Kevin Mitchell -- At Home In The Hood -- New Mariner Escaped Ghetto, Not Questions About Him And His Friends

SAN DIEGO - Kevin Mitchell is indeed a member of a gang.

Or rather, he prefers to call it his "posse." He even bought a large Chevy truck, with the license plate 4MYPASE, to cart around his friends, many of whom he has known since elementary school. Some have run with gangs. At least one has spent time in prison.

Mitchell, acquired by the Seattle Mariners in December to boost their offense, says "my friends are what make me strong." He remains fiercely and, some suggest, blindly loyal to them. His 70-year-old grandmother, Josie Whitfield, wishes he would drop a few of them.

"Granny," Mitchell tells her, "I don't pick your company. Don't pick mine."

Still, she worries. "I still don't like some of his company, but he's crazy about his friends. When he's with them, he's happy."

His girlfriend, Veronica Bestamonte, doesn't know why he spends so much time with his friends, to her exclusion.

"She gets mad because I'm always with these guys," Mitchell says. "But I tell her they're like blood to me. If she doesn't like it, she can leave me, go back home." That despite his stated intention to marry Veronica in the fall.

The San Diego police particularly don't like a few of his friends, which has become a constant burden for Mitchell. Those in Mitchell's immediate group have jobs and seem to have found the American Dream. But the ones on the fringe, whom he won't turn his back on, are among the unsavory. Some were once gang members in the city's Logan Heights ghetto. Police believe Mitchell was a member of the green-marked Pierules gang that controls the Skyline area of southeast San Diego.

"Their (Pierules) claim to fame was they were the first group to become involved heavily in narcotic trafficking and used their resources to enhance their firepower and stature," says Keith Burt, head of the Gang Prosecution Unit of San Diego County District Attorney office.

"That was in the middle 1970s and early '80s when they came into prominence," Burt adds. Mitchell, now 30, was of prime gang age then.

Mitchell says he remains under continual surveillance and is often randomly stopped and searched by officers.

"I think I do the right things, but things blow up in my face. I can get along with anybody," he says.

Mitchell's juvenile record is sealed by law, and his adult record is marred by only one speeding ticket. Yet all indications are that the police continue to watch his moves, particularly in his old neighborhood.

Former players say Mitchell is a bad influence in the clubhouse. And the fact that the Mariners are his fourth team in six-plus major-league seasons is to some degree a result of his questionable associations. But he has played in three league championships and two World Series and has friends on all his former teams. In December, he went on vacation with Giants third baseman Matt Williams' family in Hawaii when people were saying Williams welcomed Mitchell's trade from the Giants to the Mariners.

He has had surgery on both knees and his wrist but has been on the disabled list just once, for 20 days. Yet Giant President Al Rosen and others say he's no longer a "gamer," someone who plays hard and with injuries.

Others charge that his tough early life has calloused him. But he also once put his coat over an injured, bleeding dog and did not leave him until it was taken to the vet. He carries a Bible in his car and says he owes everything to God. And he wants to build a health club so he can put his troubled friends to work.

So where does the truth lie? Who is Kevin Mitchell, for whom the Mariners gave up three strong pitchers? Should the team worry about the character of the man it has acquired?

"People want to put me down because of where I'm from, southeast San Diego," he says. "It's like everyone out of the ghetto has got to be bad. I was never in no gang. Don't know where that came from. Go check. I've had friends in gangs, but they're either locked up or dead.

"The police don't like me. They have told me I have a smart mouth. But I ask them, `If I was Steve Garvey, would you stop me? What if he drove a Ferrari or a nice car around the neighborhood?' They figure since I have a nice car, I must be selling dope."

Dave Grayson, former Cleveland Browns linebacker now with the San Diego Chargers, has known Mitchell since he was 11. He is one of Mitchell's best friends. He even lives in one of Mitchell's three houses. He says that among Mitchell's closest friends, "there are no bad guys. Everyone works.

