October 25, 1986 – game six of the World Series between the New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox. Mets fans packed into Shea Stadium are beginning to lose their minds. The upper deck and mezzanine stands are literally shaking.
It’s the bottom of the tenth inning. With two outs, Mets catcher Gary Carter stands at second base, and Kevin Mitchell – a 24-year-old rookie, who was called “chubby” on multiple occasions by the New York Times earlier in the season – stands on first base after hammering a single into centerfield. Though they’re behind by two runs, Mitchell recalls thinking, “we’re gonna win this.”
With two strikes in the count, third baseman Ray Knight bloops a fastball into the outfield. Carter scores easily, but Mitchell fearlessly races from first all the way into third base.
Moments from now Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner will allow a faintly hit ball off the bat of the Mets’ Mookie Wilson to skirt through his legs – a tragic image etched into the minds of even casual baseball followers. Knight scores the winning run. Two evenings later, the Mets win the World Series. Buckner emerges as one of the great goats in baseball history for letting the ball get by him. However, savvier fans point to an earlier wild toss from Red Sox pitcher Bob Stanley, one that jumped past his catcher, as the more egregious error in the inning. On that play, Mitchell scored from third base, tying the game, which would not have been possible without Mitchell’s heads-up sprint from first base to third.
“One of the most overlooked plays in that World Series,” says author Erik Sherman, who recently penned Kings of Queens: Life Beyond Baseball with the ’86 Mets. “[Mitchell’s] natural baseball instincts took over; most players would have played it safe” and stayed at second base.
Mitchell’s teammate Howard Johnson says, “That kind of base running isn’t taught enough. You have to play that way – aggressive – and that’s how we played the game.”
“I just got a good read on the ball,” Mitchell says, shrugging.
The morning after their season ended in triumph, Mitchell and the Mets were carted through the Manhattan streets in an ostentatious ticker tape parade. Forty-eight hours later the New York Times reported Mitchell would probably not return to the team the following season.
Nicknamed “World” by Gary Carter because he could be found all over the field, Mitchell played games at six different positions in 1986. He finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year vote, his timely hitting helping the Mets win several close contests. Mitchell’s underdeveloped defensive skills periodically hurt the team, but coach Buddy Harrelson stresses today that he more than made up for it with his powerful bat. Mitchell – who most call “Mitch” – also operated as team barber, doing his part to keep the clubhouse loose and the players connected, even as a soft-spoken rookie.
But Mitchell’s performance was not enough for the Mets organization to bring him back in 1987. Trade talks seeped into the press for six weeks after the World Series, until he was finally traded to the San Diego Padres for left fielder Kevin McReynolds. At the time, everyone involved hailed the exchange a success, from the Mets front office to manager Davey Johnson to Mitchell himself, who said he was hurt the Mets let him go, but loved his new manager, Larry Bowa, and hoped he could help bring a championship to San Diego, where he grew up.
Thirty years and zero World Series titles later, the trade is lamented as one of the worst in Mets history. The move is also a marker of when Kevin Mitchell’s reputation began to descend into a dark oblivion characterized by inconsistent performance on the field, and violence, personal chaos, and brushes with the law off of it. He has been accused of being a gangbanger, a bully, and a clubhouse cancer, partly responsible for the downfalls of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry – the two Mets cornerstone players who bowed to drug and alcohol addictions while the Mets franchise crumbled alongside them. But others are quick to testify that Mitchell has been unjustly mischaracterized by the media and the teams for which he’s played.
“When I left New York, I hated it,” Mitchell says today. “It was the worst move for me in my life.”
His relationship with manager Larry Bowa – a short–tempered ex-player who published a book called Bleep! about his tenure in San Diego – quickly soured. “He could’ve been the most rudest manager I ever played for,” Mitchell says. “He treated us like little kids.” (Bowa’s representatives did not answer requests for comment.)
