It's a game children play. One kid puts a ball atop a raised batting tee and the other clobbers it into a net a short distance away. Then the two of them speculate on the trajectory and distance this arrested drive might have achieved. The imagination takes charge after every swing. "Line drive, rightfield," the ball boy says to the hitter. "Aww-riight, home run, leftfield...." "Oops, ground ball, second base." We've all played this game in some form—you're at bat in the last game of the World Series, Guidry is pitching for the Yankees, two out, bases loaded, count 3 and 2, then...Pow!
The batter on this particular Friday afternoon in May stands there before the tee, eyes resolutely fixed on the imaginary pitcher, then, at the presumed moment of release, he turns to the stationary ball and blasts it. Thwack! "You got all of that one," says his pal. "Yeah, felt good." Pretty serious stuff. You'd think the hitter was Mike Schmidt or somebody taking his cuts at Veterans Stadium. In fact, that's who it is—not just somebody but Mike Schmidt himself, the Phillies' $1.5 million-a-year man, the double MVP, the perennial home run champion. His ball boy? Fellow named Pete Rose.
Yes, here they are, $3 million worth of baseball talent playing this kid's game in a batting cage under the leftfield stands at the Vet four hours before that night's real game against San Diego. But this isn't child's play. The two future Hall of Famers are in dead earnest. Schmidt has missed more than two weeks of the young season with a freakish injury to his rib cage and, in the five games since his return to the lineup, has been having trouble regaining his fluid—when it is working, poetic—swing. After going 0 for 4 the previous night, he had lugged the tee down to the cage immediately after the game and pounded away at a hundred stationary balls. He is at it again now, this time with Rose in tow. "You got an expensive ball boy here," Rose says, admonishing Schmidt with a gap-toothed grin. Schmidt smiles, but his concern is apparent. "I'm trying to get a feel for the way I'm holding the bat," he says, fiddling with his grip. "I could feel the bat circling around last night. When it's moving like that, it makes me a lot slower." He does a knowing impersonation of Mighty Casey. Exaggerated gestures aren't Schmidt's style. He's no pompous braggart. He's a slick, lightning-quick executioner at the plate.
Schmidt steps to the tee, takes a practice swing and assumes his upright stance—bat held high, left shoulder tucked in, feet well apart, left foot pointed inward. "If I'm going good, I'll just take one practice swing, hold the bat steady and wait." Thwack! Rose nods his approval and sets up another ball. "The way it is," says Schmidt, "I'm anxious. I'm jumping at the ball, overswinging." Thwack! "I go up there thinking single up the middle until the pitcher gets here [he simulates the point of delivery] and then...." He makes a clumsy, lunging motion. Schmidt moves the tee so that it faces the cage's home plate, maybe 40 feet away. "Let's try single up the middle." Thwack! A line drive off the tee strikes the netting only three feet above the plate. "You got it," says Rose. Schmidt steps back, like a golfer appraising his tee shot. "You know, when you're not hitting, you see everything out there," he says. "Last night even the second base umpire seemed to be in my way." "Yeah," says Rose sympathetically, "looks like he's got a glove on sometimes." Schmidt steps forward and wallops a few more setups.
Schmidt and Rose retrieve the balls together, baseball immortals, the chosen, super-superstars. But here, in this absurd cage, they're like small-town shopkeepers helping each other clean up after a trying day. Just a couple of boys from Ohio.
"I'm a human being," Schmidt says abruptly. "I'm just like Diaz and Vukovich [Catcher Bo Diaz and Outfielder George Vukovich who each had four hits the night before]. They're relaxed now because of those hits. I'm going to need the same thing." He hoists the tee apparatus onto his shoulders and heads for the clubhouse, a light sweat trickling down his ruddy face, moistening his auburn mustache. "I don't believe in just swinging my way out of a slump," he says. "I do all this for a purpose. I don't think there's another hitter in the game today who knows himself as well as I do. I just look for checkpoints. I go into a game with a plan."
In the game, despite his earlier tee shots, Schmidt is having more trouble at bat. With Rose on base, he pops up on a checked swing in the first inning, grounds to second with a runner on in the third, reaches base on an infield single in the fifth and then flies out weakly to center in the eighth. The Phillies trail the Padres 2-1 after eight, Philadelphia's only run coming on a Diaz homer.
