-on-one. If you ranted and raved, Kevin would react and not listen."
Mitchell was a raw, undisciplined talent. In two years of A ball, he had hit .335 and .318, and had demonstrated his versatility by playing every infield and outfield position, catching in the bullpen and even throwing batting practice. But his skills were often obscured by his attitude. "Kevin had more talent than any righthanded hitter in the organization." says Schaefer. "But he didn't know what to do with it. He could have self-destructed many times."
At Tidewater, in the wake of Donald's murder, Mitchell's temperature stayed at a boil; the scowl rarely left his face. Finally, he was confronted by Bill Robinson, the Mets batting coach, who was on a scouting visit to the minor league team. "You've got the worst attitude of any young ballplayer I've ever seen." Robinson told him. "The world doesn't owe you a thing. If you make it, you'll have to earn it. When you leave, only your grandmother will care."
Robinson stepped back and braced for action. But Mitchell was grateful. "Nobody's ever spoken to me like that," he said. "I really appreciate it."
That was a turning point for Mitchell. He began going to church like Granny. "She always told me, 'Put God first,' and he'll handle the bat for you." In 1986, his first full season with the Mets, Mitchell hit .277 with 12 homers in 108 games and, playing six different positions, was a key element in the team's world championship. Catcher Gary Carter tagged him World. "Mitch used to say it's your world, and I'm just passing through." Carter says. "I told him. a guy who can play all those positions, it's your world."
The end of the World came after the Mets won the Series. Mitchell and four other prospects were packaged to San Diego for outfielder Kevin McReynolds and two other players. But Mitchell's heart was still in New York. The next season, as San Diego's regular third baseman, he wore an orange Mets T-shirt under his Padres uniform.
When the doorbell rang, night and fog still lay thick on the streets of Little Africa. "What do you want?" Josie Whitfield asked through the screen, eyeing the unwelcome character at the door.
"Is Kevin home?"
"Don't you know he's got a game this afternoon?"
"He said he'd give me a Padres cap."
"At six in the morning?"
"I'll come back in an hour."
"If you were a real friend, you wouldn't come back at all."
Kevin hadn't liked the idea of getting traded, but at least he was going home to Granny. "It turned out to be the worst thing that could have happened to him," says Eric Show of the Padres. "He had too many distractions. He couldn't concentrate." Says Whitfield, "Kev had too many friends to please. Everyone wanted a piece of him."
But Mitchell couldn't get a piece of anyone early in the '87 season. Against Orel Hershiser he went 0 for 4 and grounded into two double plays with the bases loaded. Padres manager Larry Bowa told him, "From now on. every time we face Hershiser, I want you to sit next to me."
"So we can analyze his pitches?" asked Mitchell.
"No, so I know where you are on the bench. You're never batting against him again."
A concerned Granny began screening Kevin's phone calls. She had him park his car out back to make it look like he wasn't home. She even asked her church to pray for him.
"Kevin, to be a good ballplayer you've got to get your rest," Granny recalls telling him.
"Granny, I'm grown!" he protested. "I'm a man!"
"Well, you still act like a baby. You don't know enough to keep a clear mind and be sure it's on baseball. You've got to think of hitting the ball. Your batting average is down to .243."
"Oh, Granny, averages don't mean nothing."
"Well, they mean something to me."
"I'm just in a little slump."
"You've been chasing pitches out of the strike zone."
"How do you know that, Granny?"
"I'm retired. That's all I do, watch you."
"Why don't you get out there and hit for me?"
"Believe me, brother, if I could hit for you. I would. Listen, Kev. I think you could be a superstar. This is your time. There's a star born every day. Tomorrow it'll be somebody else's time. If you don't shine now, you'll start saying you could've done better. Ain't no use talking about what you could've done. Your day will pass, so you've got to take advantage of it now."
In July 1987 Mitchell sat in a Montreal hotel room, his bags at his feet, a telephone receiver cricked to his ear.
"Granny," he said. "I'm coming home."
"The Padres traded me to San Francisco."
"Traded you! Your Aunt Janice just bought a couple of Padres toothbrushes. Now she'll have to take them back."
"Nobody wants me, Granny. I'm tired of shifting around. I want to settle down. I should have stuck with football. Baseball has too many trades."
