Thursday, September 4, 2014

Card #100: Mike Schmidt

Who Can It Be Now?
The iconic Michael Jack Schmidt was born on September 27, 1949 in Dayton, Ohio. He attended high school at Fairview High in Dayton and graduated in 1967. Perhaps surprisingly for a future Hall of Famer, Schmidt was not drafted out of high school. The likely reason for this "oversight" is health. Throughout his career, Schmidt had knee problems. Those knee problems started in high school and led to him having major surgery on both knees during high school.

The major leagues' loss was Ohio University's gain. Schmidt led the Bearcats to the College World Series in 1970, where they lost to Florida State and Texas despite beating eventual champions USC in their first game in Omaha.  After playing all four years at OU, Schmidt was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies with the 30th pick overall in the Second Round of the 1971 June Draft -- one spot behind eventual Hall of Famer George Brett and 15 spots after another eventual Hall member, Jim Rice.

The Phillies assigned Schmidt to Double-A Reading, where Schmidt struggled to make contact and, further, struggled to field the ball cleanly at shortstop. Schmidt was the starter for Reading at short in 1971 and made 23 errors in 74 games. Despite the less-than-stellar slash line of .211/.302/.350 at Reading, the Phillies pushed Schmidt to Triple-A Eugene for the 1972 season. There, Schmidt spent 76 games at second base and 52 games at third base while hitting 26 homers and slashing at .291/.409/.550 in a Pacific Coast League in which the league hit .274/.348/.409.

His season in Eugene led to a September call-up with the Phillies. Schmidt played only third base and looked overmatched at times -- 15 Ks in 40 plate appearances and just 1 HR. Despite this, Schmidt never again played minor league baseball. He sat on the bench for the first 10 games of the season, watching Cesar Tovar play, before getting his chance as a regular starting in late April.  

To say, however, that his 1973 season was not his best season would be too kind. While he did rack up 18 HRs and 62 BBs in 443 plate appearances that season, he struggled mightily to make contact. He struck out 136 times. In his 367 at-bats, he totaled 72 hits -- giving him a .196/.324/.373 slash line. His power and on-base skills were evident, but Phillies fans focused solely on that .196 batting average and, as one story from 1989 put it, "[f]or the next 13 years, Phillies fans never forgot or forgave him." A story from 1982 expanded on this: "It wasn't just his numerous strikeouts as a result of swinging for fences, but the nonchalant way he seemed to accept the whiffs that drove the fans wild."

Schmidt himself was not happy with this season, and recognized that he had issues. In that same 1989 story, Schmidt claimed that he "lacked . . . confidence, an understanding of patience. I didn't have a real good feel for failure. I was not good at handling failure. I got frustrated and I was real stubborn."

To some extent, that stubbornness may have helped him to tune out the booing and to ignore the batting average. Starting in 1974, Schmidt led the league in both home runs and in strikeouts for three consecutive seasons.  He also led the NL in slugging in 1974 at .546 and was named to his first all-star team as Ron Cey's backup

But, at a time when guys striking out 100 times was not common -- just 11 players did it in 1975, for example -- Schmidt struck out a massive 180 times. Though strikeouts are just another out, as sabermetricians like to point out, fans in Philly were not as forgiving.

What those fans seemed to forget, though, was this: this three-year span -- over which Schmidt hit .264/.379/.531 with 112 HRs, 66 SBs, 307 BBs and 467 Ks in 2065 plate appearances -- were the years during which Schmidt was 24, 25, and 26 years old. His numbers even in those years were incredible. Every year saw him walk 100 times or more. He almost hit that magical 30/30 mark in 1975, coming up one stolen base short. Indeed, in the wake of that 1975 season, then GM Paul Owens turned down a trade offer of Dave Cash and Schmidt for Reggie Jackson.  

As hindsight tells us, Schmidt would only get better. Indeed, after 1976, he would lead the National League in strikeouts just one more time -- in 1983 with 148. At the same time as Schmidt was learning to make better contact, he started being recognized for the fact that he was also one of the best fielding third-basemen in the game and probably was the best in the National League. Beginning with 1976 and ending with 1984, Schmidt won 9 consecutive Gold Gloves. Tim Wallach received the 1985 award, but Schmidt came back in 1986 to win his 10th and final Gold Glove. All time, his 10 trail only Brooks Robinson among third-basemen for most all time -- and Schmidt is the NL's all-time leader for third basemen.

