Whittle: Mitchell survived tragedy

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John Mitchell was living his dream, having signed a professional baseball contract straight out of Nashville's Overton High School.

At age 18, after a successful Rookie League season, he was on top of his game, having been invited to Florida's Winter Instructional League for the games' more promising young athletes.

That's when young Mitchell had two life-changing experiences ... one that was very good, and one that was horrible and terrifying. Both were life-changing.

Do you believe in miracles? If not, you may after sharing this man's perilous experience that was about unfurl in his life.

First about the good, soul-soothing personal experience ...

"It was 1983, between the Rookie League season and the Florida Instructional League," Rutherford County resident Mitchell shared back in time. "There's a 'Baseball Chapel' organization in pro baseball that conducts Bible and chapel services. Upon arriving in Florida and attending chapel with teammates, I made the decision that week to accept Christ as my Savior. Earlier in life, my brother Charlie also made his decision for Christ after witnessing with teammates in Baseball Chapel. That effective Christian organization still goes on in baseball."

But, he had gone to church all of his life with great parents (Reba and the late Robert Mitchell) back in Nashville.
"I had gone to the Methodist Church back home with our parents, but I had never actually professed my faith in Christ," Mitchell noted. "Becoming a Christian was a comforting life-changing experience."

High-valued baseball prospect (outfielder) Anthony "Tony" Latham had recently inked a contract out of the University of Virginia. At age 20, Latham also made a profession of Christianity the week before Mitchell took his stand of faith.

The chapel services helped draw the two young baseball prospects together for a boating outing, along with Scott Skripko, 22, who like Mitchell, was a pitcher in the Boston Red Sox organization. The three young ballplayers were invited to go fishing in the Gulf of Mexico with boat owner Mark Zastrowny, 35, of Punta Gorda, Fla.
"We left Port Charlotte to do some shark fishing," Mitchell cast back in time.

A few hours later, when water swamped their small boat, Zastrowny and Latham drowned.

Tony Latham had been steering the boat, reportedly at "full throttle" while making a sharp and tight turn, casting the boat into a big wave from the boat's own wake.

"Because of choppy and rough water, we'd decided to head in, back to Port Charlotte," Mitchell described. "That's when Skripko's hat blew into the water that Tony had been wearing. Tony asked Skripko if he wanted to retrieve the hat, and Tony said 'Sure.'"

"When nearing the cap, Tony slowed the boat, which had been running full speed, and water washed over into the boat from all sides. Maybe we had too much weight in front of the boat," Mitchell shared with obvious emotion.
The boat sank almost instantly ... they were not wearing life preservers, which went down with the boat.
In looking back, Mitchell recalls multiple poor decisions, starting with weather.

"The sea was choppy," Mitchell recalled. "We knew there were small craft warnings." When the boat swamped with water, none were wearing life preservers.

Their mistakes proved fateful and fatal.
"When Tony slowed the boat to retrieve the hat, he must have did it too suddenly, for that's when water swamped over us in the front of the boat," Mitchell reconstructed.

Panic-stricken Latham began hollering: "I can't swim! I can't swim!"

"Mark Zastrowny threw a small cooler in Latham's direction," Mitchell detailed. "I had reached Tony, but was unable to hold him up. I shouted out to Mark, that Tony had to have something, he's going to drown!"

When Zastrowny, who also ultimately drowned, threw the small cooler to Latham for flotation, that's when Mitchell said he looked around in the turbulent water ...

"I looked around ... and Tony went down," Mitchell recalls.

Boat owner Zastrowny also then disappeared in the deep, murky sea.
However, Skripko made a quick suggestion that may have saved Mitchell.

"Scott Skripko told me to grab an empty 5-gallon bucket, to turn it upside down, trapping air in it, and use it for flotation," Mitchell noted. "And it worked for several hours."

Mitchell and Skripko ended up bobbing in the water 22 hours, before finally being rescued.

"I don't remember everything," Mitchell recalls at age 49, from the October 1983 boating accident that claimed two lives. "Toward the end, I felt like I was just about at my end, having used all my energy, paddling, struggling there in the water, clinging to the bucket.

"During the first night in the water, Skripko and I became separated," Mitchell added. "There in the night's darkness, it was time to do some serious soul searching and praying."

"Initially, I was conscious ... and as time wore on, body pain and fatigue increased, I began asking myself if I'd ever verbally told Mom and Dad that 'I loved them.' They knew I loved them, but had I actually ever spoke the words to them?"

"I recall wondering, if I'd ever see my girlfriend (high school sweetheart, now wife Leeanne) again," Mitchell recalls. "I recall voicing deals out to God, that if He let me live, I'd not do this, and not do that.

"I don't remember everything out there in water," Mitchell accounted. "In addition to praying, I experienced some hallucinations as my body and mind weakened due to extended exposure and exertion."
During the second day of being tossed to and fro in the Gulf, Mitchell had another concern.
"We had gone out to hunt sharks," Mitchell detailed. "I wondered would sharks come and attack me?"
None did.
Finally, after praying, using all his body strength to cling to that 5-gallon bucket, hallucinating while also paddling and treading water ... when Mitchell most feared drowning, he looked up and saw a helicopter overhead.
"My faith and the Good Lord had a big part with me being able to survive in the water for that length of time," Mitchell added. "I know that."

Within minutes of seeing the helicopter, Mitchell recalls seeing a Coast Guard rescue vessel speeding across the waves toward him.

"By this time, I was in and out of consciousness, so the next thing I remember was being treated in a hospital emergency room," Mitchell shared.

After recovering from hypothermia, and being exposed nearly 24 hours in the salt water and exposed to weather elements, he was able to leave the hospital.

"Skripko was also rescued," Mitchell shared.

Mitchell added this soulful memory: "Although tragic, when I was able to confirm that Tony had experienced salvation a week before I did, it was very comforting for his family back in North Carolina. His sister asked point blank: 'Had Tony gave his life to Christ?' I was able to assure the family that decision had occurred ... it's a decision that I consider the most important a person can make in life."

After his survival miracle, Mitchell went on to develop into a full-fledged Major League pitcher, first with the New York Mets and then with the Baltimore Orioles.

He shared a few of "high" and "low" points of baseball.

"Being traded by the Red Sox organization was upsetting, and made me realize baseball is a business," Mitchell shared. "I went to the Mets, in a four-player deal ... four from the Red Sox and four from the Mets changed uniforms. Bobby Ojeda became the biggest known name player in the deal. He became a starter for the Mets. I was a relief pitcher."

John Mitchell shared an emotional "high" point ... "I was more excited when my big brother, Charlie, who was still in the Red Sox organization, called to inform the family he had been called up to the Major League team. That was more exciting to me than when I got my own call up to the New York Mets."

Another low point: "I had to have surgery on my shoulder in 1991."

Are there regrets from his remarkable career and life's journey: "I may have tried to stay in baseball too long, away from my wife and oldest son (Hank) too long."
John and Leeanne have three birth sons: Hank, 22, (doing student English teaching at Stewart Creek High School), Johnny, 19 and Bobby, 13.
John and Leeanne have a bonus (adopted) child from Korea, five-year-old Hyunwoo.

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2015, Dan Whittle
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