The Aging Star Stays Home

Got the NAC

During this week's baseball meetings in Atlanta, rumor had it that Philadelphia's Mike Schmidt would no longer be playing in the City of Brotherly Love.

Boston and Cincinnati were interested in signing Schmidt to a contract. But two days ago, the Phillies put an end to all those rumors and signed their aging superstar.


Maybe the organization listened to the cheers of Philly fans, who have recently treated Schmidt as if he could do no wrong.

But Schmitty, as they call him in Philly, hasn't done much to merit the cheers he's been receiving lately. Last year he hit 12 home runs, drove in 62 runs and hit. 249, 20 points below his career average. He also made 19 errors while playing in only 108 games. If you looked at those stats, you'd never know you were dealing with a three-time MVP, a 10-time Gold Glove winner, and the seventh best home run hitter of all time.


The 39-year old Schmidt seems to have become just like all those other run-of-the-mill, over-the-hill superstars. Schmidt insists he can still play, still live up to his superstar billing even after 16 years in the majors.

But the Phillies, the only team he has ever played for, find his claims hard to believe. They're especially wary about his bad right shoulder, which had to be operated on last year and caused him to miss a third of the season.

That's why it took Schmidt and the Phils until Wednesday--the deadline or signing free agents--to agree on a new contract for next season. The Phils didn't want to risk so much money on a player who, although a lock for the Hall of Fame, could hardly enter Cooperstown with the numbers he posted last year.

And it appears as though the team was right. Schmidt's worth on the market was not nearly what it might have been before last year, so the team was able to lower his 1988 guaranteed salary of more than $2 million to a mere $500,000 for 1989 (he can still make over $2 million with incentives).

This is discouraging for longtime Phillies fans. They're already witnessed the demise of Steve Carlton--one of the best lefthanded pitchers of all time--who, after being dropped by the Phils in 1983, bounced around the majors for four more years before Minnesota cut him last year.

After what he saw happen to Carlton, Schmitty said he would never let such things happen to himself. Like the Sixers' Julius "Dr. J." Erving, he would know when to quit and would retire before he played like Grandpa.


Schmitty took this apparently enlightened approach so far that he threatened to quit before making a run at 600 career home runs--a feat accomplished only by Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, and Hank Aaron--even though many baseball watchers thought Schmidt would reach the mark by 1989.

But the fans, the media and the team all wanted Schmitty to stay with the Phils, and eventually Schmitty agreed. Soon, the hype for the climb to 600 began.

Then Schmitty struggled through one of the worst years of his career. Now Philly wonders if he will ever hit home run number 543, not to mention 600.

And then there's his defensive play. Philly fans will probably have to cross their fingers even when he's making the most routine play at third base.

It would be a shame if Schmitty couldn't live up to even limited expectations. Who wants to see Schmidt doing an awkward Howard Johnson imitation out there at third every night? New York's Johnson is no Fred Astaire at the hot corner.

After all, Philly fans still remember the glory days, back when Schmitty hit the dramatic 10th inning home run against Montreal to win the National League East pennant in 1980, and the Phillies went on to win the World Series.

Will any fan forget that day in 1987 when Schmitty gleefully trotted around the bases at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium after hitting his 500th home run? Back then, anyone who knew anything about baseball was calling Schmidt one of the all time greats.

But now is now, and Schmidt is a little older, a little weaker. The fans, the media, and the team all know it. But does Schmidt? That important question, one that Schmidt supposedly answered years ago, remains open.