A Night at Sea
by LANDON DICKERSON
Treading water for more than 20 hours, Red Sox pitcher John Mitchell made a life-changing promise to God.
“Growing up, I could never really remember telling my parents that I loved them; I wanted to tell them that then.” THOSE WERE THE THOUGHTS that John Mitchell had as he held onto a bucket, floating in the middle of a Sarasota, Florida harbor, miles out from land. That is not where John thought he would be spending the night when he woke up that Sunday morning. A recent draft pick by the Boston Red Sox in 1983, Mitchell was sent down to Florida to play in the Florida Instructional League. On one of the team’s days off, Mitchell and two of his teammates — Anthony (Tony) Latham and Scott Skripko — were to meet Mark Zastrowny, a friend who lived in the area and would take them shark fishing in his boat in the Charlotte Bay harbor. That evening, a catastrophe changed the lives of Mitchell and his companions.
Mitchell’s story doesn’t begin with a catastrophe, though. Being a churchgoer his entire life, he was familiar with the teachings of the Bible and what it means to be a Christian.
“I grew up going to church. It wasn’t an option in our family. We didn’t have a choice. Even when we went out of town on vacation, we would have to go to church somewhere,” Mitchell said. He was very active in his youth group. However, Mitchell did not consider himself saved. Church was just a religion to him, and outside of the church, Mitchell did not live a lifestyle that embraced the like-mindedness of Christ.
When Mitchell was sent to the Florida Instructional League, everything changed for him. “There is a ministry called Baseball Chapel. They come to your stadium or field on Sundays and hold services for both teams. In Instructional League, you have a lot of teams close by. We were in Sarasota and actually shared a locker room with the Braves. On Tuesday nights, the Baseball Chapel would have a Bible study that was a little more in-depth and would last a little longer,” Mitchell explained. He and a few of his teammates went to the Bible studies. “Because of my upbringing, I just thought that I was supposed to go. It was just something you did.” A particular night was a bit different from the others. “One Tuesday night, we went, and I knew I needed a Savior. The pastor was preaching about what salvation means, and I said yes to Jesus.” Just a week before Mitchell’s salvation, his teammate Tony Latham was saved at the same Bible study.
The week after Mitchell’s salvation, he found himself in the middle of a harbor with teammates Latham and Skripko and the boat owner, Zastrowny, a few miles out from the coast, barely able to see land. The boat they were in was not in good condition and was holding water from a small leak. Actually, they were not supposed to be in a small boat at all because of choppy waters due to high wind conditions. After having no success at fishing, they decided to turn back to land. “A hat blew off one of the guy’s heads, and we slowed down and rushed over to get it,” Mitchell recalled. With all of the guys on one side of the boat, the water it was holding rushed to the same side, and the boat started to sink. “The boat didn’t flip over; it just went down.” None of the men on the boat were wearing life jackets.
Sadly, Tony Latham could not swim and drowned when the boat sank completely, despite the other men’s desperate efforts to help him. Mayhem among the remaining three ensued. Mitchell found a bucket, turned it upside down to trap the air, and floated. Skripko and Zastrowny grabbed two coolers and used those as floatation devices. “The boat owner told us not to waste our energy because the current was too strong. We just had to stay afloat and hope somebody would come by and see us.”
It was evening, and there were not many people out that day because of the rough water, and it was starting to get dark. After a failed attempt to climb a wooden post marker nearby, Mitchell watched helplessly as the three men drifted apart. Before long, he was floating in the ocean alone. “The first thing that went through my mind was, Well, we were shark fishing. Are there sharks around here? Then I started wondering if I would ever see my mother and father again,” he said. Mitchell struggled with regret for not expressing his love for his parents. “I think I kind of took them for granted.” After this, he started to pray and asked God to deliver him, with a promise that he would give his life entirely over to God.
Then Mitchell began to grow tired. “I remember at least two times my head hitting the bucket and then being woken by the ocean spray.” He struggled to stay alert throughout the night.
The next day was Monday, and there were not a lot of people out on boats during the morning hours. “I remember seeing one boat and hollering for it, but it was too far away,” Mitchell said. All morning, the men drifted until finally two fishermen rescued Skripko around noon, and he was able to tell them someone else may still be in the water.
“We had been out in the water about 20 hours. I began to hallucinate. I was dehydrated, and hypothermia had set in.” Mitchell finally let go of the bucket and was swimming. “After letting go … , the only thing I remember is being rescued.” When the Coast Guard picked Mitchell up around 2 p.m., he was immediately given fluids because of dehydration. Later, Mitchell learned that Zastrowny had also drowned during the night.
Mitchell knew well that the Lord had spared him. After being rescued, Mitchell returned to pitch for the Boston Red Sox farm system and then in the major leagues for the New York Mets (1986-1989) and the Baltimore Orioles (1990). Now married with four children, one who was named after his fallen teammate, Mitchell said the events of that night are never too far from his thoughts. Knowing that Latham had given his life to the Lord, even if only two weeks prior to his drowning, has brought Mitchell comfort and a new perspective. A member of New Vision Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Mitchell teaches a seventh- and eighth-grade boys Bible study and shares the good news of Jesus on baseball mission trips to the Dominican Republic. Remembering his promise to God, Mitchell continues to share how Jesus rescued his soul and spared him that night at sea.
LANDON DICKERSON is a member of ClearView Baptist Church in Franklin, Tennessee, and serves as a freelance writer and editor.
This article originally appeared in Mature Living magazine (October 2017). For more articles like this, subscribe to Mature Living.