Our headliner comes to us from San Diego. And New York, San
Diego again, and San Francisco; Seattle, Cincinnati and Fukuoka,
Japan; Boston, Cincinnati again, and Cleveland, where his most
recent gig ended abruptly after only nine hits, not including
the one upside a teammate's head for messing with the clubhouse
stereo. Trust us on this one, folks: Kevin Mitchell is the
master of the limited engagement.
You know him for his gold tooth, his silver tongue and his Blue
Cross & Blue Shield. We wouldn't want to say the guy is
injury-prone, but he once strained his rib muscles while
vomiting. Another time he showed up late for spring training
because he needed emergency dental work after munching on a
microwaved chocolate doughnut.
He is the Wile E. Coyote of baseball. He keeps falling off
cliffs, getting conked on the head with anvils, opening packages
that explode and, inevitably, coming back for more. Just before
the Indians designated him for assignment on May 24--a move that
led to his being released on June 3--Mitchell, 35, cracked,
"Either trade me someplace where I can play or send me home. I'd
rather be playing paintball in the desert [than sitting on the
Our man--all 5'11" and 255 pounds of him--is undeterred from
livin' large. He wears $1,800 crocodile-skin combat boots, which
presumably will come in handy should we ever have to send troops
to Rodeo Drive. He has a fleet of land and sea vehicles,
including one customized truck in which the voice-activated
stereo system cost $19,000. When he wants to hear music, he
says, "Wake up, bitch," and a sexy voice coos, "Good morning."
June 15, 1997
Like a lot of people, Mitchell has pen pals. It's just that some
of his pals are in a pen called Folsom. He's no stranger to the
law himself. How many players can quote the California penal code?
No wonder one of his former coaches, current New York Mets
manager Bobby Valentine, called him "the most misunderstood man
in baseball." Mitchell's bat we know about. He won the 1989
National League MVP award with such a ferocious season (.291
average with 47 homers and 125 RBIs) that he drew more
intentional walks that year (32) than any other righthanded
hitter in history. Since he turned 30, in '92, he has batted
.308 in 1,258 major league at bats. But who knew he was a
clubhouse cutup? Toy collector? Generous humanitarian? A
real-life guardian angel? Yes, he's all of that, too.
So come, zing along with Mitch. You may have seen him on
Letterman. Or maybe it was Cops. Presenting, for your
entertainment, a very funny man: Kevin Darnell Mitchell.
A guy walks into a bar. O.K., it's Mitchell--on the same night
he had begged out of a game with the Reds in 1994 because of
"battle fatigue." According to Mitchell, a woman throws a glass
across the bar, accidentally smacking him above the right eye,
opening a bloody gash and causing the eye to swell. "I'm not
going out anymore," he said. "Or until they start using plastic
Things happen to Kevin Mitchell. During a game with the Reds in
1994, he asked the trainer for eyewash. Inexplicably, someone
had put rubbing alcohol in the eyewash bottle. Mitchell suffered
burns on his eye. "I was right behind him in line," teammate Hal
Morris says. "It's always Kevin."
Also that season Mitchell was beaned flush on the C of his
Cincinnati batting helmet by a fastball from the Padres' Kerry
Taylor. The ball knocked the helmet from Mitchell's head.
Remarkably the pitch caused no damage to him. But when he fell
to the ground, he landed on the helmet and strained muscles in
The man is a crash-test dummy. He has played 1,172 major league
games, but never more than 68 in a row. He vowed in '94 to play
150 games, which prompted Chicago Cubs announcer Steve Stone to
crack that Mitchell must be planning on playing winter ball.
"Tell Steve Stone to stop clowning me," Mitchell replied. "He
wears makeup. I don't." It took Mitchell three years, including
the one spent in Japan, to reach 150. In fact, he has played at
least 150 games in a season only once in his career--the year he
was voted MVP.
Mitchell is the only man in baseball history to win that award
and play for five teams before his 32nd birthday. Baggage?
