Rohnert Park Stadium, a facility 40 miles north of San Francisco that pays homage to its wine-country setting with the Abominable Sonoman, a furry mascot with grape-stained feet, and the Grape Monster, a 16-foot-high leftfield wall plastered with ads for local wineries, doesn't appeal to be a place that would generate much stress. Yet former National League MVP Kevin Mitchell says he's had some sleepless nights since becoming manager of the Sonoma County Crushers of the independent Western Baseball League in March. "There's a lot more to managing than you'd think," says Mitchell, 40, who retired in 1998 after playing for eight major league teams in 13 seasons. "The first couple of days my neck was tense and I was stressed. I still lie awake at night thinking about lineups."
Managing is not a role that many would have imagined for Mitchell, who as a player was known as much for his short fuse and tough-guy persona as for his 47-homer career season as a San Francisco Giants outfielder in 1989. "I'm surprised to see how patient he is with young players," says Mitchell's 32-year-old cousin, Keith, a Crushers DH who played parts of four years in the majors. "I see guys playing hard for him; they don't want to let him down."
The Sonoma County players are devoted to Mitchell. They say he listens to their problems, cracks jokes and gives them so much gear—gloves, bats, batting gloves, cleats and other equipment he gets from old friends on the Giants—that they call him Mitchell Claus. "I love coming to the ballpark and seeing his face," says Travis Oglesby, a first baseman. "You get confidence from him because he has all the confidence in the world."
That swagger sustained Mitchell during an up-and-down major league career in which he hit .284 and played six positions. Mitchell was plagued by injuries and weight gain over the second half of his career. Then, during the '98 season, when he was a DH and backup outfielder for the Oakland Athletics, he began experiencing incessant thirst, blurred vision and an alarming loss of weight. "I dropped from 268 pounds to 209 in three weeks," says Mitchell. "I thought I had cancer."
He left the team and was soon diagnosed with diabetes. To control his sugar level Mitchell had to inject four shots of insulin into his stomach each day. If he left his house, he had to carry a cooler of insulin with him. After a while he stopped going out. "Nobody knew where I was," he says. "What's the first thing people think when you lose that much weight? You're doing drugs, crack. People started a rumor I was smoking. I just hid."
By 2000 he signed to play with the Crushers at the urging of former Giants teammate Jeff Leonard, who was the club's manager. "I just wanted to see if I could play again," says Mitchell. He batted .286 with seven homers and 34 RBIs in 45 games but was exhausted during games and was squeamish about injecting his insulin in the dugout. "I couldn't do it," says Mitchell, who now takes just two pills a day to control the diabetes. "I was ready to go home."
At the request of Crushers owners Bob and Susan Fletcher he stayed on as hitting instructor, continuing in that role until he was promoted to manager. Though the team was 11-9 as of Sunday and he has been affable around his players, Mitchell still has the quick temper that got him into trouble as a player.
In 1993 he allegedly punched his manager, Davey Johnson of the Cincinnati Reds, after Johnson confronted him about being late; in '97 he got into a dustup with Cleveland Indians teammate Chad Curtis over clubhouse music. Last month, nearly two years after he punched Solano Steelheads owner Bruce Portner following a bench-clearing brawl, Mitchell slugged Solano's third base coach, Larry Olenberger, because Mitchell thought Olenberger was stealing signs.
Mitchell's scuffles have done little to diminish his popularity with Sonoma fans, 4,000 of whom showed up at Rohnert Park on June 8 for Kevin Mitchell bobblehead-doll day. "I love it here," says Mitchell. "The fans are great, and the area is perfect for my boring lifestyle. Diabetes has changed everything. I don't go out. I don't drink anymore."
So what does he do to relieve managerial stress? "I take batting practice," he says. "That helps a lot."