Saturday, April 18, 2015

A to Z: M for Michael Jack Schmidt

There it is! Number 500!

For a sport to survive the bruises and the blows below the belt of integrity and still remain America's favorite pastime, says something about the magic and child-like wonder of baseball. Base-ball (as it was once spelled) captures us and allows us to live vicariously through its players until reality hits us over the head with a Louisville Slugger.

I should be able to sit down in front of the TV and watch unblinkingly in a day-dreaming stare anticipating a strike out or a home run while imagining myself participating in the roar of the crowd. Don't get me wrong, I love watching the Phillies when they're on, but with the integrity of the sport having been strained, there's more to it than that. We're thinking about things we shouldn't have to be thinking about. Things that when I was young weren't part of the game. Thankfully I was naive.

Baseball has become more like the movie Inception with so many things happening. When well-done, like that movie was, I enjoy the ride. Baseball should be about strategy, about bringing the family to the park, about sitting back and remembering the days where you knew without a shadow of a doubt you were the next Hall of Famer. The simplicity of watching has evolved to something that at times is unidentifiable. Our love and passion for the game is so strong, we become immune to it. For better. For worse. Let's hope the year-long, well-deserved suspension of A-Rod brings not a new light on baseball, but rather the old one. The one that despite ugly stadiums and its artificial grass on top of a cement slab still gives us chills.

I could never be a manager though. Like law, there's just too many things to know. Too many strategies that I couldn't wrap my mind around in the time allowed. But that's okay. I'm not sure I would want to be in those situations where when you're right you're regarded as a genius or a hero. But if you're wrong, you get a big ol' nationwide in-your-face boo. And the relentless media won't ever let you forget it. I can imagine trying to figure out which sub-par reliever to put in is much like deciding on which tooth to yank out with a rusty pliers. As a fan though, I love it. But I do hate that nagging question in my mind, "I wonder if he's cheating." I long for the days where even collecting baseball cards was simple.

I promise you this isn't yet another diarrhea-of-the-mouth belly-aching about how baseball has been tainted by steroids or other bodily enhancing drugs. It has. So why bother using a corked bat to beat a dead horse? I do wonder though how children respond these days when their dad says, "I have tickets!" We used to go quite often growing up and I loved it. I didn't realize that Veteran's stadium was a pathetic excuse for architecture. I didn't mind that these were the mid-80 Phillies, one of the worse teams in the history of baseball. I was thrilled by every pitch and every swing - thinking every hit was a homerun even if it didn't make it past the infield. Salaries meant nothing to me. Steriods meant nothing to me. It was a time spent with my family eating our own popcorn from home when bringing a backpack and your own drinks wasn't an issue. I would bring my glove hoping for a foul ball - still have never caught one - and I wore my baseball spikes with the rubber bumps on the bottom. I distinctly remember walking towards Veteran's Stadium weaving through cars in the parking lot thinking I was the coolest kid ever.

Those delusions keep my therapist busy.

Kids know what cheating is - I hear it all the time. I'm an educator. Kids don't pass up an opportunity to rat out one another. So what are their thoughts on cheating athletes? Does it affect their trips to the ballpark? I can't imagine it would. All the factors against baseball seem to be unfathomable by kids. Thank goodness!

I have three favorite Phillies moments that no scandal can take away - because I sincerely doubt they would never strip teams of their World Series rings. I was too young to appreciate the 1980 Phillies (about to turn 5) and still too young in 1983 when they lost to the Orioles, but boy do I remember 1993. No, I don't need to check my statistical history. I know they lost. But it was Game 4 of that series that had me feeling like a zapping electrical wire . My best friend, TB, called me after school that day and asked if I wanted to go to the game. Uh, duh! That night changed my life. I didn't even meet a player or catch a ball. I did have better seat than Donald Trump though. We only sat a few seats behind home plate and even though it ended in a loss you couldn't help to leave the stadium feeling electrified by what was witnessed. A tug-of-war battle from the get-go. Twenty-nine runs, thirty-one hits...home runs a plenty! I was high-fiving drunkards and practically hugging people as introverted as I was. That night, only extroverted behavior allowed. Wow, what a night!

Then of course in 2008 the Phightin' Phils took four out of five from the weak-looking Rays (were they the Devil-Rays then?). It gave me that youthful excitedness that only baseball can give. Their lineup was all in their prime and just like in '93, you never knew who would come through in the clutch.

Before I get to my number one all-time memory, I have a few more that left an impression. First, again, all the times I went to the games with my dad. That's America in a nutshell. A boy and his dad...and brothers (sometimes Mom as well) at the ballpark.

In 1991, I think it may have been Craig Biggio's rookie year, I was visiting my aunt in Houston. She took me to a game at the Astrodome. I'm glad I got to see that park before the Astros, like most other teams, moved on to new stadiums.