With two outs in the ninth, rookie Outfielder Bob Dernier, the winning run, is at second with Rose coming up. San Diego Manager Dick Williams orders his lefthanded reliever, Gary Lucas, to walk Rose intentionally to get to the slumping Schmidt. For all of his sagacity, Williams seems to have one blind spot: He likes to pitch to Schmidt when he doesn't have to. Two years ago, when he was managing Montreal, Williams pitched to Schmidt with a runner on first in the 11th inning of a game that would decide the Eastern Division championship of the National League. The hitter after Schmidt, one Don McCormack, had never batted in the major leagues, and he was more or less obliged to bat this time because he was the last available Philadelphia catcher. Schmidt hit a two-run homer that won the division for the Phillies, who then went on to win the pennant and, with Schmidt leading the way, the World Series. The homer in Montreal was one of four Schmidt hit in his last four games of that historic season, and it was his seventh game-winning RBI in a month.
And yet Williams, on this Friday night, elects to take his chances again. He lifts the lefty Lucas and brings in righty Luis DeLeon to pitch to the righthand-hitting Schmidt. The Vet fans, Schmidt lovers all, are screaming encouragement as DeLeon sneaks a slider past their hero for a called strike one. Schmidt fouls off the next pitch, and DeLeon wastes the third one outside. With the count one ball and two strikes, DeLeon tries another slider. It arrives waist high. Schmidt, his bat steady, his shoulder in, comes swiftly around on it and drives it over the leftfield fence for the game-winner. It's the batting tee hitter's fantasy come true. As he rounds the bases, Schmidt holds his hands high above his head. At home plate, he high-fives virtually the entire Phillie team, and when the crowd calls for him, he bounces out of the dugout and joyously waves his cap.
It is an uncommonly emotional display from a man considered by his fans to express a detachment bordering on hauteur. "I haven't seen Schmitty so demonstrative since Montreal in '80," says broadcaster Harry Kalas. "That's as much as he'll do."
After five home run championships, six Gold Gloves and consecutive Most Valuable Player awards in 1980 and '81, Mike Schmidt feels it's time for some public recognition, time for him to be acknowledged as the warm and bright and extraordinarily sensitive person he is, rather than some homer-hitting automaton. Schmidt concedes that if he hasn't been exactly clasped to the public bosom, it's at least partly his fault. "It has always been uncomfortable for me to go out in public," he admits. "I don't like people watching me eat, and if I'm standing in line for a movie, I don't want to be the topic of discussion. I don't like to hear whispering around me. I guess I've become sort of a figure of intrigue. People never see me, so they must wonder, 'What does that guy do? Does he crawl into a hole somewhere?' "
But now, when he sees inferior talent being treated to celebrityhood, his ego, secure as it is, aches just a little. Schmidt found that he actually enjoyed his stint as a colorman with Tony Kubek and Joe Garagiola on a recent NBC Game of the Week broadcast. And, indeed, his amiability, intelligence and keen baseball sense came through to a mass audience, just as it has for years with friends and colleagues. "I'm glad to see him getting over his shyness," his decidedly un-shy teammate, Tug McGraw, has said. "People might have thought of him as aloof, even snobbish before. He's much more outgoing now. You know, he's liked by everyone on the team. I've never heard anyone ever say anything bad about him, and that's unusual, believe me. I know I like him, probably more than he likes me. But then, I like everybody more than they like me."
Mike Schmidt isn't like the rest of us. He tends to examine himself clinically, isolate what he considers a weakness—"Oh my God, how'd that spot get there?"—and then do something about it. If he feels it's time for him to become more of a public person, you may rest assured he will do it. He always does what is needed. He had won three home run titles—and hit four homers in a single game—when he decided three years ago that he had a weakness, his batting average, which had ranged from a low of .196 his rookie year (1972) to a high of .282 his second year. He had become a consistent .250 to .280 hitter, and he didn't like it. He was being stereotyped as just another home run hitter who struck out a lot (180 times in 1975), "a big strong donkey," as his old teammate, Tim McCarver, once identified the species. Schmidt is no more of a donkey than Gato del Sol is. He has a degree in business administration from Ohio University, and he is one of his game's most analytical players. He put his fine mind to work on improving his average.