By midseason in ’87, Mitchell was traded again, this time to the San Francisco Giants. He says his torrid relationship with Bowa was partly to blame for his brief stay in San Diego, but adds that “as a young man, dealing with friends and family” in his hometown lead to distractions and a lack of performance. He also says the Padres organization questioned him about the presence of known gang members at home games there to see Mitchell, their childhood friend. Mitchell freely admits he’s counted gang members among his friends and says, “I can’t stop them from coming to the game!”
Mitchell’s brother was killed in a gang shooting while Mitchell was in the minor leagues. He says he too was shot when a stray bullet entered his back while he and a friend happened to be standing near the targets in another San Diego shooting. But Mitchell has always asserted he was never personally involved with any criminal gang activity.
At just 25, he thought about retiring, troubled by the tandem of unexpected trades. But he says the teammates headed north with him – Dave Dravecky and Craig Lefferts – along with his grandmother, who essentially raised Mitchell, convinced him not to.
It was in San Francisco he enjoyed the most success of his career, winning the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award and appearing in a second World Series in 1989. He also made one of the most impressive catches in Major League history, a barehanded grab, on the run, of a fly ball hit deep into the left field corner at St. Louis’ Busch Stadium. Some wondered if he performed the feat to show off. He says his instincts took over. “I didn’t even realize what I’d done until after the play was over.”
Within a few years, Mitchell was embroiled in battle after battle, professionally and personally. In April 1991, after Padres pitcher Bruce Hearst hit him with a pitch, Mitchell, who played running back and middle linebacker on his high school football team, and still boasted the upper body of a Homerian soldier, knocked Hurst down with a charging shoulder block, sparking a big brawl. Mitchell was fined and served a one-game suspension.
“I’m not scared to fight, even as old as I am now,” says Mitchell, who adds that, in his youth, “I never did drugs, but I got in trouble for fighting.”
The media also once reported Mitchell missed a game because he was hung over.
In 1991, he underwent knee surgery and missed weeks of playing time. Then, Kyle Patrick Winters, an old friend of Mitchell’s, was arrested while a guest in Mitchell’s home for his alleged involvement in the murder of a police officer three years earlier. Winters pled guilty to manslaughter, but was released nine years after his arrest when it was revealed that prosecutors in the case had engaged in misconduct. Mitchell, who says he was just offering his old friend a place to stay, was never charged with harboring a criminal and says he and Winters are still friends to this day.
Before the 1992 season Mitchell was traded again to the Seattle Mariners, again thought about retiring, and again stayed in the big leagues after his grandmother urged him to.
The Mariners sent him packing to Cincinnati after just one year – another in which he spent time on the disabled list – but with the Reds he was reunited with former Mets manager Davey Johnson. Physically healthy, Mitchell more than resembled the MVP-caliber player he was a few seasons earlier.
But his willingness to throw down remained in good form as well. Johnson and Mitchell got into not one, but two fistfights in the Reds clubhouse. The first, Mitchell says, was because Johnson had given him permission to miss time to deal with a personal issue at home in San Diego. Upon his return, the team fined him for not reporting, and when Mitchell showed frustration, Johnson escalated things by poking Mitchell and telling him to simmer down. Mitchell says Johnson hasn’t exactly apologized for that incident, but hasn’t held a grudge either. In a 1996 interview, Johnson delved into details of the second fight, vaguely taking equal blame. Mitchell says there are no lingering hard feelings between he and his former manager, and, though Johnson was unavailable for comment, he has since given interviews praising Mitchell as a player and a person.
After the strike-shortened season of 1994, one in which he hit thirty homeruns with the Reds despite the halting of play in August, Mitchell, uncertain as to when Major League Baseball would resume, opted to play in a Japanese league. He returned to the Majors for three lackluster seasons and retired in 1998, blaming his performance drop-off on too many distractions once again – continental moves, injuries, a bout with type-2 diabetes – and lack of consistent playing time.
“They didn’t use me the right way,” Mitchell says of the organizations he played for in the latter years of his career, the last one being the Oakland Athletics, which Mitchell believes purposely set him up for failure to avoid paying him. He says because he played so infrequently his bat never came around to form again, and when he was asked to hit, it was in unfavorable matchups. “After my last game I just walked out and never went back.”