Ringling Bros. travels with less. Reds general manager Jim
Bowden commissioned a Hooveresque 150-page dossier on Mitchell
before Cincinnati, Team Number 5, traded closer Norm Charlton to
get him from the Seattle Mariners on Nov. 17, 1992. "We did [the
background check] because the guy had a bad public image,"
Bowden says. "What we found was a guy who could drive in 100
runs and who always played hard. The thing I had heard was that
he didn't want to play. Really, it's just the opposite."
In '93 and '94 with the Reds, Mitchell missed games because of
(deep breath here) a broken sesamoid bone in his left foot, a
strained right hamstring, a sore neck, a tight lower back, a
torn left shoulder muscle, a strained rib cage, a sprained left
knee, a burned right eye, a sprained left wrist, a strained hip
flexor, a chipped bone in his left ankle and bruised ribs.
Nothing, though, captured the essence of Mitchell like his last
10 days in his second tour with the Reds in '96, a veritable
Cliffs Notes to his epic career. The epilogue:
Sept. 8. Missed game because of sore right hip.
Sept. 9. Returned to lineup but left six innings later with
twisted left ankle.
Sept. 10. Missed game because of that twisted ankle.
Sept. 11. Spent game sleeping on training table because of sore
throat and fever.
Sept. 12-14. Stayed at his home near San Diego recovering from
Sept. 15. Showed up at Reds' clubhouse in San Diego wearing
slippers and pajama pants. Sent back home to bed.
Sept. 16. Allowed to remain home.
Sept. 17. Failed to report for game in Pittsburgh.
Sept. 18. Failed to report again and was suspended for remainder
"It isn't funny," Mitchell said about his history of injuries.
"I don't appreciate it at all. Believe me, I want to be the
hero, in there every day hitting homers and being the guy."
Kevin Mitchell was astonished one day in Cincinnati to learn
that reserve infielder Lenny Harris would be batting fifth,
behind him. "They don't want me to hit," Mitchell said of the
Reds. "They might as well put Daffy Duck behind me. If Stevie
Wonder was in our clubhouse, they'd bat him behind me."
Kevin Mitchell can flat hit. He once hit a ball so hard it
dented the bat and left behind an imprint of the stitches. He
has been known to take his first swing of the day in the first
inning--no stretching, no batting practice, no scouting
reports--and hit a pea with it.
"I miss one day," Morris says, "and feel like I don't have my
timing or rhythm. He misses a bunch of days and loses nothing.
It's amazing to see a guy do that."
Mitchell takes such a studious approach to hitting that he wants
to be a batting coach someday. He writes nothing down, however.
"Got it all up here," he says, tapping the side of his head.
Before a '94 game at Wrigley Field he found a scouting report on
Chicago Cubs pitcher Mike Morgan waiting for him at his locker.
He picked it up and tossed it away. "Get this out of here," he
said. "I know how Morgan pitches me." His first time up he
drilled a 3-and-1 slider to the back row of the bleachers for a
"The only question," Morgan said, "was whether it was going to
go into Lake Michigan."
Mitchell escaped the players' strike in '95 by grabbing a $3.9
million contract from the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. He hit the first
pitch he saw in Japan for a grand slam, which turned out to be
the highlight of the ugliest Japanese trip by an American since
George Bush had dinner there. Mitchell twisted his right knee,
walked out on the team for two months over a disagreement about
the severity of his injury, and struggled with the country's
small-scale accommodations ("You roll out of bed and hit your
kneecaps on the dresser") and practice regimen ("I really
thought I was in prison--I'm not doing that Jack LaLanne stuff").
Returning Stateside last year with the Boston Red Sox, Mitchell
at one point sat out 10 days with a strained right hamstring,
then whacked three hits, including a two-run homer, in his first
game back. Of course, he also reinjured his hamstring in the
same game and spent the next six weeks on the disabled list. The
portly one fit in with the Red Sox about as well as his Humvee
did on Boston's streets. He sadly sent the Humvee home to San
Diego; the Sox gladly sent him back to Cincinnati.