Now, it's all well and good for a player, a veteran player at that, to say he'll add points to his batting average. But he will usually do it, if he can do it at all, at the expense of his home run output. Schmidt saw no reason why this should be so. "The difference between hitting .270 and .320," he says, "is about one hit a week, maybe 25 for the season. That's 25 more chances to drive in runs, the difference maybe between 100 ribbies and 120. Look at the production George Foster had for Cincinnati in his .300 seasons. That's what I wanted. I decided I'd be displeased with a .260-30-100 year. So right before the 1979 All-Star Game I experimented with standing farther back in the box. I felt that if I adopted a Clemente style, standing well away from the plate, I'd have more time to decide on a pitch. It would also give the pitchers a different look at me, open up all sorts of new possibilities.
"Before, I had a normal stance, not too close, not too far away. The trouble was, I was striding toward the pitch and, in the process, I was opening up my left shoulder. That way, I was strictly a pull hitter, and I was hitting an amazing number of foul balls to leftfield, getting too far out in front of the pitches. I was having trouble with the inside pitch, fouling off potential base hits. By standing farther back and away, I found that it was easier to stride toward the plate, not toward the pitch. By doing this, I was keeping my shoulder tucked in, closed. I created a new area of contact.
"Nobody helped me. I just worked it out for myself. Not everybody has that luxury, of course. I could experiment for two or three weeks and not be afraid of being sat down or sent down to Triple A. Well, as it turned out, it worked for me right away. I've even written a book about it. I credit Charley Lau [now the White Sox batting coach], a man I've never met, with having a lot to do with putting this style of hitting in vogue. I'm using his fundamental approach—looking to hit the ball to all fields. The difference is I don't let the top hand go off the bat. I believe in that top hand. The ideal style for me would be to have Lau's approach, Hank Aaron's top hand and Pete Rose's intensity. The top hand gives the bat acceleration. Look at this."
Schmidt extends his right hand across a luncheon table. There is an ugly knot near the wrist. "It's from that extra twist, the snap," he says. "In September that knot is huge. Look, I'm strong [he won the weightlifting event in his preliminary of this year's Superstars competition]. I work with weights and on the Nautilus, but I'm nowhere near as strong as 15 or 20 other players. In an arm-wrestling competition, I might not even make the top 100. My advantage is bat speed. And that's caused by the top-hand twist. There aren't many players with a faster bat. George Hendrick might be there with me, but not many. There's sure as hell something making the ball go out of the park."
Schmidt hit 45 homers and drove in 114 runs the first year of his stand-back experiment, but he batted only .253 and struck out 115 times. Remember, though, he didn't go to the new stance until nearly mid-season. In 1980 he stayed with it all year and wound up hitting .286, his highest average until then, while leading the league with 48 homers and 121 runs batted in. In the abbreviated 1981 season, the new gears meshed. He hit .316, his first .300 season as a professional, and led the league with 31 homers and 91 RBIs while striking out only 71 times. "People laughed at the thought of my becoming a .300 hitter," he says, having the last laugh. "I knew I could do it. To be honest with you, I feel I can win the batting title." It probably won't be this year though. Injuries slowed his start and at the end of last week he was batting .259, including three home runs and 12 RBIs.
But if Schmidt does win a batting title eventually, he will surprise few of his contemporaries, for he is generally conceded to be baseball's best all-around athlete. He is one of those exasperating humans who are good at any game they try. He has size (6'2", 203 pounds), speed, strength and amazing coordination. Schmidt played football and basketball in high school as well as baseball. He is a fine golfer and tennis player and an expert swimmer. He has won three Superstars preliminaries, but he has twice passed up the finals because of a conflict with spring training. "He's the best athlete I've seen in a baseball uniform," says McGraw. "There's nothing he can't do," says his manager, Pat Corrales. "He could play short or second or anywhere on the field." "There's nobody in baseball who can do all the things Mike Schmidt can do," says Bill Madlock, the Pirates' third baseman. "There are four things you can do in this game—run, hit, field and hit with power, and nobody can do it all except Mike Schmidt."
Graig Nettles notwithstanding, the best defensive third baseman in the game can be Schmidt when he puts his mind to it. But fielding has always come so easily for him that he has a tendency, particularly in the early stages of a game, to "nonchalant" the ball. It's a weakness he, of course, recognizes and plans to correct. Someday.
