Fans hold Schmidt aloft, not aloof

(Michele Tranquilli)
Posted: May 06, 2010

IT IS SOMETHING that Mike Schmidt could have never dreamed: that one day, all of the turbulence that surrounded his stellar career would fall away and the fans would select him as the Greatest All-Time Philadelphia Athlete.

Greater than Wilt.

Greater than Doc.

Greater than Lefty, Clarkie and Reggie.

In a survey conducted by the Daily News in conjunction with the Sport Industry Research Center at Temple University, Schmidt not only won top honors but walked away with them. The Phillies' Hall of Fame third baseman appeared on 60 percent of the ballots, well ahead of Sixers legends Wilt Chamberlain (49 percent) and Julius Erving (39 percent). Rounding out the top five were Phillies great Steve Carlton (27 percent) and Flyers icon Bobby Clarke (24 percent).

Respondents were asked to select three from among a predetermined list of 18, encompassing the four major sports.

Could this be the same Mike Schmidt who the fans just could never cozy up to? Who was so haughty, so aloof and so sensitive when it came to fielding criticism?

That Mike Schmidt?

Well, yes . . . 

But that was a long time ago and whatever old wounds there once were have healed. Insofar as his relationship with the Philadelphia fans is concerned, Schmidt said in an e-mail that he has "taken full responsibility for the controversial nature of it and feel it has been laid to rest. I sense a warmth from fans in Philly when I visit and it feels good."

He said he is "honored to have been held in such high esteem by those polled for this survey."

How does Schmidt explain the overwhelming popularity he has enjoyed since adjourning his career 21 years ago? Some of it just has to do with the passing years, which has allowed his on-field achievements to be placed in more historical perspective.

" 'Absence makes the heart grow fonder' is a good analogy," said Schmidt, who turned 60 last September. "When I'm around, there is usually a positive celebration of sorts, World Series, or alumni weekend, or last year it was to memorialize Harry Kalas. Those events don't involve on-field competition, only references to past heroics, which keep fans in a positive frame of mind. Also, over time, personal achievements gain stronger historical significance in certain cases."

From the day he joined the Phillies as a 22-year-old in 1972 until the day he called it quits in 1989 at age 39, Schmidt was a player of surpassing skill. At the plate, he slammed 548 career home runs and drove in 1,595 runs. He won 10 Gold Glove Awards at third base. Overall, he won three Most Valuable Player Awards and led the Phillies to the 1980 world championship with yet another MVP performance in the World Series. And yet he concedes that there were periods when he wondered if the fans were just impossible to please.

"[That] probably passed through my mind," Schmidt said. "Yes, as a player you have spells where you struggle, especially under pressure when it really hurts personally to fail. As a player, we do so much behind the scenes that the fans don't see. However, we have to respect their right to verbalize their displeasure in our performance. They pay ridiculous money to attend games, which allows players to make ridiculous salaries. I wish I had that perspective as a player."

From the point of view of the fans, there seems to be agreement that Schmidt has "rehabbed" his image, especially with his eloquent induction speech at the Hall of Fame ceremony in 1995 and his graceful sendoff last year to Kalas. Fan Roslyn Bradford, of Willingboro, N.J., called the latter "quite a refreshing surprise" and added that "time heals old wounds." Bradford added, "I think he has mellowed."

Rob Kilby, of Bordentown, N.J., said that Schmidt has become more popular in retirement because "his personality has changed. His frequent appearances have enabled fans to better relate to him. During his playing days, he seemed aloof."

Rick Oswalt, of Allentown, also used the word "aloof."

He said the "turbulent relationship" Schmidt had with the fans stemmed from the expectations "we have for our pro athletes." Oswalt added that, as a player, Schmidt came across as "too introspective." But he said that no one could deny the ability Schmidt had as a player, which produced "incredible stats and winning results, along with national recognition as probably the greatest third baseman in the history of baseball. We Philly fans love that type of recognition."

Carl Stacey, of Philadelphia, echoed that. "We knew what to expect from Schmitty," Stacey said. "He busted his butt day in and day out. That is what we expect from our teams/players. His style of player was fun to watch."

Irvin Rosen, of Philadelphia, said that the attitude Schmidt exuded "actually endeared him [to the fans] in the long run, despite any perceived antagonism. The fans recognize the no-nonsense, give-it-all-every-day work ethic that Mike displayed. And he has remained visible over the years."

Cindy Sabatino, of Philadelphia, agreed that it has helped that Schmidt has remained visible. "Michael Jack is still a very familiar figure who we still see frequently. His relationship with the fans has improved greatly . . . We can still hear Harry saying: 'Number 500 for Michael Jack Schmidt!' "

But fan Chuck Payne, of Cheltenham, agreed with Schmidt: "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." But he also said that "as a group, Philadelphia fans are very forgiving in the long run. Look at Mitch Williams."

While surprised that Schmidt was selected as the top vote getter, fan Stephen Starr, of Ambler, said it helped that Schmidt played his entire career in Philadelphia. Starr added that Schmidt also seems to have grown thicker skin since retiring, "which has increased his likability factor."

So what does Schmidt say to that observation?

"Not true," said Schmidt, who has continued to work with the team during spring training. "Just mellowed, skin still the same. I have a different perspective on a lot of things. I think taking time away from the sports scene there . . . and being on the outside has allowed me to return gracefully." *

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