The Indians became Team Number 9, dangling money in front of
Mitchell like Krispy Kremes as incentive to stay fit enough to
play leftfield: a $500,000 salary, plus $2,000 for every plate
appearance up to 100 and $3,000 for each one thereafter, plus
$10,000 every month from February to May if he met his assigned
weight of 240 pounds, and $15,000 a month after that for every
successful weigh-in. Talk about your fat contracts. Alas,
Mitchell showed up at camp in Winter Haven, Fla., weighing
nearly 270; became the first player unable to complete an
850-yard training run since the Indians instituted it five years
ago; and, when trying to do wheelies, bent the frame of a
bicycle that he was supposed to ride for exercise.
When the Indians traded for outfielder David Justice a week
before Opening Day, Mitchell became an unhappy reserve player.
"My butt hurts from so much time on the bench," he said. "I
don't sit this much at home." Last month Mitchell and teammate
Chad Curtis argued in the clubhouse, reportedly over the music
selection on the stereo. Mitchell denies hitting Curtis, but
several newspapers reported that he whacked Curtis with a
forearm shiver, sending him into a Ping-Pong table and onto the
disabled list with a sprained thumb. Four days later the Indians
"I enjoyed Mitch," Cleveland general manager John Hart says.
"He's got a very interesting perception of the world. We just
couldn't get him enough at bats."
A nervous rookie Reds pitcher named Larry Luebbers once gave up
several hard-hit balls to leftfield, where Mitchell had to
expend considerably more energy than he wished running them
down. Before the game, Mitchell obviously spooked the youngster
by going up to him and saying, "Hey, kid, you ever seen a German
Luger? You will if you have me running around out there."
Kevin Mitchell likes toys. He brought a pair of night-vision
goggles into the Reds clubhouse, turned off all the lights and
ran around yelling, "Desert Storm!" He is the only major leaguer
who wants show-and-tell days added to the promotional calendar.
Another time he brought a laser pointer to work. He delighted in
annoying teammates across the clubhouse with it and then, from
the dugout during the game, hitting a bull's-eye on a reporter's
notebook in the press box.
In recent years he has taken a liking to paintball in the desert
outside San Diego. On weekends in the off-season he has even
gathered up friends who were gang members and hauled them out
for war games with paintball guns. "If I can't shoot the real
ones anymore, might as well use the play ones," Mitchell says.
"Kevin loves his play toys," says his girlfriend, Veronica
Bustamante. "He's like a little kid that way because he likes to
see the expressions on other people's faces."
He is almost never without his cell phone and his pager, the
kind that vibrates upon receiving a message. Mitchell typically
prepares for a game by yapping on his telephone while his pager
rattles incessantly on the top shelf of his locker. His
courtship of Bustamante is a match made in telecommunications
heaven; she was working as a sales executive for a paging
company in San Diego when Mitchell walked into the office. The
next day he sent her flowers and asked her to lunch.
Mitchell's most difficult decision may have been deciding which
vehicle to pick her up in. Mitchell owned (another deep breath
here, please) 11 all-terrain vehicles, two dune buggies, two
go-karts, two Jet Skis, a 40-foot RV, two one-ton pickup trucks,
two utility trailers, the Humvee, a Ferrari Testarossa, a
Porsche, a BMW 740, a Mercedes 560 SEL, a '64 Chevy convertible
and a '75 Caprice Classic low-rider convertible. "When I wake up
in the morning," he says, "I have to decide which one I want to
drive. It depends how I feel. If it's a real nice day, I may
take one of the convertibles."
Most of Mitchell's vehicles--or "buckets," in Mitchspeak--are
customized, be it with intricate paint jobs, supercharged
engines or assorted gadgetry. Two of his vehicles have no door
handles; the doors pop open only by remote control. "I've got to
do something to a car," he says. "I don't care if it's a Yugo,
I've got to fix it up. Put in curtains and pillows or something."