"We all trust each other," Grayson says. "We all love each other. We'd all go to bat for Kevin no matter what he does.

"Everyone has not done the right thing, but still they are his friends regardless. He says he can't exclude those people just because they haven't made the right decisions."

But just his association with a criminal element, beyond any alleged involvement, puts a stain on him that is hard to remove. Unfortunately for Kevin Mitchell, when people think of him, they think of trouble.

"Fellas, I want you to remember, I'm sure you know what I mean. You'll never get a hit unless you take a swing. This is Galaxy Glenn on The Heat."

Galaxy Glenn Runnells, the Complete Entertainer, has a soothing voice that sounds like Stevie Wonder. He works the weekday morning drive-time shift at The Heat, an FM station that caters to San Diego's African American listeners. His mellow tones waft through the community known as Little Africa, the southeast San Diego area with its predominantly black/Hispanic population.

The low-income neighborhood is marked by ramshackle houses and abandoned storefronts. Desperate juveniles stand in front of corner grocery stores for hours, jobless. Unemployment is estimated to be more than 40 percent among men 30 and younger.

"Like every other major city, we have gang problems," Burt says, "but we have other factors here such as our proximity to Los Angeles and the border. This is a retirement and tourist community. We don't have a lot of blue-collar jobs. What we have is a large gap between haves and have-nots."

Mitchell grew up here. Galaxy Glenn grew up here, too, and has been Mitchell's friend since they were 9.

"Kevin has a shyness about himself that is just flattering. He really is a gentle giant," Runnells says. "He has a keen perception of people and what they are about, who he can trust and who he can't."

Mitchell, in the second year of a four-year, $15 million contract, dials into Galaxy Glenn's program now from his melon-colored, adobe-style house in the respectable hills of Chula Vista. "I wake up to him every morning," Mitchell says.

His house is in an upscale, white-collar development called Eastlake, where you can imagine ET and his friends riding bicycles and where, when the coastal fog clears, Mitchell can see his old neighborhood from his backyard batting cage.

This is the reward for hammering National League pitchers for 162 home runs and 481 runs batted in since he broke in with the New York Mets in 1984. He also has a house in Del Mar and is building another in La Jolla. He has a recreation center, nearly as large as Granny's house, under construction at his Eastlake home.

In his den is a 60-inch TV and a 200-gallon aquarium, which features a blind razor-tooth eel named Charlie whom he hand-feeds. The trophy room at the top of the winding staircase holds, among other personal treasures, the trophy he received as the 1989 National League MVP and dozens of bats signed by former teammates in San Francisco, San Diego and New York.

In his garage sits a new kelly-green Porsche. Close by is a year-old black Ferrari surrounded by a four-wheeler and three powerful motorcycles. His `posse' truck is on the driveway's left side. The Porsche he gave his girlfriend is on the right. His other truck is in the shop getting a new audio system installed.

The house is less than two years old, yet when his La Jolla house is completed later this summer, Mitchell plans to give his grandmother the keys to the Eastlake house, batting cage and all.

"She's my life," he says.

Without Granny, there is little reason to believe there would be cars, houses and trophies. She was his refuge from a broken home and a tough environment. No easy mark, she kept him out of trouble as much as possible and encouraged him to play sports at the local Boys Club.

"When mom don't let him have something, he'd come to grandma," Granny says.

When Roger Jongewaard, then a Mets scout and now the Mariners' director of scouting, signed the 18-year-old in 1980, it was Granny who convinced Mitchell that it was the right thing to do. At least twice she has talked him out of quitting the game.

"A boy looks for a father to talk with," Granny says. "They were not as close as they should have been."

Mitchell's father, Earl, 45, had little influence on his son. He left the family when Kevin was 2. Alma, Mitchell's mother, moved around the neighborhood, taking several jobs, leaving Kevin to spend much of his time on the streets or at Granny's house in southeast San Diego.

