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Tom Verducci
June 16, 1997
Oft-injured Kevin Mitchell loves toys and clubhouse high jinks, but the former MVP is also a guardian angel—and more
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June 16, 1997

Livin' Large

Oft-injured Kevin Mitchell loves toys and clubhouse high jinks, but the former MVP is also a guardian angel—and more

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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 lore-arm shiver, sending him into a Ping-Pong table and onto the disabled list with a sprained thumb. Four days later the Indians dropped Mitchell.

"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 halls 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.

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