It is rare that a team goes from last place one year to the thick of the pennant fight the next. That is just what Philadelphia has done in the National League East, but the Phillies' abrupt turnabout is hardly the most unusual reversal of form at Veterans Stadium this season. What is, is the metamorphosis of redheaded third baseman and overnight big bat Mike Schmidt, whose sudden prowess at the plate is perhaps the main reason for the Phillies' success.
Last year as a rookie, Schmidt played in 132 games, struck out in 37.1% of his at bats and hit .196. That was the worst average among big-league regulars. This season Schmidt is batting .313 and has amassed so many home runs (25), RBIs (87), runs (75) and walks (72) that he is threatening to lead the league in all those departments.
That kind of comeback, or come-to, has probably happened about as often as anybody has singled off a ceiling fixture. Schmidt has done that, too. On June 10 he hit the only ball ever to bounce off the public-address speaker suspended 117 feet above the Astrodome playing floor, 340 feet from the plate. In the process, Schmidt turned what would have been a three-run homer into a single that left both base runners so stunned that they forgot to score. In Schmidt's honor, the speaker has since been raised 56 feet.
"I can actually sit here and tell you that I haven't had a real lucky year," Schmidt says truthfully, despite his bulging statistics. To attain them, he not only has had to overcome ill fate, he has had to move his nose and learn to concentrate on relaxing. Considering all that, it is indeed impressive that he has become a premier hitter.
Standing in the right-handed batters' box, Schmidt does not look all that powerful, but under his uniform there is a 6'2", 200-pound, pro running-back build. He must continually remind himself, "I know I'm young and strong." In fact, he is so muscular that the ball jumps off his bat if he merely meets it with his natural, easy downswing.
Last year Schmidt was swinging too hard, pulling away from the pitch and trying to jerk everything over the left-field fence. He did hit 18 homers, but Manager Danny Ozark had so little faith in him that once, with first and second open and a man on third, Ozark had the runner break for the plate on a grounder hit directly at the third baseman. The man was thrown out easily, and the manager explained his unorthodox tactics by saying, "Schmidt was the next hitter and he strikes out a lot."
This year Ozark cannot wait for Schmidt to come up. The third baseman from Dayton, Ohio has worked his way from eighth in the order to third. During June, before wary pitchers started walking him, he seemed to be driving in Larry Bowa and Dave Cash every time they reached base, which was often. He had 32 RBIs for the month.
If Ozark did not much care for Schmidt's aptitude last year, he liked his attitude even less. A day seldom passed when Mike was not in the manager's office receiving instruction on one of the finer points of the game, such as what to do when the manager comes out to the mound. "I'd stand thereat third with my arms folded," says Schmidt. "That's just my nature. I know what he's going to say; why should I walk, to the mound? But there has to be some static around a losing team. So it was around me. This year we're winning. I have the same attitude, but nobody says anything. The difference is that I'm getting one hit every three or four times at bat, compared to one every five."
Schmidt does concede that his attitude helped drag him down under .200 last year. Toward the end of the season he felt he had been robbed of a hit by the official scorer. "I wasn't mature enough not to let it bother me and I went through a deep slump," he now says. "It wasn't like I was an under-.200 hitter all year. But I admit I was giving the pitchers too much credit. I had to realize that I'm as good as those guys."
In Schmidt's locker there is now a plaque decoupaged by his mother that bears Yogi Berra's famous plaint: HOW CAN YOU THINK AND HIT AT THE SAME TIME? Although Schmidt has done some serious thinking about his hitting—one thing he figured out was that he had been drawing so far back before he swung that his right eye could see only his nose, so he adjusted his stance to face the pitcher more—he has also taken his mother's hint and learned to "center my concentration on the whole theory of relaxing."
By taking the pressure off himself, Schmidt has laid it squarely on the pitchers. Even though he considered himself to be in a mini-slump last week, he hit five homers, three in games against the Cardinals, the Phils' main rivals in the division race. And when the long hits did not come in a game with Montreal, he used his speed to beat out an eighth-inning infield single to briefly tie a tight game that the Phillies eventually lost 3-2.
"Before this season I figured my game was 80 RBIs and 20 to 25 home runs a year," Schmidt says. "All of a sudden I find out I can hit .300 and that a load of runs and RBIs come with an average like that. Now I think I can hit more than .300. I think maybe .340 or .350."
As they say everywhere but in the Astrodome, the sky is the limit.