PAST TIMES IN PAW PAW: A HISTORY OF BASEBALL IN OUR HOMETOWN

By: 
Martha Deming Maytnier, Local History Librarian, Paw Paw District Library
DERRICK MITCHELL

   In 1994, the season had an abrupt ending on August 12, and for the first time since 1904, there had been no World Series. It was the longest baseball strike in history - 232 days with 948 games cancelled. The issue was a salary cap on the players escalating salaries.  The last collective bargaining agreement had expired in 1993 and the club owners saw a chance to rein in player salaries caused by the end of the reserve clause in 1975.
   The reserve clause had given owners the right to indefinitely renew a player’s contract thereby potentially tying him to one team for his entire career.  Without the reserve clause players were now free agents and owners were forced to bid against each other for a player’s services.
   Negotiations had broken down and the owners had threatened to begin the 1995 season with replacement players.
   The Players’ Association took their case to the National Labor Relations Board. The Board found that the owners had failed to bargain in good faith. 
   Management appealed the decision and lost, first in Federal District Court, and then in the Court of Appeals. The 1995 season opened in March with many of the major issues between management and the union unresolved, but the status of baseball basically the same as it was before the strike.  
   The season began and ended with fans staying away. They were annoyed with both the players and the owners and felt that the strike had shown that both sides were more interested in their own personal goals than in the game of baseball. 
   The 21st Century opened with the revived New York Yankees winning their fourth World Series in 2000, against cross-town rivals, the New York Mets. In 2004, the “Curse of the Bambino” was put to rest when the Red Sox beat the Yankees after having been down three games to none in the playoffs, and then went on to sweep the World Series by winning four consecutive games from the Cardinals. 
   The next season, the White Sox won their first pennant since 1959, and their first World Series in 88 years. Baseball was back and exciting.
   Major League Baseball also played a significant role in healing the nation after 9/11, the attack on the Twin Towers. Commissioner Bud Selig postponed all games for a week. When the season resumed, the games were surrounded by patriotic displays. President George Bush, who was also a part-owner of the Texas Ran-gers, threw out the first ball in New York.  The game honored the policemen and firemen who had done so much to help those who survived the collapse of the Twin Towers.  September 11 gave baseball an opportunity to do what the sport was good at:  uniting the nation in a time of crisis.
   But looming on the horizon were rumors about the use of illegal drugs to improve performance. Androstenedione, or “andro”, a well- known anabolic steroid, with potentially dangerous side effects, was legal in baseball although banned by the NFL, the NCAA, and the International Olympic Committee. 
   In 2002, Sports Illustrated writer, Tom Verducci, published an article called, Totally Juice, about National League third baseman Ken Caminiti’s use of steroids to improve his performance.  Caminiti had been a solid, if unspectacular, player in the early years of his career; then in 1995, he suddenly began to put up offensive numbers that had no relation to those of his early career. In 1996, he batted .326, hit 40 homers, and drove in 130 runs, well beyond his career averages.  Two years later, he died alone in a rundown apartment in New York at age 41.
   In 2005, Jose Canseco, a power-hitting outfielder and former teammate of McGuire’s published a more lurid version of Caminiti’s story.  Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big.  He blew the whistle on other players including McGuire, Juan Gonsalez, Rafael Palmeiro, and Ivan Rodriquez.  Cansenco wrote that steroids were as common as “a cup of coffee.” 
   Canseco’s book was dismissed as the work of a disgruntled player whose career had petered out. However, it was difficult to reject his charges after taking a look at the power stats of the last decade, and the players who achieved them.
   It was remarked that Barry Bond’s physic had grown massive during his pursuit of the home run record, and that other players, including Sammy Sosa, Lenny Dykstra, and Rafael Palmeriro, resembled the balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.    Another disturbing sign of steroids was the number of players hitting 40 or more home runs in a season.  After years of two to four players a year reaching that mark each year, the numbers grew into the double digits, and in 1996, 17 players joined the club.
   In 2005, Congress took up the issue; and in March, congressional hearings were held. Those players prominently mentioned as using steroids were ordered to appear. 
   Senator Jim Bunning, himself a Hall of Fame pitcher, demanded that baseball take action. Bunning said, “Baseball does not belong to the players or the owners, it’s ours.  They’re just enjoying the privilege of playing it for a short time…They all need to protect the integrity of the greatest game ever.”     Baseball Commissioner Selig asked former Senator George Mitchell of Maine to carry out a thorough investigation of the steroid problem.  The results of his investigation changed baseball forever.    
   The Mitchell Report,  issued in 2007, was harshly critical of both the players and management, and recommended that in the future, an independent body carry out random drug tests.  The report also advised that Major League Baseball should improve efforts to educate players regarding the grim dangers to their health associated with drug use.
   In the Spring of 2006, a Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program was instituted by the Players Association and the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball. 
   The penalty for a player failing one drug test is an 80-day suspension. The penalty for failing twice is a suspension for the entire season and post season. Suspended players cannot collect a salary while on suspension. A third infraction results in being banned forever from playing Major League Baseball.
   As the years have gone by, fewer and fewer players are testing positive for drug  use and the issue seems to be fading away.  As for those players of the “90’s caught up in the scandal, Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, Roger Clemens, and Rafael Palmeiro, voters for the Hall of Fame view their remarkable statistics with skepticism, and it is unlikely they will ever be nominated to the Hall of Fame.

