Raised by his grandmother, the short, squat Mitchell used baseball to escape the violent San Diego street gangs of his youth, but not before collecting three gunshot wounds as a member of the notorious Syndos. In the minors, Mitchell’s sullen, street-wise attitude often overshadowed his obvious talent, and in 1981 he brawled with teammate Darryl Strawberry during a pickup basketball game.
Though sometimes a fan favorite, the selfish parts of his attitude would often arise, forcing teams to come to blows with him. More tragic were his run-ins with the law: he was sued in 1989 by a former girlfriend who claimed that he had beaten her, and arrested in 1991 on suspicion of rape (the charges were later dropped).
Mitchell played six different positions for the World Champion New York Mets as a rookie in 1986, including 24 games at shortstop, and hit .277 to finish third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting behind Todd Worrell and Robby Thompson. In the off-season, he was traded to the San Diego Padres with a slew of prospects for outfielder Kevin McReynolds.
Pegged to be the Pods’ starting third baseman, Mitchell was faced with hometown distractions that affected his play, and on July 4, 1987 he was traded to San Francisco. He was hitting only .247 with seven home runs at the time of the trade, but he belted a pair of homers in his Giants debut and hit .306 the rest of the season as the Giants won the NL West.
Giants coach Dusty Baker had a special liking for the youth from the streets, and worked extensively with Mitchell after he slumped to .251 in 1988. In the field, Mitchell was competent but rarely spectacular at virtually every position. However, in early 1989 he achieved highlight godliness when he overran a fly ball in the left-field corner and reached back to catch it bare-handed.
Along with the instruction from Baker, Mitchell made two physical adjustments before the 1989 season that brought along his best year ever: he had arthroscopic surgery on his ailing right knee the winter before, and began wearing contact lenses. The effects were immediate, as Mitchell broke off 47 longjacks and 125 RBIs batting cleanup behind Will Clark. In the National League Championship Series, he hit .353 with two dingers and seven RBIs, and eventually brought home the NL MVP Award.
That season marked the pinnacle of Mitchell’s career. For the next two years, he showed a decrease in production in almost every offensive statistic. Despite hitting 27 home runs in 1991, Mitchell was traded that December along with Mike Remlinger to the Seattle Mariners for pitchers Dave Burba, Bill Swift, and Mike Jackson.
Though the Giants were initially lambasted for trading Mitchell, many applauded the decision. The outfielder didn’t seem to have the same drive as he did in his 1989 MVP season, and with a new indifferent demeanor on and off the field, Mitchell drew the ire of some hard-nosed teammates like Will Clark. General Manager Al Rosen related the constant problems the team had with him, saying, “Headaches, stomachaches — it’s always something with this guy.”
Mitchell arrived 30 pounds overweight to Mariners camp in 1992, and began the season poorly. Injuries to his ribs and foot limited the portly outfielder to just 99 games. Even though he batted .354 after the All-Star break, Mitchell grumbled through much of the season, and at one point had to be convinced by a young Ken Griffey Jr. not to quit baseball. In November 1992, he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds for pitcher Norm Charlton.
Mitchell once again succumbed to injuries in his first year with the Reds, as he played in a career-low 93 games due to a torn rotator cuff. However, he showed a tenacity that was remarkably missing from his San Francisco years, undergoing cortisone shots to quell the pain so he could play, and batting .341 for the season. And though his attitude resurfaced during a midsummer fight with manager Davey Johnson, the team — and Johnson — defended him to the press. In just 95 games in the following strike-shortened year, Mitchell bashed 30 dingers and drove in 77 RBIs, announcing his return as a slugger.
But in the wake of the strike-shortened season, Mitchell fled to play in Japan for 1995. He signed a contract with the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks for $4.5 million, becoming the highest paid player in the country’s history, and initially proved his worth when he bashed a grand slam in his first at-bat. However, when his request to receive treatment in America for knee problems was denied by Hawks management, Mitchell went AWOL to the United States for ten weeks. Despite the insubordination, the front office let the rotund slugger finish off the season when he returned, and he ended the campaign with an even .300 batting average over 37 games.
When Mitchell came back to the majors, he bounced from the Cleveland Indians to Reds to the Boston Red Sox to the Oakland Athletics, all with disappointing results. The A’s released him in August 1998. Out of organized ball, Mitchell once again ran into problems. He was arrested in late 1998 for battery, accused of hitting his father during an argument.
Two years later, though diagnosed with diabetes, Mitchell got his life back on track as the designated hitter for the independent Western League’s Sonoma County Crushers, and as a big brother to inner city youths whom he would take out for paintball and lunch. But Mitchell’s bad attitude resurfaced in August 2000 when he was suspended for nine games for punching the opposing team’s owner in the mouth during a bench-clearing brawl.