"Honey, so long as you've got a job and love to play, you shouldn't quit."
"Why don't you take out your frustrations on some of them white balls."
Kevin dutifully followed Granny's advice. The first time up in a Giants uniform, he lashed a ball into the last row of the bleachers in left center in Wrigley Field. A few innings later he belted one out of the park.
He called Granny back to thank her.
"How do you feel?" she asked.
"Better. Much better."
Granny now felt free to ask, "Who's gonna play third for the Padres?"
"They got Chris Brown in the deal [box, page 44]. They think they got a player with bigger potential, but all they got was one with a bigger butt."
Pete Rose has cooked up a Kevin Mitchell shift—three men stationed on the left side of the infield. Rose might have put them to better use in the lower deck, because that's where Mitchell's shots have been landing lately. "Kevin's hitting into the wind—lefthanders, righthanders, everything," says Giants catcher Terry Kennedy. After Mitchell smacked four homers against the Braves in three days—off a curve, a slider, a fastball and a changeup—Atlanta's first baseman Darrell Evans said, "If I were a pitcher. I'd just escort him down to first right now."
National League managers have come to think that's not such a bad idea. In one game, Braves manager Russ Nixon had Mitchell intentionally walked twice and pitched around him for another walk in a third trip to the plate. A few days later Rose gave him a free pass in the first inning of a scoreless game in Cincinnati. At the start of this season, San Francisco needed an imposing cleanup hitter to protect Will Clark in the batting order. Mitchell got the job. Now they could use a No. 5 man to protect Mitchell.
Not that Mitchell needs a whole lot of protection. Giants pitcher Mike Krukow once watched him casually deadlift a 30-gallon steel trash can brimming with rice. "It was incredible!" Krukow says. "I couldn't even budge that sucker. Mitch has to be the strongest guy I've ever played with." He may also be the toughest. He played 148 games last season with a strained right hand and a bum right knee that had to be fixed in the off-season. In April, in a play against the Cardinals that made every highlight film, Mitchell overran a long fly ball to leftfield and reached back and caught it barehanded. He once dislocated a finger taking grounders, snapped it back in place and took more grounders.
"I can't get him out of the lineup even when he's hurt," says Craig. "He not only plays hurt, but hard." Mitchell is practically a hymn to the work ethic. He leads the majors in hours logged at the ballpark: He'll arrive as much as eight hours before the start of a game. He spent the winter attending hitting school and playing ball in four different pickup leagues. "This guy really loves the game," says Craig. "He's got the enthusiasm of a little kid playing sandlot ball. And he improves himself with every at bat."
Mitchell bats right, but, oddly, against lefthanders last season, he hit only .200. Now he's pelting southpaws at a .377 clip. Maybe it's a new maturity or maybe he's more comfortable in leftfield than he was at third base, or maybe it's because his idol, Willie Mays, infused him with hitting wisdom during spring training. "Or maybe it's the contact lenses Granny got me to wear over the winter," Mitchell says. "I can pick up the rotation on curves now. Last year. I had trouble reading the scoreboard."
Do the contacts really help? "Definitely," says Craig. "Since Kevin started wearing them, he's been dating better-looking girls."
Josie Whitfield turns up the volume on her TV as Kevin comes to bat. Her husband, A.C., is being led around the bedroom by Kevin's rottweiler, Khan. Aunt Janice is playing footsie with Kevin's chow chow, Bear.
"I wish Kev would be more consistent," Granny frets as she studies the screen. "Sure, he's been getting a home run a day, but how long can that last?"
"It's been lasting," says A.C.
"I'd rather to see him keep his average at .300 and not go oh for 4 and oh for 5. I'd like him to get a hit a day. If you keep a steady speed, you won't burn up so much gas."
The first time up, Mitchell homers. The second time, he parks another. His next time up, the bases are loaded. "Great opportunity," says Granny. "Grand slam. Come on, Kev."
Mitchell pops up and leaves the runners stranded. "Oh, Kev," Granny moans. "There's four RBIs down the drain."
"Don't be so greedy. Mom!" says Janice. "You're expecting too much of the boy."
"I don't think so, Janice. He's already hit two, so why not three? All I want from him is a little consistency."