WHO'S ON THIRD?
In order to reach Cooperstown, New York, from the north, you drive south on winding, tree-shaded Route 28 through the villages of Dennison Corners, Richfield Springs and Schuyler Lake, whereupon the lovely shore of Lake Otsego springs into view, then the picturesque town beyond. From the south, stay on 28 through Maryland, Milford and Index, and suddenly you will find yourself lolling on the veranda of the old Otesaga Hotel with a gin and tonic in hand, taking in a gleaming vista of green hills, rippled water and sailboats.
But even with good directions, third basemen rarely find their way to Cooperstown.
Last week, Mike Schmidt, late of the Philadelphia Phillies, became just the tenth third sacker to be voted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame--which will now have 220 members. Of the third basemen, only three previous titans--Pie Traynor, Eddie Mathews and the fielding genius Brooks Robinson--were elected to the Hall through "normal" channels, which is to say, by vote of the Baseball Writers Association of America. The others--Jimmy Collins, J. Frank Baker, Fred Lindstrom, George Kell and two great Negro League stars, Ray Dandridge and Judy Johnson, got to Cooperstown by virtue of "special committees" and are thus regarded as slightly less lustrous than their mates.
Fittingly, Schmidt will be the only inductee in ceremonies to be held July 30. For he didn't just defy 56 years' worth of stubborn voting patterns, or some kind of positional prejudice, or whatever it is that's kept third basemen out of the Hall. No, in eighteen seasons (all with one club, it's nice to point out) he became the greatest player of all time at his spot, and the voters had no choice but to turn their eyes away from the outfield or pitcher's mound and recognize Schmidt in his first year of eligibility. They did it with the fourth-highest vote percentage of all time.
"The changes in the rules, which did away with `fair-foul' hitting, and those which introduced the present pace in pitching," the great John Montgomery Ward speculated in 1888, "have taken away much of the third baseman's importance."
Well, maybe. But not this year, Monty. The hot corner is hot once again.
First, the numbers:
Schmidt batted a respectable .267 in his career (precisely the same as Brooks Robinson, as the gods would have it), but he had nine 100-RBI seasons and hit 548 home runs--280 more than Brooks. That total is good for seventh on the all-time list. He had thirteen seasons with thirty or more homers--topped only by Hank Aaron. He had eleven years with 35-plus dingers--bettered only by Babe Ruth. His eight National League home-run titles are a league record, and he was named to the All Star team twelve times. Schmidt, Stan Musial and Roy Campanella are the National League's only three-time MVPs.
Schmidt's leather was as impressive as his bat. In 23 seasons with Baltimore, the exemplary Robinson had a .971 fielding average and won sixteen Gold Gloves, but Schmidt picked it at a .961 clip and has ten Gold Gloves. At 6-2 and 195 pounds, he was a formidable presence at third and in the batter's box, and his muscled physique was so perfectly suited to baseball that teammate Pete Rose, something of a gamer himself, once remarked: "Just to have his body, I'd trade mine and my wife's and throw in some cash."
But there was more than a body to Mike Schmidt.
Noted for strength, grace and a dirty-uniform work ethic, the Phils' number 20 admitted that he got butterflies before every game, even while some accused him of arrogance. Actually, his career began inauspiciously. In 1971 he batted .211 as a shortstop at Double-A Reading, and in his first major-league year, 1973, the third-base convert hit .196 while striking out 136 times in only 367 at-bats. But he was a quick learner. In the next four seasons Schmidt hit 148 home runs and developed into one of the game's slickest fielders.
Fans in Houston are still awed by the shot he hit in 1974: The ball's flight plan had 600 feet written all over it when it struck a speaker suspended from the ceiling of the Astrodome and caromed straight down to the green plastic below. There you have it: The longest single in history.
Fans and sportswriters in Philly, never known as the City of Brotherly Love when it comes to judging athletic performances, also remember the barbed Schmidt wit. "Philadelphia," he once said, "is the only city in the world where you can experience the thrill of victory and the agony of reading about it the next day."
Another story has the third baseman pulling up alongside a school bus in 1984 (a year after Baltimore had beaten the Phils four games to one in the World Series) to see if his daughter was on board. As Schmidt chatted with the driver, the story goes, kids on the bus started chanting: "Choke! Choke! Choke!"
Said the object of their scorn: "There are your Philadelphia fans in the making."
They're all Mike Schmidt fans this week, of course. And as the greatest all-around third baseman in history gets ready to make his solo trip to Cooperstown this summer, admirers everywhere will probably recall his finest hour, the 1980 World Series.
Following consecutive National League playoff defeats in 1976, 1977 and 1978, the Phillies faced the tough Houston Astros for the pennant in 1980. That memorable, bruising series went all the way to the tenth inning of the last game, when, with the score tied 7-7, Del Unser and Garry Maddox both doubled to give the Phils their first flag in thirty years. Schmidt hit just .208 and went homerless against Houston, but in the World Series he sprang to life, banging Kansas City pitching around with eight hits (including two homers) in 21 at-bats, and seven RBIs. In Game Two he struck a crucial double in the three-run seventh. In Game Five he put Philly ahead through a timely homer with one on. In Game Six, which capped the dream, he drove in two of his club's four runs while Philly relief ace Tug McGraw twice stopped the Royals with the bases loaded.
In the wake of sudden ecstasy--the Phils had won their first-ever World Series--Schmidt collected honors aplenty. But it wasn't until later, at a banquet in Wilmington, Delaware, that he really hit for the cycle.
"What can I say about Mike Schmidt," Phillies owner Ruly Carpenter asked the audience, "after his being named MVP for both the National League and the World Series?"
Always perched to pounce, Schmidt yelled out from his seat: "Renegotiate!"
Now he's poised to become baseball's tenth Hall of Fame third baseman (for reference, there are only twelve catchers and sixteen first basemen in the Hall), but his sparkling defense will likely be overlooked for all time. As Schmidt himself once said, he "came from Ohio with a bat and a dream." But on the fast artificial surface of Veterans Stadium, he also proved himself a master at the hot corner, gloving scorched two-hoppers, dribblers and bunts with equal aplomb and always making a good throw.
For years Las Vegas blackjack dealers, a notably unsentimental lot, have paid the ultimate compliment to Schmidt's American League counterpart. Turning to the gambler seated at the "third base" position at the table to see how he or she wants to play a hand, the dealer will sometimes inquire: "Brooks?" while the baseball fans within earshot smile and murmur appreciatively.
If there's honor and truth along the leaf-canopied road to Cooperstown, those same dealers will now have the good sense to ask, at least part of the time, "Schmidtty?
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