The defensive Schmidt and the offensive Schmidt, in fact, appear to be opposing individuals. The offensive Schmidt is a calculating technician; the defensive Schmidt is the man on the flying trapeze. His face clouds over when he expounds on the intricacies of contending with the inside pitch; he usually breaks up when talking about his fielding adventures. "I love fielding," he says. "You know how it is when you're a kid. You always like to be tossing a ball around. You like to do things with it—catch it between your legs, behind your back. It's fun. Well, I'm good at fielding because I take it lightly. I just go out there and field. I don't even do things fundamentally right, and I hate infield practice—it's nothing more than pre-game entertainment. But I have a lot more range than anyone else and I'm good at anticipating. For example, I get a lot of runners rounding the bag at third. I'll recognize quickly that I have no chance for the runner at first, but I'll fake there and then catch some poor guy at third with a throw to the shortstop. I win Gold Gloves because I can kill a rally with a great play, make a barehanded stop, do something that really stands out. I have some charisma out there. On defense, I guess you could say I'm something of a flake."
Playing defense gives vent to Schmidt's surprising imagination, his unexpected flair for improvisation. "I sometimes chase my own throws," he says. "Once I threw a ball over second base and just kept going after it. I finally ran it down deep in rightfield. In the '76 playoffs Cesar Geronimo hit a blooper over my head. I chased it all the way to the warning track, and damned if I didn't hit the cutoff man with my throw. In San Diego once, I cut off a ball hit in front of the shortstop, but I couldn't get the damn thing out of my glove. I short-hopped the throw to Pete. Pete was retrieving it when the runner made a motion to go to second. I just kept running to first, yelling at Pete for the ball. He threw it, and I tagged the runner out coming back to the bag—a third baseman making a putout at first! At Shea Stadium I was in the middle of a rundown play that must've lasted seven minutes. I'd never had such fun. We had Lee Mazzilli and John Stearns hung up, and it seemed that just when we were about to get one the other would take off. We kept it going that way. I got so I didn't care if it never ended. Well, somehow, Garry Maddox, our centerfielder, got into it, and he ended up tagging one of the guys—I forget which—out at home. The centerfielder! Oh, I suppose I could break down fielding to as fine a degree as I do hitting, but I've never really felt a need to. Fielding is primarily concentration, anyway. What you have is this little ball bouncing at you."
Schmidt was relaxing in the Phillie dugout before a game at Dodger Stadium when Steve Yeager, the sometime Dodger catcher, stopped by. As major-leaguers Schmidt and Yeager are, well, not in the same league. Yeager is a journeyman of minor distinction; Schmidt is on his way to Cooperstown. But Schmidt is forever a man of surprises. He acted almost deferentially to the Dodger, and Yeager, for his part, seemed condescending to the superstar. The reason for this prince and pauper turnaround is rooted deep in the two players' adolescence.
Yeager, puffing on a cigarette, plopped down on a bench in the dugout. Schmidt sat on a step, his back to the field. He gestured toward the sleepy-eyed catcher. "Right there," he said, "is the best high school athlete I've ever seen—Steve Yeager. We went to different schools in Dayton, Fairview High for me, Meadowdale for him. He was All-State in everything; I was honorable-mention All-City.
"I was your basic late bloomer. I didn't get hair under my arms until after all my buddies. I was a quarterback, but I had two knee operations in high school. Basketball may have been my best sport. I was only a couple down from the best there. I was about the fourth or fifth best baseball player in school—a .250 hitter, and if you don't hit .400 in high school, nobody knows you're alive. I was always the kid with potential. The only time I was really a star was in Little League. After that, I just seemed to be missing something.
"It was drummed into me early that you could only be successful if you had a college education. It was a must. I ended up going to Ohio U. because I wanted to be with a friend, who had a scholarship offer. As it turned out, though, I enrolled, but the other kid never did. At the time I wanted to be an architect. I was a walk-on in two sports. I made the freshman basketball team, but my knees just wouldn't hold up—it's funny, because I've had no problems with them since. So I concentrated on baseball. I finally got a full scholarship my senior year—I was All-America as both a junior and a senior. I was drafted after my senior year, but there wasn't much excitement around me. My father was my agent. We held out for a $37,500 bonus. I was worth more, but I guess you could say I got it back."
Schmidt, 32, and Yeager, 33, reminisced about old times at Dayton, the guys they hung out with, the girls they dated, the fate of both in the years since. It was a complicated gavotte they danced, the athlete successful in maturity deferring to the one whose star shone most brightly when both were young and impressionable. It's the same sort of thing that happens at reunions. The old hero is really the only hero for those who remember.
