Mike Schmidt of the Phillies dug his sneakered feet deep into the thick shag carpet, cocked an imaginary bat alongside his curly, reddish hair, stepped into an imaginary pitch and unloosed his home run swing. There was no crack, no sock, not even a cheer from Schmidt's wife Donna as the imaginary ball sailed across his comfortable den, through the glass door, past the terrace, over the swimming pool and into the vast green valley below. "When I was a kid I always tried to crush the ball," said Schmidt, who is 26, as he followed the flight of his make-believe homer. "I guess I'm still trying."
It is the personal purgatory of a home run hitter that success very often is a hit or miss proposition. The same hard, full cut that can send the ball into the distant bleachers can also send the hitter back to the dugout with his bat in his hands. It is his doing and his undoing.
May 2, 1976
This season, baseball's premier power whiffers, Schmidt and 6'6", 210-pound Dave (Kong) Kingman of the Mets, have been striking home runs and striking out at prodigious rates. While no one else in the National League has more than six homers and 11 strikeouts, Third Baseman Schmidt and Rightfielder Kingman already have nine and seven of the former and 15 and 21 of the latter. The strikeouts flow steadily; the home runs usually come in headline-making bunches. Kingman clouted six in a five-game stretch to take an early lead in the major league home run race, a contest he narrowly lost to Schmidt last season. But Schmidt overtook Kingman in a hurry. During a tear that extended into last week, he smacked seven in four games, including four straight during one windy afternoon in Chicago. In the history of baseball only three other players had accomplished that. The last National Leaguer to do it was the Boston Braves' Bob Lowe in 1894.
Characteristically, neither Kingman nor Schmidt had been hitting well before their hot streaks began. In 15 previous at bats, Kingman, who is 27 and has a .226 lifetime average, had hit one homer and two singles and had struck out six times. Schmidt, a .248 career batter, was 3 for 18 with one home run and nine strikeouts. Then, in successive visits to Wrigley Field and Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium, they started connecting—high, long and often.
"When you get in a groove like that the ball looks twice its normal size," says Kingman. "Other times it comes up to the plate looking like a golf ball. It doesn't matter how you feel, either. You can feel great and not hit a thing, then feel lousy and hit it out." Schmidt says the ball looked bigger to him, too, and that he was making perfect contact because he was in one of those elusive stretches when his swing is perfect. For both, when they hit the ball it stayed hit. During their streaks they struck out 12 times and had only two hits besides the home runs—a Schmidt single and a Kingman double.
The two sluggers erupt that way every so often, perhaps to prove they are still alive and playing. Kingman had 13 homers last July, Schmidt countered with 12 in August. To opponents, their streaks seem even more torrid than they are, because Schmidt and Kingman are not in the business of hitting cheap home runs. There are few players, if any, who can match them for distance. Kingman smashed a drive of more than 600 feet off the Yankees' Catfish Hunter in spring training last year that both New York teams still talk about. "I could have chopped that up into 35 singles," says Mets First Baseman Ed Kranepool.
Two weeks ago Kingman blasted a shot that Chicagoans believe was the longest ever hit at Wrigley Field. Estimated to have gone 650 feet on the fly, it carried over the left-field bleachers, across Waveland Avenue and down a side street. After landing, the ball bounced a couple of times before crashing into the side of a house. While Kingman was still circling the bases, the residents of the house poured out on the front porch to see who was knocking at their wall. Schmidt has not belted one that far in 1976, but he is well remembered in Houston where a couple of seasons back he stroked a ball off the Astrodome speaker, which is 117 feet above the field.
"Dave's style is to swing hard in case he hits it," says Kranepool. "When he's connecting, the only way to defense him is to sit in the upper deck. I've never seen anybody hit the ball farther."
The Phillies feel the same way about Schmidt. "Mike wants to hit it all the way out of the stadium, not just 330 feet over the outfield fence," says Shortstop Larry Bowa. "With his swing, he can hit 20 accidentally."
Schmidt and Kingman have always been power hitters with a tendency to short-circuit. Entering this season (Kingman's sixth and Schmidt's fifth), both had struck out once every three at bats and homered every 15 or 16. This means they are more likely to hit a home run than Willie Stargell, Dick Allen, Reggie Jackson or Frank Robinson—but also are more likely to strike out. In fact, Kingman has a higher homer frequency than Henry Aaron, and Schmidt a higher whiff rate than Mickey Mantle, who holds the career record for strikeouts.
Although both are overanxious over-swingers, the 6'2", 195-pound Schmidt at least has a thorough knowledge of the strike zone. He drew 101 bases on balls last year while leading the National League in homers (38) and strikeouts (180) for the second straight season. His .249 batting average was the lowest by a National League home run champion in 23 years and approximately 20 points below the 1975 average for all the nonpitchers in the league. Kingman was even more inconsistent. Although he smacked a team-record 36 homers and led the league with 20 game-winning RBIs, he batted only .231 and had 153 strikeouts and just 34 walks. "Schmidt is much more controlled," says St. Louis Reliever Al Hrabosky. "You can set Kingman up to swing at bad pitches, but you have to throw strikes to Schmidt."
Kingman's problem is compounded by his awkward appearance at the plate—he resembles a very tall man falling from a very short tree. He leans, he reaches, he stumbles. Even though his output is only slightly better, Schmidt presents a more classic figure, and he knows it. "Kingman wants to hit it out on every swing," Schmidt says disparagingly. "He's not gonna hit for average—ever."