In retirement, more familial heartaches, health woes, brushes with the law, and headline-grabbing stories from former teammates would keep Mitchell’s name in the press more often than he wanted.
* * *
Exiting an elevator in the lobby of Hôtel Plaza Athénée on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Kevin Mitchell limps over to an upholstered sitting chair. Still an imposing figure with tattooed forearms like decorated bouquet vases, the 54-year-old has been undergoing physical therapy to recover from a severely bulging disk that briefly paralyzed the right side of his body. He’s happy he doesn’t have to use a cane anymore. “I was down to 184 pounds,” says Mitchell, who was bedridden for months. “I hadn’t seen that weight since elementary school,” he jokes.
Members of the champion 1986 Mets – a beloved squadron of cigarette-smoking ruffians, hard-partying playboys, and supremely gifted athletes – shuffle through the opulent lobby. One by one they warmly greet Mitchell.
Later on this May afternoon, they will each walk across the outfield at Citi Field in Queens as part of the thirtieth-anniversary celebration of their World Series victory.
A frail Dwight Gooden, through sunken cheeks quickly says hello, asks Mitchell – his “brother” – how he’s doing, and apologizes for interrupting the interview.
“You don’t just age like that,” Mitchell later says of Gooden, who insists he’s been sober for the past few years. “I’m a street dude. I know what’s going on with people.” Mitchell adds that his father was once a cocaine and heroin abuser. “I don’t condemn any of the players,” he says, including Gooden. “I love every single one of them [but] God will punish you if you’re lying. It’s all gonna come out, whatever you’re doing.”
(Three months later, in August 2016, Gooden would miss scheduled public appearances, compelling Darryl Strawberry to call for an intervention, saying in the Daily News that Gooden is a “complete junkie-addict.”)
The interaction between Mitchell and Gooden is telling. Seventeen years ago, Gooden released an autobiography – co-written by Bob Klapisch – titled Heat. In its pages he famously said that he and a booking agent named Mead Chasky stopped by Mitchell’s home during the ’86 season. He claimed Mitchell held them hostage, along with Mitchell’s live-in girlfriend, with a twelve-inch knife. Drunk, Mitchell then cut off the head of his girlfriend’s cat.
Mitchell has vociferously denied the story and, in a 2004 book by Jeff Pearlman, The Bad Guys Won!, said that he and Gooden had put the incident behind them. Gooden apologized and insisted he was not the culprit who weaved the tale.
Author Erik Sherman believes Gooden. “He told me that when he wrote [Heat] he was at a point in his life where he just wanted to please people. That was part of why he got in trouble with drugs. He had a couple guys who were writing this book and, according to him, said, ‘we’re going to put some things in the book to make it more interesting.’ He didn’t really say that about the cat.” (Gooden’s co-author Klapisch did not return a request for comment.)
While promoting his book in 2014, Darryl Strawberry was asked about the feline felony and – even though he was never mentioned as a party involved in the alleged incident– confirmed that it happened, in bizarre, rambling fashion.
Mitchell insists that, first of all, he never even had a girlfriend during his playing days in New York. “A young man like me?” he asks hypothetically. “I was having fun, man.”
I asked Howard Johnson about the decapitation story and he said, “If Mitch says it didn’t happen, then it didn’t happen.”
“I’ve been over it,” Mitchell says. “It’s something stupid they made up and keep talking about but they need to stop.” He adds the weekend he spent in the presence of Gooden and Strawberry, celebrating the World Series anniversary, brought no conflict, and that Strawberry apologized to Mitchell in a phone call immediately after making his statement on the cat killing two years ago.
“How could that be? I didn’t have that kind of power,” Mitchell says. “They were in the big leagues before me.”
Drug and alcohol addictions, along with other infractions, derailed what many expected would be express trips to the Hall of Fame for both Gooden and Strawberry.
The myth of the ’86 Mets features partying by virtually every player on the roster though. Howard Johnson says much of their reputation has been sensationalized. “You don’t have that kind of success if you’re out every night. It’s just not going to happen … We took our job very seriously. Mitch was one of those guys.”