"I'll be back in the lineup in a day or two," Schmidt told Yeager, treating his injury as if it were ordinary, which it wasn't. By the sheer force of his batting swing, Schmidt had pulled a muscle on his left side so violently in an April 13 game against the Mets that it had torn away a piece of bone in the rib cage. Phillies trainer Jeff Cooper says it was an instance of a muscle being stronger than the bone. It is an injury that, with few exceptions, can occur only among persons of extraordinary upper body strength.
After a while, Yeager gave a friendly wave and sauntered over to his own side of the diamond, his minor status bolstered by this revivifying brush with his past. A part of Yeager will always see Schmidt as the kid from Fairview who didn't quite have it.
Schmidt looked bemused for a moment, reflecting perhaps on this reversal of roles. Although Schmidt is considered a quiet person, he can be positively garrulous. But this was simply one of those moments when he chose to silently organize his thoughts. "I look for the good things in everything that happens to me," he said after a few contemplative moments. "You know that I also broke a toe on my left foot in spring training. A foul ball hit right on top of it. So with the rib, that's two broken bones on the same side of the body in two weeks. I admit I was down. But nothing like a depression ever sank in. I think all of this happened for a reason. There were some positive things, after all. As a spectator, I got a different perspective on the game. I found myself watching like a manager. Then, before you know it, I'm on network television proving that I have some things to say about my game. And because I got hurt, there are some young guys on our team playing in the big leagues who might not have had a chance otherwise. The good doesn't always have to happen to me."
Schmidt became a born-again Christian in January of 1977. "He didn't see firecrackers going off or the heavens open up," says his friend and spiritual counselor, Pat Williams, the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers. "I think he just had an itching inside and he didn't know how to scratch it. He's a complex person in many ways, a unique person. He was a young guy, blustering on the outside, scared to death inside. Mike is a seeker, a thinker. There was something about life he couldn't get a handle on. He started attending our baseball chapel meetings. He wanted to learn more about the Bible. He did some reading. Then, in time and after a lot of thought, he made his decision."
"I was a materialistic person," says Schmidt. "I was floating along. Nothing but good things had happened to me. I was the highest-paid player in the National League—this was 1977—and third behind Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson in all of baseball. If something went wrong, I'd go out and trade the Corvette in for a Mercedes. Then one day that winter I was shooting baskets outside our house and I just stopped and asked myself, 'Why me?' It occurred to me that I had no idea how these things happened in life. I knew there had to be more.
"I was basically non-religious growing up. Sure, I signed 'Protestant' on forms asking for my religious affiliation. But I had no foundation, except to succeed. I realized suddenly I was afraid of failure. I had a lot of trouble dealing with pressure. I'd go up and squeeze that bat and say, 'I've got to get a hit or 50,000 people will boo me,' or, 'I've got to get a hit or I'll lose that contract.' I was missing the point. Now I can't wait to face challenges. If I fail now I know I've failed only in the sense of making an out. But I've been successful in accepting the challenge and meeting it. I know all of this is easy for me to say. I'm making a couple of million a year. If I were working in my father's soda fountain, it might not be so easy. I'm not going to tell anyone how they should live their lives, although by example I hope I'm teaching someone something. I don't really know if what I was searching for was some kind of strength. I don't think that's it. I think I'm just trying to find out what makes me tick. Finding that out can't help but make me a better person. I feel blessed beyond belief in this life—my wife, my children. How does my wife feel? Well, there is no one who does more good than she, but she's still questioning things. For me, the questions are answered."
A man, particularly one so locked into a man's world, can best be defined by his women. Schmidt is singularly blessed here, too. He and Donna Schmidt live now in a vaguely Old French country house outside Media, Pa., some 40 minutes from Veterans Stadium. Visitors enter their property through an iron gate. They drive down a gently sloping driveway that circles a green lawn and a graceful fountain. The house, which overlooks a reservoir, has six bedrooms and is situated in a grove of hickory, poplar and blossoming dogwood. The Schmidts have two children, a daughter, Jessica, 3, and a son, Jonathon, 1½.
"Michael and I met at the Stouffer's hotel in Valley Forge," she says. "I answered an ad there for a girl five feet ten who would be willing to work in costume as a doorman. Sounded good to me. I'd been working as a commercial artist in a bad neighborhood in Philadelphia, and before that I'd been singing with a folk group. It turned out the costume was about a size three, so they asked me if I'd ever worked as a cocktail waitress. I hadn't, but I said, 'Sure.' Michael came in one day after playing golf with Steve Carlton and some others. He asked me for my autograph. That's the first time I'd heard of that move. Three weeks later we were engaged. And I'd never even gone steady before. That was nine years ago, and they said it wouldn't last.
