From 1981 to 1984, Hubie Brooks became a fan favorite as the Mets' third baseman. After a stellar 1984 campaign, Brooks was part of a four-player package that was sent to Montreal on December 10 for catcher Gary Carter. Three days before that deal was consummated, the Mets acquired third baseman Howard Johnson from the Detroit Tigers for starting pitcher Walt Terrell. Along with Ray Knight, who the Mets picked up in a trade with the Astros in August, the Mets had a surplus of third basemen on their active roster.
While the Mets were doing their best Art Vandelay impersonation, importing and exporting any third baseman not named Jim Fregosi, a young minor league third baseman kept waiting for the day he'd receive the call to be a regular in the major leagues. After five seasons of toiling in the minors, with only one short seven-game tryout in 1984 to put on his major league résumé, the young infielder finally got his chance to play regularly at the major league level in 1986. One year later, his Mets tenure was over, a victim of his own talent on the field and his questionable, sometimes volatile, behavior off it.
|After a rough childhood in San Diego, Kevin Mitchell had plenty to smile about in New York.|
Kevin Darnell Mitchell did not have the best childhood growing up in San Diego. As a teenager, he was involved in the gang lifestyle, surviving multiple gunshot wounds. Mitchell made his share of poor choices as a youth, but the one choice that would eventually get him off the streets, perhaps saving his life, was baseball.
Mitchell was drafted out of high school by the Mets as a third baseman in 1980. He made his professional debut for Kingsport in the Applachian League in 1981 and proceeded to move up one minor league level per year. From 1981 to 1983, Mitchell was one of the best hitters in the Mets' minor league system, batting .312 with 23 HR and 146 RBIs in 747 at-bats. In 1984, Mitchell advanced to AAA-Tidewater for the first time, but slumped at the plate, hitting only .243. But after four years in the minors, Mitchell was finally called up to the Mets in September 1984, collecting three hits in 14 at-bats. Mitchell started two games at third base during his brief seven-game stint in the majors, before going back to Tidewater to start the 1985 season.
With Howard Johnson and Ray Knight forming a lefty-righty platoon at third base, Mitchell never got a chance to play for the Mets in 1985, despite raising his batting average at Tidewater from .243 to .290. It appeared as if Mitchell was doomed to start his sixth professional season in the minors in 1986. But manager Davey Johnson wasn't about to let that happen. In fact, he made sure Mitchell would find a way to New York, even if it was at a different position.
As the Grapefruit League schedule was winding down, Johnson started to give Mitchell opportunities at other positions on the field. Mitchell was tearing the cover off the ball in Florida, batting .333 with three homers and eight ribbies in his first 21 at-bats. But he was also learning how to play the outfield, as well as other infield positions, to increase his chances of going north with the team. The newly-acquired versatility worked, as Mitchell was invited to join the Mets back to New York in April.
At first, Mitchell was used primarily as a pinch-hitter over the first two weeks of the season. But when Mitchell was given a start in center field on April 19, he took full advantage of the situation and forced the Mets to change their stance on how often they were going to play him. In that game, a 3-2 victory over the Phillies, Mitchell went 2-for-4 with an RBI. His run-scoring double tied the game in the sixth inning. Two innings later, Mitchell produced a one-out single and later came around to score the go-ahead run on Gary Carter's RBI single. The victory pushed the Mets above .500 at 4-3. They would not lose again in the month of April.
Mitchell made five starts for the Mets in April and had multi-hit games in all but one of them. For the month, Mitchell hit .391 and had an outrageous .652 slugging percentage and 1.069 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage). His fast start helped catapult the Mets to a 13-3 record and a five-game lead in the NL East. By June 14, the lead had reached double digits and Mitchell was a big part of the Mets' success.
|No matter where he played on the field, Kevin Mitchell was always consistent at the plate.|
Although he only recorded 94 official at-bats through June 14, Mitchell made the most of his playing time, batting .330 with 12 extra-base hits (nine doubles, three homers), 14 RBIs and 14 runs scored in limited action. Mitchell started only 15 of the Mets' first 47 games, but once the summer began, he became invaluable to the team, starting 11 games from June 17 to July 6 to allow the regulars at various positions to take occasional days off as the temperatures rose. The temperatures weren't the only things that rose in June and July.
