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LONGTIME MINOR LEAGUER LISTENS FOR ORIOLES' CALL

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The average player on the Orioles' roster reached the big leagues in 4 1/2 years. Andy Mitchell has been trying for nine.

To heck with the numbers, the Baltimore farmhand won't give up.

"I know I can pitch up there, and I've got to keep trying," he said.

No one has labored longer in the system than Mitchell, who will turn 31 in September. A right-hander who throws submarine-style, he has been stuck at Triple-A for five years.

At Norfolk, Va., the Tides roll in and the Tides roll out. Mitchell? He stays put. He has never set foot on the field at Camden Yards. And he knows his chances wane with each move the Orioles make to push their young guns up the chain.

Fourteen times this season, the Orioles have promoted a pitcher from Norfolk to shore up their sagging staff. Several pitchers have been summoned twice. One, David Hernandez, 24, has been called up three times. When the carousel stops, it's the kids who get off.

Meanwhile, Mitchell just gets older. He has done everything the club has asked. He has pitched as a starter, a middle reliever and a closer, more than 700 innings in all, with never a losing season. But is that enough to warrant The Call?

"In this game, some guys are labeled 'prospects' and others are 'organization players,' " said Gary Allenson, Norfolk's manager. "The Orioles have some up-and-coming pitchers, but Andy's not in that mix."

He is fast becoming the club's version of "Crash" Davis from the movie "Bull Durham."

"He [Mitchell] has persevered for nine years, and he has saved a few of our other arms along the way," Allenson said. "But he's not really projected as a big league player."

To heck with opinions, Mitchell won't give up.

"God is in control," he said. Not Allenson or Orioles general manager Andy MacPhail or even Peter Angelos, the owner.

"God has a plan for my life," said Mitchell, a born-again Christian from Conyers, Ga. "Whatever his timing is, that's what's going to happen."

For Mitchell, there is no separation of church and plate. Nine years? He could pitch until hell freezes over, those who know him say.

"For Andy, baseball is a calling from the Lord, a ministry," said Kevin Rollins, a childhood friend. "He believes that God has given him this talent and that he is to use it, to be a good steward of his gifts. He can set his faith like flint because he knows this is what he's supposed to be doing - and nothing has happened in the last nine years to change that."

His iron will was forged early on. As a youngster, Mitchell would fall asleep with a ball in his grasp. He played pickup games long after nightfall. There's a scar on his leg where he fell on a metal horseshoe stake while chasing a fly ball in the dark. Fifteen stitches closed the wound.

"Baseball was on Andy's mind all the time," said Robert Mitchell, his father. "On rainy days he'd play it in the house, using rolled-up socks for a ball until he knocked a picture off the wall."

His dad taught Andy to pitch. Robert Mitchell would sit on a bucket in the side yard and await his son's offerings.

"I'm not going to move," he'd say. "If I don't catch the ball, you're going into the woods to get it."

That's how Mitchell learned to throw strikes.

He pored over box scores, starred in rec-league ball and fashioned himself, literally, after favorite players.

"However [the Atlanta Braves'] Chipper Jones wore his pants, well, Andy always did the same," Rollins said.

Nolan Ryan, the Hall of Fame pitcher, was his idol - and the namesake of Mitchell's own 3-year-old son, Nolan.

"For 25 years, Andy has eaten, slept and breathed baseball," said Ryan Hodges, a lifelong friend. "As kids, anytime we didn't have equipment, we'd make our own. We would wad up paper towels and coat them with duct tape, making seams on the ball so it would break like a slider or curve."

Excelling on the team at Heritage High wasn't enough for Mitchell. He had to pitch in the classroom, too.

"In one class, we hid a tape ball and a PVC pipe in the cabinet and played ball whenever the teacher left the room," Rollins said. "Andy even kept score and figured up batting averages."

Georgia Tech gave Mitchell a baseball scholarship in 1998 and put him at third base. A year later, Mark Teixeira (Mount St. Joseph) arrived and beat him out at that position.

Undaunted, Mitchell returned to the mound, went undefeated as a junior and helped Georgia Tech win the Atlantic Coast Conference championship.

Though he earned a degree in business management, there was no doubt where his future lay.

"The night before our accounting final, Andy and a couple of other guys bought a huge marker board to help us study," Hodges said. "Within 15 minutes, we had a strike zone drawn on that board and were playing a game of tape ball in the apartment."

Undrafted out of college, Mitchell kept plugging. He went online, sought out big league tryout camps and impressed the Orioles as a walk-on. Signed in 2001 - Baltimore gave him $300 in gas money to drive to its rookie camp in Sarasota, Fla. - he has been in its ranks ever since, winning 55 of 84 decisions and earning Norfolk's Outstanding Pitcher award in 2008. This year, Mitchell is 9-3.

Last month, he outpitched a former American League Cy Young Award winner, Bartolo Colon, in defeating Charlotte, 4-3. The following day, however, the Orioles acquired a submarine-style pitcher, Cla Meredith, from the San Diego Padres.

What more must Mitchell do?

"Unfortunately, Andy hasn't been in the right place at the right time," said Dave Stockstill, the Orioles' director of player development. "He's an outstanding workaholic pitcher who throws strikes and gets outs. Many times, once guys like him get a break, they stay in the major leagues for a lot of years.

"He just needs to keep doing what he does best."

Teammates marvel at Mitchell's resolute spirit.

"Andy absolutely loves the game," said Jim Miller, another Norfolk pitcher. "He still has that passion; he still has that dream. I get a kick out of watching him interact with his son Nolan, tossing a Nerf ball around the clubhouse with him and running the bases together after games."

Married and the father of two, Mitchell makes $50,000 a year from baseball. Offseason, he works for the family's commercial plumbing business and mulls his major league chances.

"There have been times, when another guy has been called up, when I think in the back of my mind, 'That should have been me,' " he said. "Sometimes I feel like I have to put up some ridiculously low earned run average just to get a shot. But I don't let it affect my attitude.

"When I ask the Orioles [about the future], their answer is, 'Keep doing what you're doing.' They've kept me for a reason, hopefully not just as a dependable arm in Triple-A. Give up? It's tough to quit when you feel you're getting better.

"Eventually, I hope I'll be rewarded for the minor league career that I've had."

The organization man soldiers on, to the delight of Norfolk's management. On this pitching staff, he's a Swiss army knife in a drawerful of pricey Wusthofs.

"Andy's value is that he fills so many roles here," said Mike Griffin, the Tides' pitching coach. "Can he reach the majors? He has a good mentality and the fire is still there, but in baseball you never know.

"That's why we all play this game as long as we can possibly play it. Stay hungry and the chances will be there."

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