"We were a musical family. Dad used to play trombone in some of the big bands, Mom played the piano at home and we all sang. I sang in all the church choirs and the school talent shows—I must've done The Girl from Ipanema 50 times. Finally I hooked up with a folk group from Penn State. We played all the college campuses in western Pennsylvania. But my voice finally gave out.
"Michael and I were going to get married in Puerto Rico, where he was playing winter ball, but I think the language barrier got in the way. We went to the traffic bureau instead of the marriage license bureau. Needless to say, there was some confusion about that. We were finally married in Michael's family's living room in Dayton. I didn't know a single soul at the reception. It's funny, but at the time I think I was making more money than Michael. Either that, or I was spending less. At any rate, I certainly had more.
"We're a nice blend. I scream and yell and Michael calms me down. He's very organized—knows how to put the bucket under the drip. And I think I've made him more affectionate, more understanding of women.
"We were told we could never have children, and we consider ourselves very fortunate that we did have them, because they've brought us even closer together. Both births were cesarean, and Michael was in the delivery room both times. He's wholeheartedly into fatherhood—changes diapers, baby-sits, the works. But of course he has to be on the road, and when he is, the loneliness is a killer for me. Every noise in the night in this big house seems a little louder. And I'm so conscious of the little moments in the children's lives he's missing."
Jessica climbs onto her mother's lap carrying The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a book Donna inscribed at the time of the child's birth: "I hope you enjoy this as much as I did." She reads a passage, then sends the little girl off to play downstairs.
"He's always been Michael to me," she says, "not Schmitty. I don't understand the infatuation of fans. I don't understand all that jumping up and down when they see him. And why would anyone want an autograph? Once, when he came out of a game, this girl was standing outside the stadium just shaking and crying. 'My God,' I said, 'what's wrong with her?' There have been times when girls have been hanging all over him while I'm standing right there. That's why we're not very public. It drives me crazy. It makes you feel like an animal in a cage. And I take offense at being a celebrity because of him. I like to think that I was a celebrity of sorts before him. Thank God we've got our little fortress here.
"As for religion, I think people should always have questions. That's why I'm bothered by the born-again people sometimes. I was raised a Christian. I taught Bible school. I know how I feel in my heart. But I still have questions. And yet I know Michael's Christianity goes very deep. He is such a very kind person. I think his acceptance of Christianity has given him an awareness of life that had been missing. He cares about things now. He wants to help people. He's got himself involved in all sorts of charitable things, things that help the underprivileged. I think that before, some of his sports heroes and friends were the pits morally. And you should have seen his list of girlfriends before he married me. You know, I never understood why he married me. He was so popular he could have had anyone he wanted. But I think he paid me the nicest compliment I've ever had. He said I reminded him of his mother."
In Dayton, Jack Schmidt, proprietor of Jack's Drive In, is the "Schmitty" in town. His son, the famous ballplayer, is simply "Mike." Jack's Drive In adjoins the Philipps Aquatic Club, which, in one manifestation or another, has been operated by Mike's mother's family for more than a hundred years. The club, which includes two pools, a sauna, whirlpool, basketball courts and picnic tables, is the true family business. Mike worked there from age eight to 18 as a pool cleanup boy, ice-cream scooper and finally as a dollar-an-hour lifeguard. "There wasn't anything I didn't have," he recalls. "My mom and dad provided for me and provided for me well. If I wanted a new glove, I got it. I saved my money and my dad went in with me on a car. It was a Midwestern middle-class upbringing, but you could never tell me we were just middle class. I felt very privileged."
Dayton's city limit signs advise visitors that this is the BIRTHPLACE OF AVIATION. A city that has Orville and Wilbur Wright to boast of cannot be expected to get overly exercised about a ballplayer. Besides, as any citizen will tell you, "This is Reds country." One of the most fervent Reds rooters was, in fact, Mike's late grandmother on his father's side—"Grandma Me"—who tailored her grandson's uniforms to resemble Cincinnati's when he was growing up in hopes he might one day hit his homers for the home team. Still, with all this, Dayton did give Mike a Day after the Phillies won the '80 World Series and the native son was voted the Series' Most Valuable Player. "I was just driving down Main Street when it hit me," says Mike's mom, Lois. "There it was on the marquee at the Convention Center: MIKE SCHMIDT DAY. It seemed weird somehow. This town doesn't get very excited about anything."
