Connect The Dots... Kindred Spirits

With Pat Burrell mired in a major slump, thoughts drift back to an earlier time when a now Hall of Famer was in a similar kind of fog and found a great way to smash the skid. Pat Burrell may have found that the same kind of cure can work for him Tuesday night with the Phillies first game of the season at Shea Stadium. Is it a miracle cure or a temporary pain killer?

It is probably no coincidence that current Phillies slugger Pat Burrell took an instant liking to retired Phillies slugger Mike Schmidt, and vice versa. You see, these two have so much in common that it would seem that they are kindred spirits, each filled with the same talents, dreams, expectations and demons that only the best and most wonderfully skilled performers possess. And as Pat Burrell embarks this week on what he hopes will be a slump breaking trek into his favorite hitting playpen, Shea Stadium in New York against the Mets, it might be a good time to take a walk down memory lane to another time, and another slump, and the day that Michael Jack Schmidt emerged from that slump.

To say that there is much in common between Schmidt and Burrell is to only state the obvious. Both are powerfully built athletes, Schmidt is 6'2" and played at 195, while Burrell is a little taller and a littler heavier, but each with the chiseled body of a man who cares deeply about how he looks on the ball field. And to call them athletic, one must go no further than to see the position they played. Schmidt was merely the greatest all around 3rd baseman of all time, and certainly one of the finest defensively. Burrell, played 3rd base in college and was an All-American. You cannot play 3rd base and not be a great athlete, it is one of the few places where you are rewarded for being reactive.

We live in a world where being proactive or active is encouraged and applauded but only a 3rd baseman makes his living by being reactive...reacting to a screaming line drive, a slow hit topper down the line, a bunt that stops half way up the line, or the dreaded shot headed for the left field corner. Yes, only a 3rd baseman gets applause for being reactive, and it takes a great athlete to consistently react well.

Another similarity is their power, it is widely believed by most Phillie historians that Schmidt's club HR record of 548 will stand the test of time, unless one Patrick Burrell takes aim at it, some 10-12 years down the line. Oh, Burrell has that kind of power, it is expected that when he finally reach his potential that 40+ home run seasons will be the norm, with 50 not out of the realm of possibility. Clearly, the expectation level is high, and here is where the double-edged sword comes into play.

Both Schmidt and Burrell play to an expectant crowd and when they fail to meet those expectations, it is a difficult proposition to deal with. Schmidt lived with this his entire career and Burrell is learning to live with it now. So, given all these similarities, it is not surprising that Schmidt and Burrell get along so well. They understand the ups and downs of being a star player in Philadelphia, and they understand the successes and slumps that come with this stardom. And it is about these slumps and how they end that is our story.

Michael Jack Schmidt will willingly acknowledge that there were many players who strongly influenced his play. However, if he were asked to name only 3, the list would not last long without the names Dave Cash, Dick Allen and Pete Rose coming from his lips. For it was these three individuals that helped with the evolution of a talented but erratic player, capable of wildly fluctuating performances to the greatest player in Philadelphia Phillies history. Dave Cash convinced Schmidt that he was not good but very good, Allen convinced Schmidt that he was not merely very good but great, and Rose convinced Schmidt that he was not merely great...but the best.

However, the best was hardly what Schmidt was thinking about as he entered the Wrigley Filed clubhouse on a windy day in April for a game against the Cubs in 1976. For Schmidt and the Phillies, expectations (there is that word again!) were high this season, the acquisitions of pitchers Jim Kaat and Ron Reed, a full exhibition season for Dick Allen, and the continued maturation of young stars like Greg Luzinski, Dave Cash, Larry Bowa, Garry Maddox.... and one Michael Jack Schmidt promised the faithful in Philly a strong season, maybe even an Eastern Division title. But for Schmidt and the Phillies, the start had been slow, the Phils had lost 3 of their first 4 games, including two to the rival Pittsburgh Pirates at the Vet, and lost their starting catcher, Johnny Oates in the process. For Schmidt it was a dreadful start, his average was barely above .100 and he had taken extra batting practice the day before, a rare Friday off day for the team. So as the Schmidt and the team took the field this day, with aces Steve Carlton of the Phillies opposing Rick Reuschel of the Cubs, the Phils and Schmidt hoped for a turn in fortune. It would happen today.... though it did not appear that way for the longest time. It is a well-worn baseball truism that a game is never over till the final out, that no lead is safe, and that the beauty of baseball is that it is the rare sport that is not controlled by the clock.... but by the players. Twenty-seven outs are needed, a nice tidy number, and until you get them, the game plays on.