Even today, with houses in the elegant suburbs, Mitchell spends most of his time at Granny's, back in what he calls The Element. The police also know when he is there, driving past the house frequently when they notice one of his cars in front.

"They want to know who I'm with. I just wave at them," Mitchell says.

His father also is a frequent visitor at Granny's. But he has developed a drug habit. Last month, Mitchell and a cousin were called at 2 a.m. to retrieve his father, who, in a drug-induced haze, crashed through a window in a neighboring house.

"We had to get him in rehab," Mitchell says. "I told him, `If you don't go, I've got a black suit.' "

Drugs already have contributed to one death in the family. In 1984, Mitchell lost his stepbrother, Donald, in a gang shooting. Strung out, he wandered into another gang's territory and was shot in the back.

"I know who did it, but I couldn't do nothing," says Mitchell, who wanted to quit his minor-league team to seek revenge.

Granny told him to stay. "I was stopped by the police and warned as soon as I came home (after the season)," he says, "What could I do?"

Runnells says his friend was usually the one trying to prevent the spread of drugs and trouble. "Kevin was always a standout as a person. He was always in the middle of things, usually trying to stop things from happening."

Grayson says everyone who grew up in the area knows gang members, but that that doesn't make them criminals. "Bad things have happened along the way, and always will," he says, "but he has always done the right thing."

Just after midnight on Jan. 9, 1988, San Diego police officer Jerry Hartless, just nine months out of the police academy, and his partner responded to a call regarding gang activity at 49th Street and Logan Avenue

According to the police report, as Hartless approached in his patrol car, five members of the Pierule Sydomob gang scattered in different directions. Hartless ran after one while his partner chased another.

After a brief chase, Hartless cornered the man in a field. The man pulled out a gun, fired and hit Hartless with a bullet in the forehead. The 24-year-old officer, voted the most inspirational student in his academy class, died from the wound 22 days later.

"Policemen are trained to be rational people, but when an officer goes down, they tend to become emotionally involved," Burt says.

One of those involved in the shooting, police say, was Kyle Patrick Winters. He was arrested last Sept. 16 in San Francisco, driving Mitchell's car after dropping Mitchell off at Candlestick Park. Winters, who was not believed to be the triggerman that night, has been charged with one count of murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. His record includes two convictions, including one for armed robbery.

`That's why the police here don't like me, because of Kyle," Mitchell says.

Winters, who played baseball with and against Mitchell as a kid, was staying at Mitchell's Bay Area home. Mitchell even set him up with a job.

"I was there to help him," Mitchell says. "The only way to help him was getting him out of San Diego. He used to drink Henessey (scotch) and was known for just fighting, knocking people out. I had to get him out of there. "

Mitchell had no connection to the criminal activities, and was not charged with harboring a criminal, but his devotion to his friends once again stained him. It was enough for Rosen to make Mitchell expendable. In late September, he and Mariner General Manager Woody Woodward earnestly began exchanging player names.

Galaxy Glenn, the gentle voice of the black community, occasionally invites his longtime friend to appear with him on The Heat. Last Nov. 29 he coaxed the reluctant Mitchell into admitting, on the air, that he planned to marry Veronica sometime this fall. A former girlfriend, whom Mitchell also was seeing and to whom he had even given a BMW, was shocked.

"She got mad at me. She came to my house at 4 in the morning. She said I smoked her," Mitchell says. After she left she told police that Mitchell had raped her. By early afternoon, Mitchell was arrested at his home, handcuffed and brought to jail on suspicion of rape, battery and false imprisonment.

"When they took me to county (jail), I was scared 'cause I didn't know what would happen," Mitchell says. "I know they don't like me."

Mitchell blamed the rape charge on his being in the limelight, and again considered quitting baseball. Again Granny talked him out of it.

"That's serious stuff," Mitchell says. "It's like worse than killing a man. And it being in the papers. You know how women are. That's why I feel for Tyson."