Lois Schmidt was born and raised and has lived all of her 56 years in Dayton. "I have such a strong hold on my beginnings because I never left them," she says. "That's why it's hard for me to believe that anyone can go away, as Mike has."
She motors up woody Pinecrest Drive to the fine brick house Mike Schmidt was raised in. The Ridgecrest Playground is behind the houses across the street. "Mike was the easiest child to raise," she says. "He was just a good kid. The only trouble I ever had with him was getting him home from playing ball for a meal. He'd always want that one more time at bat. See how close that playground is. I'd stand on this porch and bellow at him. All the mothers in the neighborhood did the same with their kids. It was a chorus of bellows."
Until the birth of the grandchildren, Mike's bedroom was preserved as "The Shrine," as family friends called it. Now it's a small child's room again, the trophies replaced by toys. Family photographs reveal four strong, handsome Schmidts—Mike has a sister, Sally, four years younger, who is married and still lives in Dayton. "Schmitty—that's Mike's dad—and I have known each other since we were both in fourth grade," Lois says. "And we wonder why we never have anything to say to each other anymore. Schmitty was a super jock in high school, a really good end. But he went into the Navy in 1944 the day after graduation and that was that. The war, you know. He had to go to work afterward. Schmitty is such an inward man. He's very quiet. When Mike was playing Little League, he'd never sit in the stands with the other parents. He'd just find a tree somewhere and sit quietly under it by himself and watch. I think Mike's an awful lot like him. They're both the kind who when they have something to say, you listen. Me, I'm very outgoing. I still run that club with three other women about my age—we're just four old broads making a living. If Mike has any ham in him—and he does—he gets it from me. Mike was always a good storyteller. He'd come home from a movie and tell us all about it. If he has something to say, he can go on and on."
She switches on a video tape of Mike's Game of the Week broadcast, as Jack Schmidt, "Schmitty," strides in. The Schmidts, father and son, have large heads and heavy shoulders, the buffalo look. "Shot a 78," he tells his wife. "Not bad for an old man. Mike's a better golfer than I am, though." He retreats to the bathroom to "wash up." Mrs. Schmidt smiles after him. "The children always respected that man," she says. "He had his way of keeping them in place. Not long ago some television guy asked Schmitty what he thought about his famous son. 'We-ell,' said Schmitty, 'he's a good son, a good husband, a good father and a good ballplayer—in that order.' " She interrupts her own laugh with an aside. "I think Donna does for Mike what his father did for him when he was a child. She's his biggest critic. For all he's done, Mike's still trying to impress her."
What can you say about a man who has everything—youth, health, talent, money, a loving family? Mike Schmidt even has a model train collection. Not just your ordinary on-the-beaten-track collection, mind you. No, special German-manufactured LGB trains worth several thousand dollars that circulate through an Alpine village Schmidt has constructed in the attic of his house. He will retreat there in the dead of night with his chewing tobacco and his radio and work until the early morning on this, his play world. The little railroad town of his imagination may never be finished, because Mike Schmidt is forever a builder. He took a career only he found fault with and built it into something better. He is taking a life that looks near perfect and is treating it as if it were a rehabilitation project.
"I never look at myself as a hero," he says. "I look at myself as someone who has been overloaded with blessings. Part of my return for that is to do as much good as I can. I try to stay active in community projects. It is imperative for me to create a good example. I could be a drinker and a hell-raiser—actually, I'll have a few beers with the guys on the road—but it's important to me that I'm not. I won't go to places where you'll see me talking with a bunch of women. I think of it this way: If a kid has a Mike Schmidt poster in his bedroom, I'd want his parents to be happy as hell about it." The devout Christian laughs at this incongruous blasphemy. "I want them to be happy, anyway. I mean, that's what I really have to give in return for the incredible beauty of my life."
A DEVASTATING DECADE
1. Mike Schmidt, Phillies
2. Reggie Jackson, Angels
3. Dave Kingman, Mets
4. George Foster, Mets
5. Greg Luzinski, White Sox
6. Jim Rice, Red Sox
7. Graig Nettles, Yankees
7. Johnny Bench, Reds
9. John Mayberry, Yankees
10. Ron Cey, Dodgers