The selection of a jersey number can come from a variety of avenues such as simply being assigned to the athlete or choosing the same numeral as their favorite player.
Sometimes it is a play off their name like the No. 0 Oddibe McDowell, a former Arizona State star, wore when he was with Texas Rangers. Or some guys like to make a statement as reliever Mitch Williams wore No. 99 like the movie character Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughan did in “Major League.”
And then there is Jacob Mitchell.
The No. 44 splashed on the front and back of the Ahwatukee Little League aqua blue jersey can’t be explained so easily — especially when Mitchell is asked about it.
The 10-year-old’s eyes well faster than a dirt infield collects water in a monsoon, his lips purse and he looks at the ground like it is filled with candy from a broken piñata.
Turns out, the only thing in pieces is his heart.
Mitchell’s number represents the age his father, Chris, would be today if he didn’t die of unknown causes two years ago.
“That’s why he wears No. 44…,” Jacob’s mother, Tricia, said, tailing off. “Everything he does is for his father. The way he plays the game and the number he wears is for Chris.”
By all accounts Chris and Jacob were inseparable and a good portion of that time was spent on the diamond.
“We played everywhere we could,” said Jacob, who was the first to find his father after he passed. “Our backyard, parks and baseball fields. It didn’t matter as long as we were together.”
It is clear that Chris was a good teacher of the game as Jacob is an exceptionally sound and instinctive ballplayer for his age. The Ahwatukee 9-10s advanced to the District 13 tournament title game, before losing Friday, because of the very talented squad. When it comes to a feel for the game Jacob is right there with anyone on the roster.
“I’ve been around baseball my entire life as a player, administrator, executive and coach,” said Russ Christ, who coached Jacob on the Phoenix FireBirds in 2010-11. “The last six years I’ve been very involved in the Arizona club baseball scene (and youth baseball) so I’ve seen hundreds, if not thousands, of young baseball players.
“On the field, Jacob is one of the smartest kids I’ve ever seen. His baseball savvy and instincts, especially defensively, are very advanced. He knows where to be on every play.”
With his father gone, his mother and his grandparents — Phyllis and James Mitchell — made sure Jacob, who attends Horizon Honors, continued to pour himself into baseball, making a point to never miss a practice as he played for the Ahwatukee Pirates, the Orioles Majors and the Ahwatukee 9-10 All-star squads in recent seasons.
Each new team meant crossing paths with a new coach, being embraced by a new family and finding a new support system.
“He is thriving and we wouldn’t be able to do this without the support the community and the league has given us,” Tricia said. “It has been priceless. His previous and current coaches all said they would do anything for him and they’ve backed that up.”
It was clear Ahwatukee All-Star coach Mike Mettner had plenty of confidence in Jacob as he played catcher, pitched, and third base or anywhere else he was needed during the team’s 5-2 run in the D13 tournament.
“I can put him anywhere on the field at any time and I feel confident about it,” Mettner said. “Jacob has all the intangibles. It has been nice to see him grow up and his Dad would be proud.”
Proud probably doesn’t quite do it justice.
“He is a good boy and he is good in school,” Phyllis said. “His father would be bursting at the seams with pride.”
It is clear Chris would have been involved and invested in everything Jacob did.
He might have even been a coach for the ALL.
It is hard to know for sure, but the one absolute that cannot be challenged is his age.
Contact writer: (480) 898-7915 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JSkodaAFN.