In '93 when he returned home for a series in San Diego, he
purchased $2,800 worth of tickets. He doled them out to family,
friends and some especially helpful employees of the California
Department of Motor Vehicles. "My registrations come up during
the season," he explained. "I don't have time to wait in line."
He later was told to expect no such courtesies thereafter. "I
guess some people got in trouble," he says.
Nothing thrills him more than riding one of his all-terrain
vehicles at 70 mph over desert sand dunes in the pitch-black of
a moonless night. "Stress-free," he says. How's that? "No
phones, no pagers, no nothing." That's why his outfielder's
glove is imprinted with his nickname: SAND MAN.
It turns out that Mr. Sand Man could use a wake-up call once in
a while. In '93 and '94 he was fined for showing up late for
work after the All-Star break, once coming to blows with Reds
manager Davey Johnson after he finally did arrive. "He's still a
boy at heart," says Johnson, who was also Mitchell's manager
with the Mets and is now the Baltimore Orioles' skipper. "He
still loves his toys. I tell him, 'Kevin, you have the rest of
your life to play with toys, but your baseball career only lasts
so long.' What I wanted to impress upon him was, Kevin, don't
put on too much weight, because if you do, it will take a toll
on your legs. Make a few sacrifices now and give yourself four
or five good years, then go play."
In the past seven years Mitchell has earned $20 million while
playing in barely more than half of his teams' games.
"Remember," he says, "I own a hair salon and apartments. I save
real well, but if I want something, I'll get it."
What he's got is a deep wardrobe. Cincinnati catchers Joe Oliver
and Ed Taubensee showed up one day in the clubhouse in '94
wearing nearly identical outfits: black polo shirts, faded jeans
and hightop white sneakers. "Them guys are goobers, man,"
Mitchell said. "That would never happen with me." The next day
Mitchell arrived in a shocking lime silk shirt, matching pants
and black leather ankle boots with steel rivets. No teammate
strolled in wearing the same ensemble.
Mitchell scared himself once when he hit a line drive that
nearly felled Florida Marlins pitcher Chris Hammond. "I'm like,
Duck, fool!" Mitchell says. "I don't need a murder charge."
Kevin Mitchell is a close friend of trouble. In 1991, while
playing for the Giants, he left a ticket at Candlestick Park for
a friend from his San Diego hood. As the man picked up his
ticket, he was arrested in connection with the murder of a
police officer. The man served time in prison after pleading
guilty to voluntary manslaughter and is still friends with
"Lots of my friends who get out or need help, I'll get them a
bucket," Mitchell says. "If I give something to my homeboys, I
don't ask for anything in return."
Another friend, recently released from Folsom, told him, "You've
got lots of fans inside, Mitch."
Maybe Mitchell laughs so much because he has lived such a hard
life. "See this?" he says, showing the scarred underside of his
right wrist. "I got it when I was nine. My father was beating up
my mother. He jumped on her back. I took a hot skillet of grease
and threw it at him. I burned myself." His father, Earl, denies
Mitchell's grandmother raised him for most of his childhood
because, he says, "I didn't get along with my mother." A
brother, Donald, died in a gang war. Earl was a cocaine dealer
who became an addict. In 1990 Mitchell took Earl into his house
and also employed him as a custodian at his hair salon. "Then I
realized I was only supporting his habit," Mitchell says.
He came to that conclusion after his father pawned Kevin's 1986
Mets world championship ring for drug money. Another time he
rushed to his father's aid after Earl jumped out a second-floor
window. Earl, clad only in his underwear, begged his son, "Kill
me. I don't deserve to live."
