BENSON — Craig Mitchell knew something wasn't right when the only way he could field a fly ball was to wait for the ball to hit the ground.
He knew something was wrong when he got dizzy every time he tried to scoop up a ground ball.
He grew increasingly alarmed when he struck out 16 times in 20 appearances at the plate last summer.
And when the Fuquay-Varina High senior baseball pitcher found out he had a tumor near his brain, he was ready to get something done about it.
"They told me I had great doctors and we had to do something because it was going to keep getting worse," Mitchell said. "I sort of had no options. I was ready to get it done."
Mitchell had an acoustic neuroma, a usually slow-growing tumor of the nerve that connects the ear to the brain. An acoustic neuroma is benign, which means it does not spread to other parts of the body or invade the tissue around it.
But the tumor was almost an inch and a half long and was growing unusually fast.
"I knew there had to be something wrong. I know he can catch a pop-up," said Angela Mitchell, his mother. "But suddenly he couldn't. We noticed the change first in baseball and then in other things."
This type of tumor is uncommon among people under 30, and it took weeks before his condition was diagnosed. An MRI left no doubt.
"When I saw the MRI images, the tumor was huge," Fuquay-Varina baseball coach Milton Senter said. "... I was stunned."
Complicating Mitchell's problem was that his tumor was in a particularly difficult place to reach. His neurosurgeon at the University of North Carolina, Matthew Ewend, who is director of Neuro-Oncology at UNC, didn't want to proceed with the surgery until assembling a team that included Craig Buchman, UNC's chief of Otology/Neurotology and Skull Base Surgery.
"They told me I had great doctors and they could get the job done," Mitchell said. "I tried not to worry about it and trust them."
His mother said she tried to not think of doctors having to work inside her son's skull.
"It was scary," she said.
His surgery took more than 19 hours. Doctors and nurses worked in shifts during the procedure on Dec. 30.
The surgery was not without risks and complications. Mitchell is permanently deaf in his left ear, a condition that he is still adjusting to.
"People all the time tell me they spoke to me and I ignored them, but I didn't hear them," he said.
The surgery also seemed to rule out his senior season of baseball. At least that was the prognosis.
"They said my baseball season had been canceled," he said, "that playing baseball this season was out of the question."
He was determined to do everything he could to return to his team, though. He walked two days after surgery and returned home within five days. He returned to school on Jan. 31 and hung around with his baseball buddies after school.
Mitchell walked on a treadmill on Feb. 1, and his strength rapidly returned. He was soon throwing a baseball and was released medically to play baseball several weeks ago.
Nevertheless, Mitchell was surprised when Senter told him that he probably would pitch an inning against West Johnston on March 9.
Senter pulled up Mitchell's younger brother, Brian, a sophomore, from the junior varsity to catch him.
Craig Mitchell gave his little brother a workout in the bullpen as they warmed up. Craig Mitchell was wild - high, low, inside, outside.
"Just like usual," he later said with a chuckle. "It takes me a little while to get locked in."
Mitchell is a submarine pitcher, throwing sidearm pitches that dip and swerve and at times seem to dance.
"He was our closer last summer, and he was really tough," Senter said. "We had counted on him as the closer again this year before the tumor. We thought we had lost him for the season. We're glad he's back."
Mitchell took the West Johnston mound in the fourth inning, staked to a 6-3 lead in a nonconference game. It was exactly the situation Senter had wanted for Mitchell's 2011 debut.
He faced three batters in the inning, throwing 11 pitches. Senter brought Mitchell back in the fifth, and he retired the side without yielding a run thanks to a nifty double play started by his shortstop after giving up a single, a hit batsman and a walk.
Mitchell said he was as nervous as he can ever remember.
"I was scared," he said. "It was great to be back though."
After Fuquay-Varina wrapped up the 9-3 victory, Bengals pitching coach Tom Hayes slapped Mitchell on the back and said, "Welcome back."
Senter gathered his club around him near third base, noted mistakes made in the game, opportunities ahead and pointed to Mitchell.
"He not only came back to us, he performed," Senter said. "He went out there and battled. That's a lesson to us all."
Afterward, Senter said that he and Mitchell's teammates are glad to have him back.
"He was going to be a part of the team whether he played or not," Senter said. "We didn't want to be greedy. We just wanted him back. Having him play is just a bonus."
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