Mitchell's behavior with a woman had drawn the attention of police once before - in 1988 he was accused of assaulting a girlfriend. He settled that matter by taking an anger-management course.

This time, prosecutors decided not to press charges after determining that the woman's story was fabricated. Mitchell says he asked for and passed a lie-detector test. But it was another stain.

Three days later, on Dec. 11, Rosen pulled the plug. Mitchell and pitcher Mike Remlinger were traded to Seattle for three pitchers.

Roger Jongewaard, who had closely followed Mitchell's career, promoted the trade. He tries to be dispassionate, but still has an emotional attachment to one of his most prominent signings.

"If I didn't know Kevin, I'd be more concerned," Jongewaard says. "I feel pretty good about him."

It's apparent Rosen doesn't have the same regard. He has turned on the player who hit 143 home runs in four-plus Giant seasons and helped the team into the 1989 World Series.

"People thought I was blinded by rage and ready to just unload Mitchell at any cost. Not at all . . . you protect your assets," Rosen told the San Francisco Chronicle after the trade. "But look what's happened to Mitchell in the last six months. He's been found harboring a known fugitive (Winters) and was arrested on a rape charge. How do you know what might happen between now and spring training?"

Mitchell says Rosen "had to make up something. He had to do something so people wouldn't be upset." He is offended that Rosen, who comes from affluence, told him that he has to watch the gang-theme movie "Boyz 'N the Hood" to understand him.

"San Francisco's problem was they never knew what I had done," he says. "They wanted to say I was drinking. I do not drink and they know that."

One story making the rounds was an incident last season in Los Angeles when an unnamed Giant player said he saw Mitchell "stone drunk" at 2 a.m. after a Saturday night game. The next day Mitchell asked out of the lineup, annoying his teammates and prompting a closed-door tete-a-tete with Rosen and Manager Roger Craig.

"They're lying," Mitchell says. "I was down here in San Diego. I had to be driven back. I was tired and I had the flu."

But Mitchell has had other difficulties in San Francisco. He did not participate in the Giants' celebration after they won the pennant in 1989. He skipped a mandatory World Series workout and was fined. He failed to show for his MVP award dinner.

Mitchell rarely played the final month last season because of a nagging groin pull. His teammates doubted the seriousness of the injury and groused about his inactivity.

"I think we're going to be a better team without him," pitcher Jeff Brantley told the San Francisco Examiner after the trade.

He added that Mark Leonard can fill the void. "He won't hit the home runs Mitchell did, but he also won't create the problems Mitchell did."

The Giants would have you believe that the 24 other players applauded the trade. Not true, says Mitchell. "Everyone sent me a card (after the trade), except Will (Clark)."

Clark, the franchise's best player, and Mitchell have not had a public spat, but it's clear they don't get along well. "He talks to me, but I can sense deep inside it's insincere," Mitchell says.

Rosen's post-trade comments have been particularly curious; some say he was trying to justify the trade amid howling reaction.

"It had reached the point," Rosen said, "where we had to stroke this guy just to get him in the lineup. There's no way you're going to change a guy like Kevin. Roger (Craig) always had the feeling that if you really got on him, he'd just pack up and go home. Everyone's writing about what a monster season Mitchell had in 1989, but we're not looking at the same player."

Just two years earlier, after Mitchell's huge MVP season, Rosen told The Sporting News: "I've always said there's no substitute for talent. You can't have 24 choirboys on your team. We're interested in people who produce and Kevin is a producer. He plays every day he can, always answers the bell."

The enigmatic Mitchell can't understand. Why does controversy and trouble seem to follow his every move?

"I always say to myself, `you may be messed with, but don't let it discourage you,' " he says. "I don't care what people say about me. I know what Kevin Mitchell is doing. I've got a great focus on life. I know what I'm going to do. I'm still going to have fun with my friends and be there for them."