•••

   This was the state of Major League Baseball in 2005, when a Paw Paw High School star athlete graduated and signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. Derrick Edward Mitchell ex-celled in three sports during his years at Paw Paw High School, football, basketball and baseball, and is the only athlete from Paw Paw to have received All-State recognition in all three sports. 
   He had been named to the All-State basketball team in his sophomore, junior and senior years. Paw Paw High’s basketball team were Class B Regional Champions his junior year.  In a single game, Derrick scored 41 points, a school record then.
   In 2004, the baseball team won the Kalamazoo Valley Association title and went on to win the District title, with Derrick at shortstop. Mitchell was named to the All-State team.  In 2005, he received the Charlie Maxwell Award given annually to the most valuable player on the baseball team. 
   Mitchell was the quarterback when Paw Paw High School’s football team won its first-ever District title in 2004. He was also known for having outstanding kicking abilities, and was nominated for All-State honors. 
   During his junior and senior years at Paw Paw High, Mitchell had offers from several colleges and universities, including Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan, the University of Michigan and Michigan State. Scouts for professional teams had also been watching as his abilities developed during his high school career.
   It was a hard choice for Mitchell to make.  He had just decided to attend Michigan State on a baseball scholarship when the Philadelphia Phillies came calling. He was a 23rd round draft pick. 
   Mitchell found baseball in the minor leagues a lot more challenging than he had expected. Most of the players were older and had had some college experience. He began to realize that baseball at this level was more of a mental game.
   It took a few years for Mitchell to find himself, but in 2008, he began to feel comfortable; and in June of 2008, he had raised his batting average to .254, and was leading his team in runs scored, doubles, and runs batted in. 
   In 2011, he improved his stats with a .265 batting average, and 24 doubles, 79 RBI, and 20 stolen bases in 135 games. During Spring Training in 2012, he was called up to the majors to play in a game against the Detroit Tigers and had a base hit.
   By 2013, Mitchell was with the Phillies’ AAA team, coached by baseball legend Ryne Sandburg, a former Hall of Fame Chicago Cub second baseman. He was on his way to being called up to the majors. But fate intervened during a double header in mid-season. In the first game, Mitchell went 3 for 4 at bat with 4 RBI. In the second game his first at bat was a grand slam home run. Then his next at bat he was hit on the knuckles by an inside fastball. 
   Mitchell was sent back to the minors to recover. In his 10 years in the minors, he had seen other players come and go and he knew it would take a long time to get another chance at the majors. He decided it was time to leave baseball and get the degree he had put on hold 10 years ago. 
   Mitchell came back to Michigan and chose to attend Western Michigan University on the full-ride scholarship that was one of his conditions for signing on with the Phillies in 2005. 
   He had always wondered what would have happened if he had chosen football instead of baseball.  So, in 2014, he decided to find out and went to Western’s walk-on tryouts. He made the team as a quarterback. He had stiff competition at quarterback from Zach Terrell another very talented player and was redshirted his freshman year. Mitchell put his energy into getting back his kicking skills.  By 2016, his sophomore year, he was averaging 41.3 yards per punt, fifth highest in the Mid-American Conference. That year, the Broncos went to the Cotton Bowl.
   In 2017, at age 30, Mitchell was the oldest player in the Football Bowl Subdivi-sion, the highest level of collegiate play. His teammates called him “Gramps” but were in awe of his natural athletic ability. Mitchell felt it was important to help them realize that it was understanding the “process” that is important in sports and became a team mentor.
   That year, Mitchell was listed as one of the 20 most important players for the Broncos in a poll done by the Battle Creek Enquirer. The Enquirer went on to say that the punter is often overlooked but can play a critical role in field position. In 2017, Mitchell led the nation in punts inside the 20 yard line. He had 30 with just two touchbacks. He also had the longest punt of his career with a 65 yard punt against Northern Illinois.
   Mitchell did not play football his senior year.  Instead, he became the player development coordinator for Western’s baseball team.  Coach Billy Gernon said, “It is clear that he still has a burning passion for the game he played for so many years… and brings a vast wealth of knowledge and playing experience.”

•••

   “Past Times in Paw Paw: a History of Baseball in our Hometown” is presented by the Paw Paw Historical Commission and Paw Paw District Library. The exhibit is on display until Sunday, September 8, 2019, at the Carnegie Community Center, 129 S. Kalamazoo St.  Regular hours for the exhibit are Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
   For more information go to: http://pawpaw.lib.mi.us or call: (269) 657-3800.
   The Paw Paw District Library is sponsoring A Trip to to Comerica Park to watch the Tigers play the Kansas City Royals on Sunday, August 11, 2019. 
   For information, contact John Mohney at (269) 657-3800. 

The Courier-Leader & Paw Paw Flashes

The Courier-Leader & Paw Paw Flashes
32280 E. Red Arrow Hwy. • P.O. Box 129
Paw Paw, MI 49079
(269) 657-5080

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