Beginning June 17, Mitchell went on an absolute tear at the plate, hitting .500 (18-for-36) with six doubles, two homers, eight RBIs and 11 runs scored over a 13-game span. Mitchell started eight of those 13 games at a new position (shortstop), while splitting the other five games between third base, left field and right field. Mitchell's batting average was now at a season-high .370 and it was becoming almost impossible for Davey Johnson to leave his name off the starting lineup card. But the events of July 22 at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati made Johnson's decision-making much simpler.
The Mets went into their July 22nd affair with the Reds with a 61-28 record and a 13-game lead over the second place Expos. Cincinnati appeared to be on their way to a 3-1 victory when future Met John Franco was brought into the game to face Keith Hernandez with two outs and the tying runs on base in the ninth inning. Hernandez lofted a fly ball to deep right that Dave Parker appeared to have lined up for the final out of the game. But Parker, a three-time Gold Glove Award winner, dropped the ball, allowing Lenny Dykstra and Tim Teufel to score the tying runs. The game went into extra innings, where all sorts of crazy things happened.
With the score still tied in the bottom of the tenth, Pete Rose pinch-hit for Franco and singled off Jesse Orosco. Eric Davis replaced Rose as a pinch-runner and proceeded to steal second and third base. But when Davis popped up into Ray Knight after his slide into third, Knight showed off his Gold Glove skills (as in Golden Glove boxer, not as in defensive wizardry) and popped Davis in the mouth with a right hook. As third base umpire Eric Gregg ran for cover (and perhaps a cheeseburger or three), a donnybrook broke out at third base that made the Pete Rose-Bud Harrelson fight in the 1973 National League Championship Series pale in comparison (which is ironic since Davis was pinch-running for Rose and Harrelson was now the Mets' third base coach).
Almost every player and coach in uniform sprinted onto the field as fights broke out left and right. Kevin Mitchell, who was hitting pitchers hard all season, decided to hit them in a different way in the melee. Mitchell took out two-fifths of Cincinnati's starting rotation, tossing Bill Gullickson aside and flipping Mario Soto away. According to Jeff Pearlman's book "The Bad Guys Won!", Mitchell had several players piling on top of him, but still managed to notice that the team was short one fighter.
"I have three guys on me, people are trying to kill each other, it's all-out mayhem. And one guy is on the pine, watching it all happen."
George Foster - a Met since 1982 after being acquired from the Reds in a blockbuster deal - remained on the bench for the duration of the brouhaha. Manager Davey Johnson was not pleased that Foster never set foot on the field to help his teammates. As a result, Johnson benched Foster and inserted Mitchell into the everyday lineup as the team's leftfielder. Foster would only start three more games as a Met before being released on August 7. Mitchell performed well in his new role, batting .355 (11-for-31) with three homers and five RBIs in his first eight starts following Foster's benching.
Mitchell kept his season average above .300 until August 16, when an 0-for-5 performance against the St. Louis Cardinals in an extra-inning loss dropped his average to .296. Mitchell finished the regular season splitting time between left field and right field, producing only four extra-base hits over his last 91 at-bats. But his season as a whole had to be considered an overwhelming success.
Mitchell played six defensive positions in 1986, spending time at every position except second base, pitcher and catcher. In only 328 at-bats, Mitchell batted .277 with 22 doubles, two triples, 12 HR and 43 RBIs. He also scored 51 runs in limited duty. For his efforts, Mitchell finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year vote behind Cardinals closer Todd Worrell and Giants second baseman Robby Thompson. Mitchell became the tenth Met to finish in the top three in the Rookie of the Year vote, following Ron Hunt (1963; 2nd place), Tom Seaver (1967; 1st), Jerry Koosman (1968; 2nd), Jon Matlack (1972; 1st), John Milner (1972; 3rd), Steve Henderson (1977; 2nd), Hubie Brooks (1981; 3rd), Darryl Strawberry (1983; 1st) and Dwight Gooden (1984; 1st).
