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'Nobody does that!' Mitchell's catch still stuns

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When a baseball fan hears the words “the Catch,” one play typically comes to mind immediately: Willie Mays’ game-saving, over-the-shoulder gem in deep center field at the Polo Grounds in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series.

Thirty-five years after that iconic moment, during Spring Training in Scottsdale, Ariz., Mays was working with the latest generation of Giants outfielders, dispensing the intricacies of outfield defense from a well of knowledge, skill and experience only an inner-circle Hall of Famer like himself could possess.

But even Mays couldn’t take credit for what one of those outfielders would do on a play down the left-field line in St. Louis the following month.

“Willie called me after the game,” said Kevin Mitchell, who shocked even the “Say Hey Kid” with one of the most memorable defensive plays in baseball history 33 years ago Tuesday.

“He said, ‘I never taught you how to do that.’”

“That” was a catch that Mitchell’s teammate, first baseman Will Clark, correctly predicted would be shown on highlight reels for decades to come. It was so utterly stunning that as Mitchell jogged in toward the dugout following the third out of the inning, he was greeted with incredulous silence.

“It was a spontaneous silent treatment because we couldn’t believe what we just saw,” Clark said.

What the Giants and Cardinals, along with 27,514 fans in attendance, saw at Busch Stadium on April 26, 1989, was a catch they’d never forget on a play that began as ordinarily as a play could begin — with one out and nobody on in the bottom of the first, Ozzie Smith hit a fly ball down the left-field line that was heading into foul territory. Mitchell, who was playing the light-hitting Wizard shallow and off the line, sprinted over, alternating looks at the ball and the fast-approaching wall.

As the ball descended, Mitchell suddenly realized it was going over his head.

“I didn’t realize at the time that with a lot of left-handed hitters, a fly ball headed foul will tail back towards you,” Mitchell said. “So I overran it and there was no way I was gonna get my glove back there to get it.

“So I just stuck my bare hand up.”

The ball landed in Mitchell’s right hand cleanly, and after gripping it, he ran right into the fence on the foul side of the line. If you had been scoring the game from the press box or in the seats or at home while watching on television, you probably would have written “F-7” with a circle around it or a star (or five) next to it, knowing you may never see such a play again the rest of your life.

Giants broadcaster Duane Kuiper was on the call, and he may have captured perfectly what was on the minds of everyone who witnessed the play when he said: “In my entire life I have never seen that happen. … You’ve gotta be kidding me!”

Kuiper’s broadcast partner for the last 28 years, Mike Krukow, was also in the building, but in the Giants dugout down the third-base line as he played in the last of 14 Major League seasons as a starting pitcher.

“I was sitting on the bench, and in order for us to see down the left-field line from the visitors dugout at Busch, we had to leave the seat and kind of lean up on the stairs and look left because you’re kind of blocked there by the stands,” Krukow said.

“And you’re looking at him and towards the end, you’re going, ‘He’s got a really bad angle on this thing.’ And he reaches up and puts it in his bare hand, and there wasn’t so much as a bobble, man. He velcroed it.”

Mitchell spent a lot of time playing wiffle ball as a kid, and when he realized he wouldn’t be able to make the catch the conventional way, his next move was purely the result of instinct.

“You didn’t have gloves in wiffle ball,” Mitchell said. “You used to just use your hands. So I just stuck my hand up and it landed smooth. Smooth as butter.”

The silence of Mitchell’s teammates as he got back to the dugout soon transitioned into excited laughter, and Mitchell made his way over to the bench near where Clark was seated.

“I was flabbergasted,” Clark said. “I couldn’t believe it. And everyone started laughing, and Kevin’s like, ‘What’s everybody laughing about?’ I told him, ‘Nobody does that! Nobody catches a ball barehanded like that in the outfield!’”

For Mitchell, it wasn’t really a big deal. Nothing worth writing home about. And certainly nothing worth a call from Willie Mays.