Mitchell, who Johnson calls “positive, upbeat” and “a good man,” says he has never abused illegal substances, and didn’t consume alcohol until he spent the ’86 season in the big leagues with the Mets – and even then did so rarely.
“They taught me how to have fun, win or lose,” Mitchell says of his Mets teammates. “I got here and, shit, I learned how to drink.”
Former Mets catcher Ed Hearn remembers, “It didn’t take much for Mitch to get lit up.”
During a June road trip to Montreal, Mitchell and other members of the Mets invaded the Sir Winston Churchill Pub Complex, where he took shots of tequila seventeen times, disregarding a warning to stop from first baseman Keith Hernandez before the final tilt of a tiny glass. “That was the last thing I remember,” Mitchell says.
His not-so-cosseting comrades parked him on a sidewalk bench and went back inside to continue partying. To this day Mitchell is unsure how nobody robbed him of the gold-plated Gazelle-style sunglasses that rested on his face that night – “they were killing each other in New York over those back then,” he recalls – or how he was able to reach base twice and score a run against the Expos the next day.
Mitchell says he worked hard at simply fitting in with the Mets. As a first-year player, highly susceptible to hazing, he found that task challenging. “They punished me,” Mitchell says. “You never knew what was going to happen.” Relief pitcher Roger McDowell once lit Mitchell’s hat on fire in the middle of a game in Montreal. His hair, covered in Jheri curl chemicals that were popular at the time, quickly went aflame. Mitchell also says that on a trip to San Diego to play the Padres, his Mets teammates took scissors to his suit, cutting off the sleeves, and forced him to wear women’s heels through his hometown airport. Pitcher Bob Ojeda once slashed Mitchell’s sneakers too.
Mitchell never retaliated and ingratiated himself with the veteran players by defending his teammates in bench-clearing brawls. He was always the first one to dive into the scrum each of the four times the Mets saw fists fly that season.
“If there was one player, out of every teammate I’ve ever had, that I’d want in a bunker with me,” Ed Hearn says, “it’s Kevin Mitchell.”
Mitchell’s most brutal display as the team’s prime enforcer took place in June 1986 when the Mets played the Pirates in Pittsburgh. Mets first base coach Bill Robinson accused Pirates pitcher Rick Rhoden of illegally scuffing baseballs. After verbal unpleasantries were exchanged between the two, Robinson shoved Rhoden, and Mitchell ran to Robinson’s aid. He remembers Pirates infielder Sam Khalifa charging him as Mitchell approached Rhoden. Mitchell says he tackled Khalifa in a blind rage, scraping Khalifa’s face across the artificial grass, refusing to get off of him as the fight was breaking up.
“You don’t go after Uncle Bill,” Mitchell says, invoking his nickname for Robinson, the now deceased coach who he credits with keeping him focused throughout the season. “I felt like he was a father to me.”
Mitchell asserts that he knows how to properly conduct himself in any setting. But when it comes to fisticuffs, he’s not one to begin a fight; instead he’ll play a major part in its conclusion.
“Mitch was a bull,” Hearn adds. “He had your back; he was very loyal. You wouldn’t want to be on the other side of the fight though.”
Hearn’s favorite Kevin Mitchell story, a more wholesome one, also took place in San Diego, during a 1986 road trip. Mitchell’s grandmother asked Mitchell to invite Strawberry and Gooden to her house for some home-cooked soul food. She extended the offer to pitcher Sid Fernandez, as well as to Ed Hearn, who by then, after playing with Mitchell in the minors, was one of Mitchell’s closest teammates. Fans and friends of the hometown hero lined the streets, eager to catch a glimpse of Mitchell and his cover-boy teammates. “It was almost like a parade route,” Hearn, then a bespectacled, 26-year-old rookie, says of the limo ride through Mitchell’s grandmother’s neighborhood. “I was probably the only white guy in a quarter mile … The door opens up, Mitch gets out and [neighbors] were hooting and hollering.”