After a spectacular regular season, it was on to the postseason for Mitchell and the Mets. The Mets were playing the Houston Astros in the National League Championship Series in a battle between the two 1962 expansion mates. The Mets split the first two games in Houston with Mitchell not getting into either game. But in Game 3, Mitchell was the catalyst of a key rally.
leading off the sixth with a base hit. Keith Hernandez followed with a single of his own before Gary Carter reached base on an error by shortstop Craig Reynolds, which allowed Mitchell to score the Mets' first run. One batter later, the game was tied on a three-run homer by Darryl Strawberry. Mitchell would get a hit in his next at-bat in the seventh inning but did not score. The Mets would go on to win the game, 6-5, on Lenny Dykstra's two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth.
The two hits in Game 3 would be the only safeties Mitchell would get in the NLCS, as he only played one more game in the series, going 0-for-4 in the series-clinching Game 6 victory. Mitchell only produced two hits in the World Series against Boston, but the second hit would be the most important hit of his young career.
After going 1-for-4 in the series' first five games, Mitchell was on the bench for the first nine innings of Game 6. After the Red Sox pushed across two runs in their half of the tenth inning, Mitchell went back to the clubhouse to make travel arrangements for San Diego. After Wally Backman and Keith Hernandez flied out against Calvin Schiraldi, it appeared as if Mitchell would indeed by flying home to San Diego instead of staying home for a potential Game 7. But when Gary Carter singled to keep the Mets' hopes alive, Mitchell had to abort his travel plans and find his way to the batter's box as a pinch-hitter for Rick Aguilera. Forgetting to put on his protective cup but remembering to bring his rally-extending bat to the plate, Mitchell singled to center, moving Carter to second base. When Ray Knight fought off a two-strike pitch by dunking it behind second baseman Marty Barrett for the Mets' third straight single, the Red Sox lead had been cut in half and the tying and winning runs were on base.
With the free-swinging Mookie Wilson coming up to the plate, Red Sox manager John McNamara removed Schiraldi from the game, replacing him with Bob Stanley. At the time, Stanley was the team's all-time saves leader. He was now being asked to record his biggest save yet. After six pitches and several foul balls, Stanley was one strike away from accomplishing his job. But pitch No. 7 was anything but lucky to Stanley and the Red Sox, as the pitch found its way to the backstop, eluding catcher Rich Gedman's glove and Mookie Wilson's contorted body. Just minutes after producing the most important hit of his career, Mitchell scampered home to score his biggest run, tying the game at 5 just minutes after third base coach Bud Harrelson had instructed him to watch out for a wild pitch. Three pitches later, Wilson hit a little roller up along first behind the bag... (ah, you know the rest).
Mitchell would get the start in Game 7 against southpaw Bruce Hurst but did not collect a hit, going 0-for-2 against Hurst. Mitchell was removed from the game for a pinch hitter in the seventh, but not before Ray Knight had given the Mets their first lead of the game on a home run off Game 6 losing pitcher Calvin Schiraldi. The Mets would go on to win the game and the World Series, with Mitchell and his teammates piling on top of the jubilant Jesse Orosco and Gary Carter after Marty Barrett swung through strike three.
Kevin Mitchell had labored through the Mets' minor league system for the better part of five seasons. Finally, after a strong month in spring training and the support of his manager, Davey Johnson, Mitchell burst upon the scene in 1986, giving the Mets another young talent with a bright future. Mitchell had also earned valuable postseason experience at a young age, with no hit bigger than the one he produced in the pressure-packed tenth inning of Game 6 against the Red Sox. Unfortunately, that hit turned out to be his final hit as a Met.
Six weeks after riding up the Canyon of Heroes with his victorious teammates, Mitchell was traded to his hometown San Diego Padres in a seven-player deal that brought slugger Kevin McReynolds to New York. The deal removed one of the more popular members in the Mets clubhouse and replaced him with a player who, though valuable in his own right, would rather be fishing and hunting than socializing with teammates in the clubhouse. According to Jeff Pearlman, Davey Johnson was not pleased with general manager Frank Cashen's decision to trade Mitchell, saying:
"I didn't want to trade Mitchell. I knew what a pure hitter he was, and he could easily have settled into a starting job. But Cashen said he was going to get in too much trouble here. I had no say."