According to Kevin, in '93 Earl showed up in the driveway of
Kevin's house and began vomiting. Kevin threw him off his
property. "Don't bring that here," he said. "This is a happy
home." He didn't speak to his father for about a year, until a
neighbor told him that Earl had "checked into some rehab program
with a church." Earl says he has been clean for a few years and
now works in an outreach ministry in San Diego.
When you grew up in a gang-infested neighborhood and you've been
trying to keep your father's nose clean, what could possibly
happen on a baseball field to scare you? Mitchell was a rookie
in '86 when Johnson sent him to pinch-hit with two outs in the
ninth inning of World Series Game 6. The Red Sox, ahead by two
runs, needed one out to win the world championship. Mitchell had
to be fetched from the clubhouse, where he had removed his
jersey in anticipation of defeat. He promptly got dressed and
dropped a single into centerfield, imparting more momentum to
that improbable rally. "Damned if I was going to go down in
history as the man who made the last out," he says.
In July 1993, a 25-year-old man named Raymond Smith was killed
in an automobile accident. Mitchell had been a friend of
Raymond's mother, Judy Smith, for six years. He paid for
Raymond's tombstone. Then he told Judy, "Mom, now I'm your only
son. I will always take care of you."
Kevin Mitchell is not always funny. Not only did Smith lose her
only son that year, but she also lost her father and was in a
wreck that totaled her car. Following Judy's accident, in
December, Mitchell decided she needed a large, safe car. He
bought her a new, silver Cadillac Eldorado with this salutation
on the license plate: only4u7, the final digit a reference to
his Reds uniform number. "Kevin has such a gift, it's as if you
can see the light in him," Smith says. "It's hard for me to put
into words what he's meant to me. I truly believe that Kevin is
my angel, a guardian angel sent here to look after me."
When the Reds called up outfielder Steve Pegues from the minor
leagues in '94, Mitchell insisted the rookie stay with him at
his Cincinnati-area home. The year before, when outfielder Jacob
Brumfield was a rookie with the Reds, Mitchell was like a big
brother to him, calling Brumfield's hotel room at night to check
up on him.
"Inside Kevin's got a soft heart," says Brumfield, who now plays
for the Toronto Blue Jays. "He looks after the younger
guys--giving them money, talking to them, taking them out to
eat, things like that."
Former Giants general manager Al Rosen, upon trading Mitchell to
Seattle in '91, two days after the outfielder was cleared in a
rape investigation, predicted Mitchell was destined to be the
Dick Allen or Bobby Bonds of his time, flitting from one club to
another. So, where to next?
Maybe another ball club will try to define Mitchell in 150 pages
or less--and decide that he and all his scars are worth the
trouble. Maybe some other general manager will dream that
Mitchell can drive in 100 runs in a season, though he's done
that only once. Life has never been a sure thing for someone who
eats Vicks VapoRub because that was his grandmother's remedy for
colds, who covers his body with industrial-strength liniment for
games in inclement weather, who takes phone calls from convicts,
who is always a box of Ring Dings from a trip to the disabled
list and who has been known to playfully stretch the truth. That
time the woman heaved a glass at his eye, for instance? Some
eyewitnesses provided a different version: The woman bopped him
with the glass after arguing with Mitchell.
"A lot of people have this bad image of me they get only from
the newspaper," Mitchell says. "If I was younger, it would
bother me. But they can say whatever they want. As long as my
friends and family know who I am, that's enough. The thing is, I
get along with everybody. I enjoy life. I enjoy meeting people."
There will be a Team Number 10 that will book his act, or
Mitchell will take his toys and march back to the desert in his
$1,800 combat boots for good. Either way, he will be having fun.
This, after all, is a man who scoffed when Reds shortstop Barry
Larkin once asked him before a big game if he was feeling
pressure. "Pressure," Mitchell said, "is wearing a pair of
"Kevin Mitchell is so funny, he should charge a cover."
JOE OLIVER, CINCINNATI REDS CATCHER
Life has never been a sure thing for someone who eats Vicks
VapoRub and takes calls from convicts.