* * *
Since retiring, Mitchell has devoted most of his time to teaching the art of hitting – coaching teams in independent leagues, assisting the San Francisco Giants, and, most recently, giving a clinic to the Texas Rangers’ minor league squad Howard Johnson manages.
At the Brickyard batting cages in San Diego, Mitchell has found what John Thatcher, the father of a fourteen-year-old Mitchell instructs, calls “peace of mind.” Mitchell teaches hitting, free of charge. Thatcher’s son, also named John, praises Mitchell’s character and instructional skills. “He’s been a mentor,” the younger John says, “but I’d most definitely call him a friend. He teaches us to have a good work ethic, respect others, and to always have fun. Those things don’t just help us in baseball, but in life, too.”
“Mitch has been poorly judged from the things I’ve read and seen,” Thatcher says. “I’ve never seen anything nasty out of him. Ever.”
Ed Hearn says of his friend’s unsettling reputation, “I think it’s stereotyping [because of] the neighborhood he’s from.”
Erik Sherman agrees, saying, “In my 36 years as a writer, Kevin Mitchell is the most misunderstood athlete I’ve ever met. He was perceived as being a ‘thug’ and a bad influence on a lot of players, and he’s just the opposite.”
Mitchell says he’s maintained a committed relationship with a professional hairdresser and part-time baker for the past fourteen years. “God is good,” he told me on several occasions, contending that he’s found happiness, in spite of continuous troubling times.
He was arrested for battery of his own father, Earl, in 1999 during a dispute about back rent his father owed Mitchell’s grandmother. He says Earl struck his grandmother and pulled a gun on him before Mitchell hit his father with a left hook.
When Mitchell’s grandmother died a year ago, he says his father didn’t attend the funeral, much to Mitchell’s displeasure. “I don’t care what’s going on with the family, that is your mom,” Mitchell says, adding he doesn’t know where his father lives or how to get in touch with him.
Mitchell’s brother Tommy died from brain cancer. His funeral took place nearly four years ago, at about the time Gary Carter – the Mets star who’d given Mitchell his nickname – passed due to the same ailment. “It brought me to tears seeing [Carter’s] wife and kids this weekend,” Mitchell says in the hotel lobby. (Since Tommy’s funeral, Mitchell hasn’t spoken to his mother either.)
The most painful moment was the death of his nineteen-year-old daughter in 2010. Mitchell, who characterized her death as a murder when speaking to Erik Sherman for the Kings of Queens book, now acknowledges it was a grisly accident and is reticent to discuss it in detail.
Five years ago Mitchell also shoved a fellow golfer on the course, because, according to Sherman’s book, the man repeatedly called him “nigger.” Mitchell says he was court-ordered to take anger management courses after a plea deal.
When it comes to the most serious accusation levied against him, the rape charges that were dropped in 1991, it was initially reported his accuser – an ex-lover of Mitchell’s, then pregnant with his child – pulled back from the case for privacy reasons. Mitchell claimed later that she acted out of jealousy because he became romantically connected with a new woman. Today, he says that he is on good terms with the accuser. They share a five-year-old grandson. Mitchell did not want to provide me with contact information for the woman, who has not been named in the press, although he says she and their grandson plan to spend Halloween together at Mitchell’s home in California.
Mitchell says he is done with Major League Baseball altogether. Before a playoff game on October 10, Mitchell threw out the ceremonial first pitch on behalf of the San Francisco Giants. But when he asked for two complimentary tickets to the game the next evening, he says the organization refused. “They don’t give me the respect I deserve,” he says. In what he claims will be his last interview, he told me this past week his only regret is having hung around some less-than-admirable characters in southeast San Diego after he became a professional ballplayer. “I wish I could turn back the clock and start over,” he says, “but I didn’t want my friends that I grew up with to think that I was getting away from them.”
In the short term, Mitchell’s goal is to recover from the bulging disc injury and return to instructing youths.
“I’m very simple,” Mitchell says, his eyes watering. “My passion is kids.” He hopes to one day open a sports and educational facility where inner-city San Diego children can go to do their homework after school and learn to hit.
“But right now I have to take care of myself first.”