But the team was convinced that Mitchell was going to corrupt Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden and felt their two young stars would be better off with Mitchell as far away from them as possible. Strawberry and Gooden did go on to have drug and alcohol abuse problems, while Mitchell was forging an All-Star career for himself on the West Coast. Meanwhile, McReynolds had his share of success in New York for five seasons, but was already on the decline by the time he was 31. As successful as McReynolds was, he never led the Mets to the World Series. Mitchell, on the other hand, did make another return to the Fall Classic, and he did it by posting the type of season no Met has ever had.
In 1987, Mitchell played third base and left field for the San Diego Padres before being once again involved in a seven-player trade. This time he was shipped off to San Francisco along with pitchers Dave Dravecky and Craig Lefferts for Chris Brown, Keith Comstock, Mark Grant and Mark Davis. Davis went on to become a Cy Young Award-winning reliever with the Padres, while Lefferts and Dravecky were key contributors to the Giants' postseason push in 1987.
Mitchell had a breakout season in 1987, combining to hit .280 with 22 HR and 70 RBIs for the Padres and Giants, despite playing in only 131 games. For the second consecutive season, Mitchell played in the postseason, but this time he didn't make it to the World Series, as the Giants lost the NLCS in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals. Mitchell did manage to collect eight hits in the seven games, including a double and his first postseason home run.
Mitchell regressed in 1988, batting .251 with 19 HR, although he did manage to drive in a career-high 80 runs for the Giants. The homers and RBIs ranked second on the team behind first baseman Will Clark (29 HR, 109 RBI). For the first time in his career, Mitchell did not get to play in the postseason. His playoff drought would end the following season in a big way.
In 1989, the Giants were involved in a tight three-team race for the NL West title. Through their first 70 games, the Giants were never more than three games out of first and were never in first place by more than three games. San Francisco didn't take a five-game lead in the division until late August and never had a lead of more than seven games at any point in the season. They started off slowly, going 12-13 over their first 25 games. Although Kevin Mitchell had driven in 25 runs in that time, he was only hitting .280 with six homers. But over the next five weeks, Mitchell went on a power tear not seen at Candlestick Park since the days of Mays and McCovey.
From May 2 to June 6, Mitchell played in 32 games (30 starts), hitting .339 and reaching base at a .402 clip. But Mitchell wasn't just hitting for average. He was also showing tremendous power. Of his 40 hits during the 32-game span, 60% of them went for extra bases. Mitchell had seven doubles, one triple and an incredible 16 homers in 118 at-bats over that stretch, carrying the Giants to a 21-11 record.
By the All-Star Break (which wasn't a break for Mitchell, as he was selected to play in the game), Mitchell had already set new career highs in home runs (31) and RBIs (81). He was also threatening to become only the sixth Giant to record a 40-homer season, following in the footsteps of Hall of Famers Mel Ott, Johnny Mize, Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey. On August 22, Mitchell joined that exclusive club, hitting his 40th homer against the team that originally drafted him. Mitchell blasted his historic homer in the sixth inning off the newly-acquired Frank Viola, who had struck out ten batters over the first five innings. Ten days later, Mitchell once again dealt a crushing blow to the Mets in their quest to repeat as NL East champions, going 2-for-3 with four RBIs, including a three-run homer off Ron Darling in the seventh inning to put the game out of reach.
|"You think Kevin Mitchell won't recognize me if I wear these dark sunglasses on the mound?"|
After not having won a division title since 1971, the Giants secured their second National League West division championship in three seasons on September 27, advancing to the NLCS to take on the Chicago Cubs, who were attempting to win their first National League pennant in 44 years. Mitchell was one of many contributors in the Giants' run to the 1987 NL West title, but he became "the man" on the 1989 division-winning team. Mitchell led the league in home runs (47), RBIs (125), total bases (345), slugging percentage (.635), OPS (1.023) and intentional walks (32).
How dominant was Mitchell's 1989 campaign? Howard Johnson finished second in the NL with 36 homers. Mitchell hit his 37th homer on August 11, meaning he could have missed the last seven weeks of the season and still would have led the league in homers.
