On days between starts, righthander Jason Schmidt likes to pass
the time in the San Francisco Giants' dugout by chewing three
pieces of Bazooka (one regular, two sugarless), blowing a portly
pink bubble and sticking it on an unsuspecting person's cap. The
gag, of course, is to see how long the wad of gum goes undetected
by the victim. Three weeks ago, during a desultory 7-3 win over
the Oakland A's, a bubble lasted an astonishing 7 1/2 innings
atop the hat of third base coach Gene Glynn's 17-year-old son,
Gino, who was in the dugout serving as bat boy. Gino swiped it
off, to raucous applause from fans in several sections of box
seats who could see into the dugout, only after he saw himself on
SBC Park's centerfield Jumbotron. ¬∂ "You've got to make sure it's
a nice, firm bubble that's not going to pop," explains Schmidt,
who sneaks up on his prey from behind. "Sometimes I'll put it on
the bill, because so many guys know my routine. They feel the top
of their hats, but they never feel the bill, and it can stay
there all night."
He giggles. "Gene Glynn's kid. That was a good one. Almost a
Schmidt is a 31-year-old with a six-year-old's sense of humor.
(He has two kids of his own: Makynlee, 3, and Mason, five
months.) He plies his slapstick with joy buzzers, electrified
Coke cans and a remote-controlled flatulence noisemaker. He
arrives at the ballpark early so he can leave an exploding
ballpoint pen on the clubhouse pass list. Pitching coach Dave
Righetti is fairly certain that Schmidt is responsible for the
Playboy subscription that began arriving at his house last
season. (With a cat-who-ate-the-canary grin, Schmidt denies it.)
Schmidt watches Jackass and Punk'd and envies the shows' stars.
"They've got unlimited time, unlimited resources," he says.
Every fifth day, however, Schmidt quits making his teammates look
foolish and hangs kick me signs on opposing hitters instead. By
throwing seeds past the Colorado Rockies for eight innings of a
4-0 Giants win last Saturday night at Coors Field, Schmidt earned
his 12th consecutive victory (a pair of one-hitters among them)
and pushed his record to 12-2, best in the National League; his
2.35 ERA and 9.83 strikeouts per nine innings both ranked third
in the NL. Said Rockies manager Clint Hurdle afterward, "He's got
the Cy Young in his crosshairs."
"His consistency and dominance is what I've seen from guys like
Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson," says Giants first baseman J.T.
Snow. "You find yourself expecting to win when he's out there,
and that's what a Number 1 is supposed to be."
An undistinguished, unhappy starter on a last-place team when
the Pittsburgh Pirates sent him to San Francisco at the 2001
trade deadline--in parts of seven big league seasons with the
Atlanta Braves and Pirates he was 49-53 with a 4.58 ERA--Schmidt
made an about-face and established himself as an ace. "It was
like I started my career again," he says. "I felt rejuvenated."
And the move to capacious Pac Bell Park suited his extreme fly
ball tendency. (His career ERA there is 2.38, compared with 4.28
in other parks.) As a Giant, Schmidt has gone 49-16 with a 2.81
ERA that ranks second in the majors over that period, behind
only Pedro Martinez's 2.60; his 1.07 walks and hits per inning
pitched and 9.33 strikeouts per nine innings rank fourth and
Schmidt has gone from a nibbler who depended on breaking stuff in
crucial situations to a blunt, straightforward hoss. The 6'5"
205-pounder relies almost exclusively on a fastball that reaches
97 mph as easily in the ninth inning as it does in the first and
a hard, biting high-80s changeup that mimics (and is often
mistaken for) a splitter. Schmidt went to the fastball, which he
has thrown about 75% of the time in recent starts, largely
because of Benito Santiago, who caught Schmidt in 2003 before
signing as a free agent with the Kansas City Royals after the
season. Contrary to Schmidt, who keeps video of all his
appearances on a laptop and scrutinizes himself and the hitters
he'll face, Santiago keeps it simple. In Schmidt's case that
meant a steady supply of gas.
"Benito liked fastballs," Schmidt says. "A lot of times I'd be
struggling, wouldn't know what to throw a guy, and he'd put down
fastball. I'd think, Well, this is the time I'd really like to
throw something else. But I'd throw the fastball and get the guy
out. I found out what kind of pitcher I was."