To give him his due, Schmidt can be equally hard on himself. Lounging in his new house in West Berlin, N.J. last week, he said, "I don't like to give pitchers much credit. I figure that 99% of the times I fail it's because of lousy hitting, not good pitching. I know that I shouldn't take a long stride and a big swing. I know I should just try to meet the ball. I know I hit most of my home runs last year with two strikes on me, when I was protecting the plate because I was scared I would strike out again. But knowing these things doesn't always help. Sometimes when the pitcher lets the ball go, your mind goes blank. You just see the ball and you react the way you've trained yourself. The adrenaline starts flowing and you try to hit it a country mile to left field. It's really stupid, but that's the way it is."
Schmidt, who had been simulating good and bad swings as he talked, excused himself to get a bat. "Here, I'll show you what I mean," he said, stepping out onto the terrace.
He took his stance, visualized a low fastball out over the plate and took an all-out rip at it. "There, that's as hard as I can swing," he said. "But 90 times out of 100 I won't even make contact with a swing like that. I maybe have one chance in 100 to hit it out. So why do I do it? If I were my manager, I'd fine myself $100 every time I pop up and give myself $100 every time I get a ground-ball hit."
Indeed, Philadelphia Manager Danny Ozark has reacted to Schmidt's hot-and-cold performances by dropping him from third to sixth in the batting order. "He'll stay there until he cuts down on his strikeouts," Ozark says. Schmidt agrees that "180 strikeouts is a ridiculous number. No one with good hand-eye coordination like mine should strike out that much. This is what makes them so hard to take. I do so many things well that I can't understand why hitting a baseball is so difficult. I've got to find what it takes to make me do what I know I have to do."
In some ways Kingman is more realistic than Schmidt. He is much less analytical—and much more private—but he admits, "I don't think I'll ever hit for average. I'm not unable to do it. I'm just not that type of hitter. I could choke up, punch the ball and almost totally eliminate strikeouts, but I wouldn't hit any home runs. And that's what I'm paid to do, to hit homers and drive in runs." Despite this sober assessment, Kingman insists that his strikeouts will decrease. "I am confident there will be noticeably fewer this year," he says. "I'm really concentrating on that. I'll always have the same swing, but I have the experience and the maturity now that I did not have before."
So far Kingman is striking out as much as he ever has—as is Schmidt—and he merely seems to be reiterating what he has said for years: that he definitely will improve his home run-strikeout ratio. It was Kingman's failure to back those claims with deeds that prompted the Giants, for whom he played his first four seasons, to ship him to the Mets last year for the bargain price of $125,000. New York General Manager Joe McDonald would like to believe he found a Steuben vase at a rummage sale. Says McDonald, perhaps wishfully, "Defensively, Kingman has taken a bad rap. He isn't a deficit at all." And when Kingman, a fast runner who has stolen four bases in five attempts this season, bunted for a hit during a game in St. Louis last week, McDonald saw it was proof that he was becoming "the complete player Dave has told me he would be."
Kingman could start by altering his please-help-me-I'm-falling batting style. Convincing him to do this is no easy task, because he is acutely sensitive to criticism. "We take great pains to keep Dave from getting down on himself," McDonald says. "Phil Cavarretta has been a good batting instructor for him because he's very low key and doesn't try to force him into things."
The ideal instructor for Kingman, psychologically at least, would probably be someone like Lou Brock of St. Louis, who manages to hit for average despite a strikeout problem. Brock says, "You shouldn't alter your swing to avoid striking out. An out is an out, no matter how it's made. If you have to make one, do it with your best stroke. You can't give in one bit."
While this might satisfy Kingman, it does not appeal to Schmidt, a better all-round player who stole 29 bases last season and finished second in the Gold Glove voting for National League third basemen. "I figure that 80 fewer strikeouts would have given me 20 more hits last year—and probably four more homers," he says. "And who knows how many times I might have advanced a runner with an out or gotten on because of an error?"
Schmidt proved his point in a game against Atlanta last week. Hitting the ball on the ground four straight times, he reached base three times on an infield hit and two errors. The same night in Houston Kingman was going 1 for 3 and striking out once.
"At a very early age you find out what kind of player you are," Kingman says. "I have always preferred seeing four home runs to watching a no-hitter. I'd rather see Willie Mays hit than Sandy Koufax pitch." The player he admires most is Willie McCovey, who played first base for the Giants when Kingman came up from the minors and is now concluding his career in San Diego. "McCovey was a home run hitter who didn't strike out," Kingman says. "What else can you ask for?"
On the other hand, Schmidt seems to be a frustrated singles hitter. On the day he hit four home runs, he used a bat that belongs to punch-hitting reserve Infielder Tony Taylor, which is an inch shorter and an ounce lighter than the one he normally wields. And Schmidt envies the peace of mind that he is sure Cub Bill Madlock, the National League's batting champion, must enjoy. "Madlock probably has no idea of the frustrations I experience," Schmidt says. "He just goes up there and gets base hits. Guys like him don't have to think. They just react." Guys like Schmidt keep plaques in their dressing stalls that ask, WHO CAN THINK AND HIT AT THE SAME TIME?
While Kingman says he would like to lead the league in homers and RBIs, Schmidt, having accomplished the one and come close to the other, has a different ambition. "Pitchers aren't afraid of me," he says. "I'm a dangerous hitter, but I'm not a good hitter. I want to intimidate the pitcher, make him squeeze the ball when he sees me standing up there. I make a lot of money and live in a nice house because I hit home runs. But deep down I want to bat .340 some year."
Ironically, he feels he has made some progress by hitting so many homers recently. "It's helping me gain more confidence. I hope I can put it to use and get more hits. If I had settled for a few more singles up the middle last year we probably would have won the pennant. And by doing that I probably would have hit a few more homers. It's a freaky thing, but then baseball is a freaky game."
For power whiffers like Kingman and Schmidt it is the freakiest.