CD's Connect the Dots...From Par Four To Ball Four

Perhaps no Phillie player conjures up memories like Mike Schmidt. Many remember the unadulterated joy he displayed as he did a jig around the bases after hitting home run number 500 in Pittsburgh. Or the four home runs he hit in Wrigley Field in a wild 18-16 win. Maybe it's the view of him jumping on the shoulders of Tug McGraw after the 1980 World Series. Mine is a bit different and indicates why I think he has the ingredients to become a fine baseball manager.

The image is ingrained clearly in my mind and is still the most vivid memory I have of Michael Jack Schmidt and his tenure as the greatest player in Philadelphia Phillies history. It happened during the 1980 playoffs, and not during one of the bright moments that so defined that team. Rather it occurred during perhaps the darkest moment of that season. The moment filled Phils fans with images of disappointments past, from the collapse of 1964 to Black Friday in 1977.

After playoff failures in 1976, ‘77 and ‘78 and an injury wrecked non-playoff run in 1979, the Phils were once again poised for an opportunity to finally achieve a taste of World Series history when they took on the Houston Astros in 1980. The series was tied 1-1 in what was then a best of five-playoff tilt.

The Phils and Astros were locked in a scoreless dual entering the bottom of the tenth inning of Game Three when the Astros had a runner at third base with no outs. Then came the Schmidt moment I still remember clearly. Dennis Walling hit a fly ball to left field. Greg Luzinski caught the ball and fluttered his throw hopelessly home. Schmidt caught the throw and wildly attempted to get pinch runner Rafael Landestoy at the plate.

As Astros fans went wild and the Phils players dejectedly walked off the field, a single solitary player remained transfixed on the diamond. It was Schmidt, bent at the waist, with his hands on his knees, standing near third base. Many writers thought Schmidt was lost in his thoughts, envisioning still another fruitless pursuit of a pennant that seemed like an impossible dream.

In fact, Schmidt said that he was waiting and hoping that an umpire might indicate that Landestoy had left third base too soon and an appeal play might allow the game to continue. At this lowest of moments, the absolute Death Valley of the 1980 season, Mike Schmidt, ever the thinking man's ballplayer, was still thinking.

This play, my Michael Jack "Kodak Moment", indicates why this writer believes he will make an effective manager in his new post as skipper of the Clearwater Phillies in the Florida State League.

In an announcement that surprised some and confused others, the Phils on Wednesday announced the hiring of Schmidt for the post of manager in Clearwater beginning in 2004. Many were surprised that Schmidt would surrender his beloved golf game for the seeming tedious work of managing young players, most of whom will never see Citizens Bank Park except as spectators.

For those too young to have seen Schmidt play, he was always a controversial figure, the proverbial enigma, wrapped in an often-confused box of contradictions. Talented, head strong and opinionated, he seemed constantly at odds with his ability, as if he never truly grasped the hold he had on the Philadelphia public. Make no mistake about it, he was clearly the greatest third baseman who ever lived, a man built for power, grace and speed.

Power? At a time when home runs truly meant something, Schmidt hit 548, and would be a candidate for 700 if he played in today's game.

Grace? He was a shortstop in college, could have played second base, and was a human vacuum cleaner at third base during his tenure with the Phils.

Speed? There were few players more capable of going from first to third on a base hit than Schmidt and he stole bases like few other power hitters until the ravages of a bad knee took away his ability to steal a base.

Yet his cat-quick reflexes and understanding of the complexities of the game never left him. In fact, when he realized he was losing those skills he retired. Not at the end of a season, but rather at the end of a road trip, when the joy and passion of playing the game had eroded to the point where the game had become a job.

After Schmidt left the Phils in 1988, he and the team became involved in a bitter divorce, so at odds were the two about the future role he should play with the organization. He wanted a front office job, and the Phils felt he talents were better suited for the baseball diamond, be it coach or manager. The split seemed acrimonious and final.