Besides attacking with his heater, which he can locate anywhere,
Schmidt last season developed the confidence to use his changeup
in any count situation. The change dates to his days in
Pittsburgh, where pitching coach Pete Vuckovich, while goofing
around one day, showed Schmidt a dry spitball--a trick pitch
gripped seamless, like a true spitter, but without the
saliva--that dived sharply out of Schmidt's hand. Schmidt tried
throwing his changeup with the same grip and saw a noticeably
bigger break than his circle change had. He kept tweaking the
grip until he could throw the change hard, with the same motion
as his fastball, while inducing the ball to dive out of the
strike zone. It is the hardest changeup in baseball; in terms of
break and velocity only Eric Gagne's split-change comes close.
Schmidt became dependent on those two pitches not merely because
of their effectiveness but also because last July, after a check
swing left him with excruciating elbow pain, an MRI revealed that
he had a tear in his right flexor tendon. "My initial reaction
was that it was the end of his season," says Giants trainer Stan
Conte. But what would happen, Schmidt wondered, if he continued
pitching? He would not put his arm in long-term danger, Schmidt
was told, but the club's medical staff figured that the pain
would soon force him to shut down. "We basically held our breath
every time he pitched," Conte says. Schmidt scrapped his slider
and curve, which caused too much elbow pain, gritted his teeth
and finished the season 17-5 with a 2.34 ERA, capping his year
with a three-hit shutout of the Marlins in the Division Series.
"He wasn't losing a lot of velocity, he wasn't getting tired at
the end of games," Righetti says. "It was a little
His arm strengthened by surgery last October, Schmidt has become
the staff's workhorse. He averages 115 pitches per start, tops in
the majors, and bails out an otherwise middling rotation whose
ERAs float from Dustin Hermanson's 4.40 to Kirk Rueter's 4.99
(chart). "Without him," says manager Felipe Alou, whose club was
51-42 and trailed the Los Angeles Dodgers by 2 1/2 games at
week's end, "our bullpen would be in the hospital."
Schmidt also keeps everybody in stitches. In his locker at SBC
Park rests a cardboard box with several hundred dollars' worth of
gags. The most sophisticated, the fart machine, is usually
deployed against rookies or recent call-ups after a performance
that merits postgame media attention. "I'll hide it somewhere in
his locker and wait for the reporters to ask, 'How do you feel?'
and then hit it," Schmidt says. "You keep hitting it after the
questions, make sure they can't say a word."
Schmidt, an eighth-round draft choice by the Braves in 1991 out
of Kelso (Wash.) High, cut his chops in Atlanta's minor league
system, interning at Triple A Richmond in '95 under coach Glenn
Hubbard, a screwball himself. To kill time in airports Schmidt
would drag dollar bills around on fishing lines and glue coins to
the floor. He'd grab a few teammates, and they'd load up with
large orders of McDonald's fries, then take pratfalls at the end
of moving walkways. In Pittsburgh he procured the e-mail
addresses of newspaper columnists who had ripped the team and
used a friend's program to spam them unmercifully.
As Schmidt was disclosing his tricks to a reporter last week in
the visitors' clubhouse at Coors Field, he noticed that on the
chair in front of his locker was a small, oblong package swathed
in Bubble Wrap. Suspicious, he turned to Hermanson in the
adjacent cubicle and asked, "Did you put this here?" Poker-faced,
Hermanson said no. With the wariness of a bomb-sniffing dog,
Schmidt scanned the room, picked up the bundle, shook it and
frowned. "Feels squishy," he said. Gingerly, he unwrapped it and
peeked inside to find ... his wristwatch, which he had left
behind at Minute Maid Park in Houston after the All-Star Game and
which had been FedExed back to him.
A bit sheepish, he laughed about being overly cautious and said,
"I've become a target now."
A CUT BELOW
Jason Schmidt has had a Cy Young-caliber season, and he's done so
while the rest of the Giants' rotation has scuffled. Here are the
starters who have stood out the most in their respective
rotations this year, ranked by the difference between their own
ERAs and those of their teams' other starters combined (ERA
qualifiers only; one inning per team game played).
PITCHER, TEAM ERA STARTERS' ERA DIFF.
JOE KENNEDY 3.95 6.90 2.95
RANDY JOHNSON 2.84 5.66 2.82
AL LEITER 2.24 4.56 2.32
JASON SCHMIDT 2.35 4.50 2.15
BEN SHEETS 2.28 4.25 1.97