Mitchell swung from the hips. "I didn't mess around," he says. "If anybody looked at me funny, Pow! I'd knock him out." He landed with a street gang called Pierules, whose members were known by the green rags they carried around with them. "If another gang caught you and burned your rag, you'd have to fight out of honor," he says.
Years of defending the rag left Mitchell's young body looking like a relief map of an old battlefield. A .38-caliber bullet incised a thin white line on his right thigh. A smaller slug put a welt on his right wrist. A shotgun blast of rock salt inscribed a crescent on his back. "Of course, I packed a gun," he says. "I wasn't gonna get shot and have nothing to shoot back with. I only have a certain amount of lives: One."
And he didn't want to use it to play baseball. "I hated the game," he says. "Baseball diamonds were too boring, and there weren't enough women around them." He preferred football fields, where at least he could dish out punishment. A tailback and middle linebacker in high school in San Diego, he was hoping to win a football scholarship, until somebody called the Mets after spotting him at a coed softball game. The Mets signed Mitchell as a free agent in 1980. "Granny convinced me to go with baseball," he says. "She thought it was safer and would get me out of San Diego."
Mitchell was playing for the Mets' Triple A team in Tidewater, Va., in 1984 when Whitfield called to tell him that his 16-year-old stepbrother, Donald, had been shot and killed by a rival gang. The cops had found Donald's body lying across a railroad track. "I was so sad that I just walked to the outfield and cried." Mitchell says. "I knew who'd done it, and I was prepared to go home to take care of the situation."
Mitchell was talked out of his revenge mission by coaches and teammates, who feared that a return to San Diego could end in disaster. They had cause for such concern. The hostile Mitchell had walked into camp that spring with his fuse lit, hitting as soon he arrived: baseballs, water coolers, teammates. It had been that way from the beginning with Mitchell and the Mets.
Back in 1981, in the instructional league, Darryl Strawberry had scolded him during a pickup basketball game. "Don't be a hogger," Strawberry said. "I'm a hogger?" Mitchell snapped. "You're the biggest hogger I've ever seen." Soon the two hoggers were slopping it out in the mud. When teammate Lloyd McClendon pulled them apart, Mitchell chased after him with a bat. "Kevin needed a lot of guidance," says Bob Schaefer. Mitchell's manager for three years in the minors. "You couldn't challenge him. You had to reason with him one-on-one. If you ranted and raved, Kevin would react and not listen."
Mitchell was a raw, undisciplined talent. In two years of A ball, he had hit .335 and .318, and had demonstrated his versatility by playing every infield and outfield position, catching in the bullpen and even throwing batting practice. But his skills were often obscured by his attitude. "Kevin had more talent than any righthanded hitter in the organization." says Schaefer. "But he didn't know what to do with it. He could have self-destructed many times."
At Tidewater, in the wake of Donald's murder, Mitchell's temperature stayed at a boil; the scowl rarely left his face. Finally, he was confronted by Bill Robinson, the Mets batting coach, who was on a scouting visit to the minor league team. "You've got the worst attitude of any young ballplayer I've ever seen." Robinson told him. "The world doesn't owe you a thing. If you make it, you'll have to earn it. When you leave, only your grandmother will care."
Robinson stepped back and braced for action. But Mitchell was grateful. "Nobody's ever spoken to me like that," he said. "I really appreciate it."
That was a turning point for Mitchell. He began going to church like Granny. "She always told me, 'Put God first,' and he'll handle the bat for you." In 1986, his first full season with the Mets, Mitchell hit .277 with 12 homers in 108 games and, playing six different positions, was a key element in the team's world championship. Catcher Gary Carter tagged him World. "Mitch used to say it's your world, and I'm just passing through." Carter says. "I told him. a guy who can play all those positions, it's your world."