Mitchell continued his assault on opposing pitchers in the NLCS, batting .353 with two homers and seven RBIs in five games against the Cubs. But he was denied the NLCS MVP Award, as teammate Will Clark played out of his mind in the five-game series, batting .650 (13-for-20) with six extra-base hits and eight RBIs. In the pennant-clinching fifth game, Mitchell drove in the game-tying run in the Giants' 3-2 victory. Of course, Clark drove in the other two runs.
The Giants had advanced to their first World Series since 1962, taking on their cross-bay rivals, the Oakland Athletics. The A's took the first two games in Oakland by a combined 10-1 score. San Francisco could only muster nine hits in the first two games but Mitchell had three of them. The Loma Prieta earthquake delayed the World Series for nearly two weeks, but even the extended break couldn't wake up the sleeping Giants. Oakland swept the World Series, denying the Giants their first championship since moving to San Francisco in 1958. Mitchell batted .294 in the four games, but didn't hit a home run until the sixth inning of Game 4. By that time, the Giants were already trailing by eight runs and Oakland had all but wrapped up their first title since 1974.
Mitchell didn't take home the hardware he really wanted in 1989, but he did win the National League MVP Award, beating teammate Will Clark by 89 votes. Mitchell also earned his first Silver Slugger Award for being the top hitter at his position. In addition to his outstanding accomplishments at the plate, Mitchell also produced one of the most amazing defensive plays of the year, sending Ozzie Smith back to the dugout in disbelief.
After his career year in 1989, no one expected Mitchell to duplicate his once-in-a-lifetime campaign. But that didn't stop Mitchell from trying. Although he missed 22 games for the Giants in 1990, Mitchell still managed to hit .290 with 35 HR and 93 RBIs. He was also selected to his second All-Star team.
In 1991, Mitchell missed 49 games with various injuries, but continued to provide a powerful bat when healthy. Mitchell had 27 HR and 69 RBIs for the Giants in 113 games. Unfortunately, it would be his final season in San Francisco and the final year he was able to play 100 or more games. It would not, however, be the last year Mitchell would be productive.
Not wanting to pay Mitchell, who still had three years and $11.25 million left on his contract, the Giants traded the slugger to Seattle prior to the 1992 season. The trade left a bad taste in Mets general manager Al Harazin's mouth, particularly because he was led to believe that the Mariners did not want "anyone's $3 million player". Harazin had offered Seattle Kevin McReynolds in a deal that could have made Randy Johnson a Met, but was turned down. Hours after being denied by the Mariners, Harazin traded McReynolds to Kansas City in a deal that brought Bret Saberhagen to New York.
Mitchell had a poor season in Seattle, hitting only nine home runs and driving in 67 runs in 99 games. After one uneventful year in the Pacific Northwest, Seattle traded Mitchell to Cincinnati for former Nasty Boy and World Series champion Norm Charlton. The trade seemed to rejuvenate Mitchell, as he hit a career-high .341 for the Reds in 93 games. Mitchell also hit 21 doubles and 19 homers in only 323 at-bats in 1993, finishing the year with a .601 slugging percentage, his first time above .600 since his 1989 MVP season.
In 1994, Mitchell played his first healthy season in nearly half a decade. Mitchell had a modest April, batting .289 with five homers and 13 RBIs. But he had a tremendous month of May, batting .387 with ten homers and 17 RBIs. Although Mitchell had a .322 batting average, 21 homers and 50 RBIs by the All-Star Break, he was not selected to play in his third Midsummer Classic. Mitchell took his All-Star snub out on National League pitchers, batting .338 with nine homers and 27 RBI over his next 23 starts. But alas, start No. 24 never happened, as baseball went on strike after all games were completed on August 11.
