Danny Mitchell was a tough guy, no doubt. The tree-trunk arms and booming voice he directed with equal fire at umpires or the baseball and football players he coached at Hampton High for four decades gave him an intimidating presence.
Those closest to him fear it overshadowed the real Danny Mitchell, the man whose love and commitment to his players was limitless. That was, informally, the theme for many during a ceremony for Mitchell before a recent Crabbers baseball game.
The ceremony, held at Hampton High’s Danny Mitchell Field — named for him during the 2018 season — had been delayed since his death at 67 from a stroke in February 2020 because of the pandemic. Justin Vias, Mitchell’s assistant and his successor as the Crabbers’ head coach, organized and spoke at the event.
“They say you can never judge a book by its cover and Danny Mitchell was the epitome of this statement,” Vias told those in attendance. “If you never got to know Danny Mitchell past the fence on the baseball field, your impression would be oh-so-far from the truth.”
Vias then related a story about the mom of a player from an opposing team who asked him, “How do you work with that man? All he does is yell and scream and get on those kids so much!”
Vias told her Mitchell was a “teddy bear” and added, “You don’t see the sympathy and empathy of raising 20 boys year in and year out to become men.” He followed with a description of Mitchell’s commitment to his players and his numerous acts of charity, among them an annual Halloween baseball game to fund and fill the food bank at his church, prompting on apology from the lady.
Mitchell was about more than wins, Vias said, although there were many hundreds of them. The physical linemen Mitchell groomed to hit as fiercely as he did for Hampton’s 1969 state champions were the keystone to the 416 victories and 10 state championships in his 40 seasons as assistant to legendary Crabbers football coach Mike Smith.
During the final 13 seasons of his more than 35 as the school’s baseball coach, the Crabbers won five Peninsula District titles. They clinched the title in what would be his final season in 2019 with a memorable 7-6 win over defending champion Menchville by rallying from a five-run deficit on the Monarchs’ field.
Following last week’s ceremony, Bryan McBride, the Crabbers’ winning pitcher that day, recalled how Mitchell inspired him with his brand of “tough love.” Mitchell relieved McBride as pitcher during a bad inning, then reinserted him to finish on the mound following a pep talk.
“He told me, ‘If we’re going to get this done, you’re going to be the one to do it,’” said McBride, a freshman this past season for Eastern Mennonite University. “This is your opportunity to prove yourself and, if you’re not going to do it, those people will look down on you.”
The people Mitchell was referring to were the fans yelling at McBride from the stands. McBride said he realized that their noise “was nothing compared to Danny,” so he returned to the mound and shut out Menchville in the final two innings.
“That tough love is what it took,” said McBride, who added that Mitchell’s influence is giving him the strength to handle a difficult health issue he is currently dealing with. “I thank him every day for being tough on us and instilling that baseball isn’t just a sport about athleticism, but is a sport about being a man in life.
“Life gets harder, so to teach us that and hold us to a higher standard has taught me that (adversity) is something to learn from and overcome.”
McBride said that losing Mitchell, then losing his senior season to the pandemic weeks later “hurt my soul,” so he found the ceremony for Mitchell uplifting. The event also marked the return to Danny Mitchell Field of Mitchell’s wife, Sindi.
She cried, of course, as she often does when she thinks of her late husband of 46 years. Like Vias and McBride, she reflected on Mitchell’s burning desire that every one of his players, from the most talented to least, improve as players and people each season.
“He loved teaching his players to think the game,” she said. “You didn’t hope to get your best pitch, you set up the opposing pitcher to throw it, and, whether you played infield or outfield, you understood where the next play was going to be.
“To me, Danny was a genius at finding out what worked well for every kid on the field, then getting them to combine that to apply it to their lives after baseball.”
Missing from the ceremony was Matt Mitchell, who played for district championship baseball and football teams his dad coached at Hampton more than a decade ago. Now an assistant baseball coach at Norfolk State, Matt Mitchell was in Greenville, North Carolina, as the Spartans played in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.
“He’d be extremely proud of what we did at Norfolk State and wouldn’t stop talking about it,” Matt Mitchell said. “He would’ve felt like he made the NCAA Tournament.”
Matt Mitchell said that he is not as vocal as his late father, but feels the best of what he brings to his position at Norfolk State comes from Danny Mitchell.
“Everybody knew him for how much he yelled and thought he was a mean guy, but he genuinely cared for people,” he said. “He taught me that you treat people how you would want yourself or anyone in your family to be treated, and I think he did that better than outside people would’ve thought.
“He’d give you the shirt off his back and ask nothing in return. I’d like to think people think the same of me.”
Marty O’Brien, 757-247-4963, firstname.lastname@example.org