Schmidt peaked in 1980 and 1981, winning consecutive MVP awards. According to WAR, he was probably second best in 1980 behind teammate Steve Carlton, but he definitely deserved the award in 1981.  It's a shame that the 1981 season was interrupted by the strike, because Schmidt was putting up some ridiculous numbers that year -- in just 102 games, he had 31 HR, 91 RBI, .316/.435/.644 (the last two numbers both led the league), 228 total bases and 18 intentional walks. 

As those numbers make clear, it's no surprise that Topps handed Schmidt one of the marquis card numbers for the 1982 Topps set. With his In Action card tomorrow, we'll see how the rest of his career played out.

Mustache Check: It's ginger, it's thick, and I don't know if Mike Schmidt would ever look right without his mustache. Well, here, he kind of looks like an older version of Brett Favre...

This Is Radio Clash
In both 1990 -- the year after his retirement -- and in cameo appearances in later years including this year, Mike Schmidt has served as a broadcaster for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Well, sort of. After the 1980 World Series, the Royals and the Phillies squared off on the old-school original version of Family Feud -- the one where Richard Dawson hosted the show after he showed his game show chops on the old Match Game. Schmidt took part along with Larry Bowa, Garry Maddox, Dale Unser, and Dick Ruthven against Royals members John Wathan, Willie Wilson, Paul Splittorff, Dan Quisenberry, and Dennis Leonard.

I almost gave this one its own category called "I Lost on Jeopardy", but that song wasn't released by Weird Al Yankovic until 1984. Too bad.

A Few Minutes With Tony L.
If you were a baseball fan in 1982, you knew who Mike Schmidt was. I mean, it would be nearly impossible to be a fan and not know who the back-to-back NL MVP was. It was exciting to pull one of his cards out of an unopened pack back then because, well, it was a star card and those were our hits back then.  

I'll talk more tomorrow about Schmidt's legacy as a player. Today, though, I want to talk about Schmidt as a person today. He comes across as a bit surly.

First, here's a long, rambling story on USA Today about autographs. Some high points include his claim that he was stalked for autographs and retired because of it (and not due to his declining abilities, as he said in 1989); that kids these days won't get the thrill of getting autographs from their parents and grandparents because people are charging for autographs; and, if something has his signature on it, it goes from being $10 to being $100 and shouldn't Mike Schmidt get a part of that monetary increase through charging?  Yeah, that story meanders a bit.

Second, apparently that "charge for autographs" thing isn't that big of a deal so long as you write legibly. Yes, Mike Schmidt complained about the penmanship of current baseball players. He got back on his soapbox to reiterate the same complaint we autograph collectors have heard since the early 1980s -- "You're going to sell that, I don't care what you tell me!" But, then he whines about how the current Phillies in 2012 signed free signed balls that the clubhouse man got for Schmidt to sell for charity so illegibly that Schmidt couldn't make out their names. Oh, the nerve of these kids.

Third, here is an interview with Schmidt on ESPN from 2011. In that story, he says the biggest problem with the major leagues today is that "players are not motivated as much to attain a higher level of play [because of] the amount of money players are making and the security the players have causes a lack of accountability." He continued, "I think too many players who could be better than they are and could eventually become great won't [become great] because they signed long-term mega-money contracts. ... [They're treated like] celebrities and mega-stars, and their career batting average is .248 and very mediocre to below average in terms of statistics over the course of their career."  This is coming from a guy who was the highest paid player in the National League in 1985 and 1987.

Then, just a month ago, Schmidt once again started yelling at the kids on his baseball stadium lawn.  He complained in his AP column that "today's hitters don't want much help." He talks in that column about getting together with his 1980s baseball contemporaries George Brett, Robin Yount, and Paul Molitor at Cooperstown (with Reggie Jackson, Eddie Murray, or Ozzie Smith dropping in) and talking about working with their major league teams today.  His main point: "To the man, we find it amazing that this generation has little interest in our help."

Now, intuitively, one would think that hitters would seek out the Hall of Famers in camp for advice. Wait, what's that you say? Here's a quote from a Hall of Famer about working with hitting coaches:

"If I had listened to people my whole career and didn't trust in my own knowledge of the game, I'd be dipping ice cream cones in Dayton, Ohio, right now at my dad's restaurant."

Yes, you guess it. The person who said that was Michael Jack Schmidt, May 9, 1989

Not to be disrespectful, but why should Schmidt expect players today to listen to him when Schmidt himself didn't?

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