Mitchell never got a chance to go for his second 40-homer season, finishing the abbreviated season with 30 HR and 77 RBIs. Mitchell also hit .326 and finished the year with a career-high .429 on-base percentage and .681 slugging percentage. Mitchell's name was all over the National League leader board in 1994. He finished in the top ten in batting average (.326; 6th in the NL), on-base percentage (.429; 3rd), slugging percentage (.681; 2nd), OPS (1.110; 2nd), home runs (30; 6th) and walks (59; 6th). His efforts did not go unnoticed by the MVP voters, as Mitchell placed ninth in the 1994 NL MVP race. It was the second top ten MVP finish in Mitchell's career, following his first place finish in 1989.
|Whether in New York, San Francisco or Cincinnati, Kevin Mitchell always had a smile when he had a bat in his hands.|
Mitchell's resurgent season coincided with his contract year, but instead of remaining in the major leagues, Mitchell chose to spend 1995 overseas, signing the richest contract in Japanese baseball history to play for the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. But weight problems and a recurring knee injury limited his stay in Japan to just one year. Mitchell returned to the United States in 1996, signing a free agent contract with Boston, where he hit .304 with two home runs and 13 RBIs in 27 games. The Red Sox then traded Mitchell back to Cincinnati, where he prospered, hitting .325 with 11 doubles, six homers and 26 RBIs in only 114 at-bats. Mitchell continued to be an on-base machine in Cincinnati, recording a .447 OBP after his return to the Reds.
In parts of three seasons with Cincinnati from 1993 to 1996, Mitchell only had 747 official at-bats. But when he was playing, he was incredibly productive, batting .332 with 50 doubles, four triples, 55 HR and 167 RBIs. Mitchell also had a .414 on-base percentage and slugged at a .631 clip.
Mitchell played the final two years of his major league career in the American League, playing 20 games for Cleveland in 1997 and 51 games for Oakland in 1998. After batting .204 with six home runs and 32 RBIs for the Indians and A's, Mitchell played in Mexico in 1999, followed by a stay in the Independent League in 2000 and 2001.
Kevin Mitchell did not put up Hall of Fame numbers in his 13-year major league career. He finished his career with a .284 batting average, 224 doubles, 234 homers, 760 RBIs and 630 runs scored. None of those numbers would even be ranked No. 1 on the Mets' all-time leaderboard. But Mitchell spent a lot of time on the bench and the disabled list. In fact, according to his baseball-reference.com page, Mitchell's 162-game average was quite impressive. Mitchell averaged 30 doubles, 31 HR and 101 RBIs for every 162 games he played. Those numbers compare quite favorably to Mets' current all-time home run leader Darryl Strawberry, whose 162-game average over his 17-year career projected to 26 doubles, 34 HR and 102 RBIs.
After the Mets traded Mitchell following the 1986 season, Mitchell made sure the Mets never forgot who he was. In 4½ seasons as a Giant, Mitchell tore Mets pitching apart, batting .307 (59-for-192) in 52 games versus his former team. Mitchell also hit seven doubles, one triple and 14 home runs against the Mets, while scoring 39 runs and driving in 38. Project those numbers over 162 games and you have yourself a bona fide Met killer.
slugged a game-winning homer in the ninth inning off John Franco at Shea Stadium. The following week, Mitchell faced the Mets at Riverfront Stadium and was the star of the series. Mitchell reached base eight times in the three-game set and launched two more homers, taking Bret Saberhagen (who was in the midst of his own renaissance season) and Mauro Gozzo deep.
It can be said that the Mitchell-and-friends for McReynolds-and-hunting-buddies deal was a wash. After all, McReynolds did help the Mets win the NL East in 1988, finishing third in the NL MVP race. But McReynolds' career fizzled after the 1990 season. By then, Mitchell had already won a National League MVP Award and had led his team to two division titles and one World Series appearance. And in 1994, while McReynolds was finishing out his 12-year career for a sub-.500 Mets team, Mitchell was still raking the ball in Cincinnati and helping his team stay in first place in the NL Central when the strike wiped out any possibility of a division title for the Reds.
Some Mets fans might claim that Kevin McReynolds was underrated. But looking back, how many of them would take back that trade so that Mitchell would have remained a Met? The history of the New York Mets franchise might have looked completely different if Kevin Mitchell had not gotten away from them.
Note: The Mets That Got Away is a thirteen-part weekly series that spotlights those Mets players who established themselves as major leaguers in New York, only to become stars after leaving town. For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:
January 7, 2013: Nolan Ryan
January 14, 2013: Melvin Mora