“I was shocked that everybody was looking at me the way they were looking at me,” Mitchell said. “And I yelled out, ‘Hey, it may not have been graceful, but it got the job done!’”

Mitchell did more than just get the job done in 1989. That season was his finest, and one of the finest in Giants history, but it wasn’t exactly foreseen. He made his MLB debut in ’84 as a part-time player with the Mets, who signed him as an undrafted free agent after he attended an open scrimmage and belted a pair of home runs at San Diego State against future Major League pitcher Bud Black. Mitchell was a member of the 1986 club that won the World Series, playing a key role in one of the most famous games in baseball history — Game 6 of that Fall Classic, when New York rallied in the 10th inning and won on a ground ball that went between Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner’s legs.

The Mets traded Mitchell to his hometown Padres that offseason, but after struggling in San Diego, he was dealt to San Francisco midway through the ’87 campaign and immediately made an impact.

In his first game with the Giants at Wrigley Field on July 5, Mitchell launched a pair of two-run homers to help propel San Francisco to a 7-5 victory over the Cubs. He went on to smash 13 more homers over 68 games the rest of the way to help the Giants win the National League West. He added another in the NL Championship Series against the Cardinals, which San Francisco lost in seven games.

Following a down year in 1988, both for Mitchell individually and the Giants collectively, it all came together in ’89. Mitchell and Clark became the most potent one-two punch of any lineup in the Majors, combining for 70 home runs and finishing 1-2 in NL MVP Award voting, with Mitchell edging out Clark for the honor. Mitchell posted a 1.023 OPS with 47 home runs, and then hit .324 with three homers in the postseason as the Giants were swept by the cross-bay A’s in the World Series.

“We just clicked,” Clark said of himself and Mitchell. “He used to say to me, ‘You go, we go.’ We’d tell the guys ahead of us in the lineup to get on base for us — I’d say, ‘C’mon, boys, let’s go. Boogie Bear and I are ready to rock.’”

Mitchell’s 1989 season is the stuff of legend when it comes to Giants history, and he said he was actually getting stronger as the summer turned into fall. He was so locked in at the plate that year that teammates would test just how far his dominance of NL pitching would stretch.

“I would just go and get a bat, just the ugliest bat,” Krukow said. “We’d have a leftover K-55 model, like 35 or 36 ounces, and we’d take some tape and wrap the bat with just a thin piece of tape, about half an inch high on the handle. It just didn’t feel good at all. And we’d walk up to him and say, ‘Hey, try this bat.’”

The bat, in this case, belonged to Giants right-hander Rick Reuschel. Mitchell took it and walked to the plate to face Reds reliever Rob Dibble, a member of the famed “Nasty Boys” who played an integral role in Cincinnati’s championship run the next year. The game, which was the nightcap of a doubleheader on June 6, was tied, 2-2, and it was the top of the ninth inning at Riverfront Stadium.

Mitchell launched his second homer of the game, a solo shot to left-center field that proved to be the difference in San Francisco’s 3-2 victory.

“Those K-55s were these nasty-looking bats that Rick Reuschel only used to go up there and bunt with,” Mitchell said, laughing. “And they gave one to me and I ended up taking Dibble deep with it.”

That was the kind of season it was for Mitchell in 1989.

“Not too many things went wrong that year,” he said. “Just that we lost at the end.”

The Giants lost at the end, but it was undoubtedly a special season, one in which they won their first pennant in 27 years and saw their slugging left fielder win the NL MVP Award. The Mitchell magic in 1989 was never more magnificently on display than on that April night in St. Louis, when he made a catch that is as unbelievable today as it was when Smith’s fly ball landed in Mitchell’s palm 33 years ago.

For Mitchell, it was all in a day’s work.

“TK [Giants catcher Terry Kennedy] said, ‘Mitch, you should’ve turned around and flexed on ’em,’” Mitchell remembers. “I said, ‘Nah, I just wanna go hit.’”

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