GWINNETT - Playing baseball has always come easy for Andy Mitchell. Maybe that's why the thought of giving it up is not.
Nearly a decade into his professional baseball career, a lot of things have changed for the former Heritage baseball standout. He's switched from hitting to pitching, played and graduated at Georgia Tech, switched from an overhand to sidearm pitching motion, went undrafted in the 2001 MLB Draft, signed a free agent contract with the Baltimore Orioles and has played for six teams during his nine-year stint in the organization's minor league system.
His roles, skill set and even salary have changed quite a bit. But his love for America's Pastime has not.
"My dream my whole life has been to pitch in the big leagues," Mitchell said before he wrapped up a homecoming of sorts with his current team, the Triple-A Norfolk Tides, who were in town playing the Gwinnett Braves from July 20-23. "I'm kind of stubborn, I guess, but it's something I love to do."
His love for baseball is exceeded only by the love for his family.
Mitchell has a three-year-old boy named Nolan, a one-month-old girl named Sophie and a wife, Becky, that has supported him and his dream the entire way - and longer, actually. The Mitchells were high school sweethearts that met in the fifth grade.
"The biggest thing is to have a wonderful wife like mine that loves and supports you," Mitchell said. "It's hard on her sometimes, but she tries to travel and stay with me, and doesn't put any thoughts in my head about quitting."Calling it quits is something that couldn’t be further from Mitchell’s mind, who repeatedly states what seems like a mantra for many ballplayers before and surely after him.
"It’s tough to quit when you’re playing well."
Mitchell also admitted, "It’s tough to say when I’m going to stop. It could be two or three more years stuck in Triple-A until I decide to give it up, or I could get called up next year. Then, it would all be worth it."
The righthanded starter/reliever hybrid doesn’t have his head in the clouds, though.
His longtime dream is fueled by on-field results.
After going undrafted upon the culmination of a successful career as mostly a reliever at Georgia Tech, where he played alongside current MLB stars such as Yankees and one-time Braves slugger Mark Teixeira and won an Atlantic Coast Conference championship, Mitchell signed a free agent contract with the Baltimore Orioles in 2001.
The Heritage alum pitched his way through the Orioles’ organizational rungs one year at a time, only once producing an ERA higher than 2.95 as he jumped from rookie ball to Double-A between ’01-’04.
After struggling a bit with a promotion to Triple-A during his first full year at that level in 2005, Mitchell recorded his best season as a pro in ’06 when he finished with a 2.27 ERA.
He also made his first start as a pro, which would be a sign of things to come.
Mitchell took on the tough task of switching from starter to reliever and back multiple times during the course of the next few years, leading the 30-year-old up to his current role as a starting pitcher with the Norfolk Tides — just one step away from the Majors.
During the last two-and-a-half seasons, Mitchell has pitched more than 300 innings and won 28 games. He is currently on pace for another solid season, posting a 3.90 ERA with an impressive 8-2 record.
Mitchell is biding his time, though, hoping his day might come.
"I’m dedicated," Mitchell said. "I’ve gotten to a point where my free agent contract makes me a little bit of money and helps me support my family, so I can focus on this."
With his family supporting him whole-heartedly, Mitchell can go out and chase his dream at an age when most folks have abandoned them.
"It’s not something I’ll do forever, but I feel like I can get guys out in the big leagues," Mitchell said. "Maybe someone will give me an opportunity."
Then, he shrugged and said something more than a few baseball lifers have said before.
"It’s tough to quit when you’re playing well," Mitchell reiterated.
Mitchell has said those words more than a few times just on this one road trip from Norfolk, Va., to Gwinnett.
Maybe the next time, he’ll be restating that well-worn mantra in the comforts of a Major League clubhouse.