His competitive nature took him to the golf course where he had always been skilled and talented. In fact, he made it an announced goal to enter the Professional Tour, a goal that remained largely unanswered for 15 years. Occasionally, he would reappear in Philadelphia, though his visits were short and often not so sweet.

Finally, a new era began to take shape when Larry Bowa was hired as manager of the Phils in 2001. Past players were once again welcomed and encouraged to become part of the Phillies family again. Players like Steve Carlton, Richie Allen, and Greg Luzinski became household names again at the Vet. Bowa encouraged the reconciliation with Schmidt and he became a regular visitor at spring training, assisting with hitters like Pat Burrell and Jim Thome.

Undoubtedly, the baseball bug began to bite Schmidt during these short stints and when he indicated a willingness to manage at the minor league level, the Phils jumped at the opportunity to welcome back one of their own! The choice of Clearwater is an obvious one as he resides in Florida and is comfortable in this setting.

Yet questions abound concerning his ability to lead a group of young impressionable players. Will he have the patience needed when he was so hard on himself? Can such a talented player manage players not as talented as he was? Will boredom set in by July, when Florida heat and humidity make the beach a more accommodating setting than a ball diamond at three PM?

Let's attempt to answer these questions, one at a time. It is my opinion that Schmidt will display extraordinary patience with his troops, for it was the patience of such mentors as former teammates Dave Cash and Pete Rose that enabled him to attain his lofty heights. One should note that there were few more self-deprecating superstars in baseball than Schmidt. It was often observed that if Schmidt had only understood how good he was, he would have achieved even loftier status.

There are so many invaluable skills that he will instill in his players. Mike Schmidt understood the importance of on-base percentage before it became a mantra of the modern day statistician. He bunted effectively when it was unheard of for a slugger to bunt. He was analytical when analysis was thought to lead to paralysis. These are highly valued skills that the modern day player is often sadly lacking.

As for the myth of the impossibility of a great player becoming a great manager, lets examine the evidence. Few would argue that Joe Torre, Frank Robinson, Dusty Baker or Felipe Alou are not great managers. What many do not realize is how great these men were as players.

Torre was Pudge Rodriguez with more power and hitting skill. Robinson is a Hall of Famer who routinely started for the National League in the All-Star Game during a time when Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron and Billy Williams graced the league with their skills and daring.

Baker was an extraordinary clutch hitter for some of the greatest Dodger teams of all time and Alou was merely a better hitter than his son, Moises who displayed his skills in the recent playoff series.

The fallacy of the inability of a great player to become a great manager should quickly be squashed. If Schmidt fails, it will have nothing to do with his talent as a player, and everything to do with his lack of talent as a manager. Nothing more, nothing less!

Now, to enter into murkier waters is the discussion of Schmidt and his potential boredom at performing a daily task that offers few immediate gratifications, and many potential frustrations.

This, my friends, is the unanswerable question, and one that won't be known until after the 2004 season. Even Schmidt acknowledged as much when he stressed this was a short-term assignment with no long-term guarantees.

Will the insidious frustrations of an umpire yelling "Ball Four" to one of his inexperienced hurlers overcome the lure of a Par Four on a 439-foot shot at a Jupiter, Florida golf course? Will a hit be more exhilarating than a putt? Will 18 holes of golf be more inviting than 9 innings of baseball? These are the questions than only Michael Jack can decide and every Phillie fan should be curious as to the answer.

Make no mistake about it. He did not make this decision with the goal of remaining in Florida forever. Every journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step and few doubt that Michael Jack's ultimate goal is Citizens Bank Park. Be it as a hitting coach, or a future manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, the journey that began in 1973 as a young, strikeout prone third baseman with incredible potential, continues today.

Where it ends up will be a story of continued fascination and debate as the 2004 season unfolds before our very eyes.

Whatever story unfolds, the decision of Michael Jack Schmidt to trade his par four golf clubs for ball four baseball bats and gloves, is a potentially exciting and welcome chapter in a new year that promises to be anything but uneventful.

Columnist's Note: I welcome suggestions, questions and comments. Please send them to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond! CD from the Left Coast


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