In 1994 Camden Yards opened (maybe it was the year before). Through a high school event we were able to travel down to Baltimore and see the Orioles play in the most beautiful stadium I had ever seen - and since. I'm still waiting for my first trip to Citizen's Bank Park.

Several years ago now, I took a road trip with my best friend, Dustin, and we traveled to Pittsburgh and then to Cincinnatti to see the Pirates and Reds play. The same boring architecture as Philadelphia's stadium was pukeingly disappointing. But, we got to see Eric Davis play and Mark McGwire and Slammin' Sammy Sosa (the since-then scandal doesn't ruin this fun memory. The dogs were good too!). He and I also took a road trip to Cooperstown to see our favorite third-baseman inducted into the Hall of Fame. Despite my one and only migraine (before and since) it was a great day out in the hot sun seeing our hero be recognized. Here's to road trips!

Back in the 80's before ESPN and cable, the sports highlights came from watching the Phillies. I still remember their names, but mostly because of baseball cards...Bake McBride, The Bull, Lefty and then of course the greatest third-baseman to ever play the game (sorry Orioles fans, it's true) - Michael Jack Schmidt. Just as Bono inspired me to become a writer, Mike Schmidt put a spark in me that lit my love for baseball. Not taking anything away from playing ball with my dad because those memories trump any effect an idol in sports or music may have.  I played the hot corner because of him, probably wore #20 because of him (before Barkley and Bo Jackson came along sporitng #34) and probably wiggled my rear when standing at the plate. His homeruns instilled in me a love of power and the longball and his Hall of Fame fielding gave me a Superman complex thinking I could emulate his actions out on the Little League Field. It's too bad that Philly fans didn't recognize the second-coming of Schmitty when the awesome (and would be a future Hall of Famer if it weren't for injuries...stats don't lie) Scott Rolen showed up in 1997. Here's a player who was such a class-act and so well-respected in the clubhouse and around the league, the Reds were considering paying him just to be on the bench after he retired. It's nice to know Michael Jack knew how good Rolen was. Anyway, a little side-step there, but had to get that in.

Today, 500 home runs is still a remarkable feat. Even more so if done without pills and injections. I think I figured it was a Saturday game, maybe a twilighter because I remember the sun shining when watching it on VHS over and over again. It was something my dad ordered. I still remember Schmidt's autograph scribbled in blue pen on the front. We wore that tape raw. But every time I watched it I got chills. Those chills were special. Unique. They told me that some day I too would smash home runs for the Phillies. 

I hate to break it to you, but not only didn't I hit any home runs I didn't play for the Phillies either. But those chills that I got told me something else. They were Holy Spirit chills instilling in me the magic of conquering your dreams. I won't ever play for the Phillies, but my 500th home run will be crushed over the left field wall. Whether or not there will be thousands of people to witness it doesn't matter. It'll be a defining moment on my path of God's will.

On to the memory...

I was in the shower, probably had been playing soccer that day or didn't want to get a shower in morning before church, listening to the game on the radio. They were visiting in Pittsburgh and the voice of the legendary Harry Kalas was keeping me on the edge of my to speak. Schmitty had worked the count to 3 and 0. The next pitch lit me up like my britches were on to speak. Harry's voice echoed through the steam, "Here's the 3-0 pitch...SWING AND A LONG DRIVE, THERE IT IS, NUMBER 500!..." I don't even remember shutting the water off, but I do remember running out into the hall, not sure if I had a towel on or not, "He hit his 500th! He hit his 500th!" My youngest brother wasn't even a year old and was sleeping in his crib. My mom wasn't too happy about that. I didn't care. That home run made me feel alive like I was right there at home plate giving him high-fives myself. Simple times yet so memorable (for the right reasons). I still, to this very day, get those same chills.

To Michael Jack, thank you for being a class-act. I still remember crying when you announced your retirement.

After Thought: I also have a bonus memory that makes me chuckle every time I think of it. I'm not promoting any belief in sixth senses...My opinion on that will remain idle on that topic for now, but there have been a few moments in my life where I knew things were going to happen and luck had nothing to do with it. I once shouted out the lottery numbers when they were being drawn on TV. No, I wasn't looking at the TV. I could only hear it. I still shake my head at that. So strange. That has only happened once, but calling home runs, I seem to have a knack for. I don't guess often, but I have never been wrong. I once predicted back-to-back home runs by Mike Schmidt and muscle-man Lance Parrish. I said,"Oh, he's gonna hit a home run," reffering to Michael Jack. I just had that feeling. Then Parrish stepped up. "Oh, he's gonna hit one too." Not a lucky guess. I just knew.

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