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 appear 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
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."
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: BRAD MANGIN (2) BENCH WARMER Mitchell, well-traveled as a major leaguer, is a good fit with the front office, players and fans in Sonoma County.