True enough, when the Phils looked at the scoreboard after the 4th inning and the score read 13-2 Cubs, those previously mentioned baseball truisms seemed only faintly relevant. It was against this baseball backdrop that Schmidt was about to enter Baseball's Twilight Zone, a place few players ever enter, but have no trouble describing when they leave it. It is a zone where the senses take over…the mind and body are mere by products, with the senses being in full command. It is a magical place to be, and one that Schmidt was about to enter.

Dick Allen told Scmidt in the dugout to just go out and have some fun, and play some old fashioned hardball. It began simply enough, with a 2 run home run in the 5th to make the score 13-4. When Schmidt followed with a solo HR as part of a 3 run 7th inning the score became a more respectable 13-7, still a long ways from Cooperstown. However, in the 8th inning, a 2 run single by Allen proceeded another Schmidt blast, his 3rd of the day, and suddenly the score was 13-12, Cubs. The Wrigley faithful were beginning to sense that they were watching baseball history unfold, and that they were becoming the unwitting victims. When catcher Bob Boone, playing because of the injury to Oates, homered to start the 9th, the score was suddenly deadlocked at 13. A single by Bobby Tolan, a triple by Larry Bowa and a squeeze bunt by Jay Johnstone gave the Phillies a 15-13 lead entering the bottom of the 9th.

However, this was not just to be a day for fantastic finishes, but a day when Schmidt carved his name into baseball history. His buddy, Tug McGraw, had to do his part, and he did, by allowing the Cubs to rally and tie the game at 15 entering the 10th. This was the inning that began the legend of Mike Schmidt as he hit HR #4, a 2 run blast into the Wrigley Field bleachers as part of a 3 run inning, good enough to withstand a solo run in the bottom of the 10th by the Cubs, and an incredible 18-16 victory.

For the Phillies, it is still the greatest comeback in their history, overcoming an 11 run deficit. But for Mike Schmidt it was oh so much more….. it was his coming out party…. to the tune of 4 HR and 8 RBI.

You can name many sluggers in baseball lores....Mickey Mantle, Harmon Killebrew, Frank Robinson, Barry Bonds, even the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth, who NEVER did what Schmidt did on that cold windy day in Chicago, 27 years ago. It elevated him to heights he never dreamed of when he was drafted in the 2nd round after an All-American career in college. And it all started after a slump.....albeit a short one.

And this story brings us back to 2003, and Shea Stadium...and one Pat Burrell. For like Schmidt, Burrell is encased in a slump, and like Schmidt then, his place in the middle of the order is in jeopardy. Indeed, many fans are calling for his benching. It would do well for those fans to think back to that day in Wrigley Field, when Mike Schmidt elevated his game from very good to great. It came suddenly and swiftly, almost without warning. It came when his talent and potential converged into one. It is something that will happen to Burrell. Oh, maybe not to the tune of a 4 HR game, but the convergence will be clear enough. And apparent when it happens.

Maybe it will be in Shea Stadium against the Mets, maybe at Olympic Stadium against the Expos, maybe at home against the Mariners, Pirates or those same Cubs who entered Schmidt's Twilight Zone. But it will happen.... it has to! After all – remember - Schmidt and Burrell are forever entwined as kindred spirits.

Columnist's Note: Mail, I get mail, and it is always appreciated. If you have a comment, question or suggestion for a topic, kindly e-mail me at connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond!


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