He can hit a baseball as far as anyone who has ever played the game. On the basepaths he gives opposing players the jitters. In the field he is astonishingly adroit.
“There’s not too much he can’t do,” says Philadelphia Phillies manager Danny Ozark of his pluperfect third baseman, Mike Schmidt. Last year the muscular Schmidt led the National League in home runs for the second straight year, stole 29 bases, and came within one vote of being named the league’s best defensive third baseman. This year Schmidt again is reaching for the home-run championship, and his batting average is around .300. If ballplayers were traded like pork bellies, the futures on Mike Schmidt, 26, might be the highest in the sport.
Yet in his own mind Schmidt remains an incomplete player. Even though a good hitter makes an out seven of every 10 times at bat, Schmidt flails himself when he doesn’t reach base. “I don’t think I’ll ever be the kind of hitter I want to be,” laments Mike, whose principal weakness is striking out. Last year he led the league in that ignominious department with 180.
“Sometimes,” said his ebullient wife, Donna, as Schmidt was batting in a recent game, “I wish I could sit on his shoulder and ask him not to swing so hard.” A moment later Mike struck out and hissed audibly as he returned to the dugout. “Now he’s embarrassed,” she sighed. “But he shouldn’t be. If he has a bad night at bat he’ll have a good night in the field. But he is disappointed. And that’s probably why he’s so good.”
If Schmidt seems reluctant to take his talent for granted, he has good reason. In his senior year in high school in Dayton, Ohio, he was ignored as major league teams drafted more than 900 young players. Schmidt settled for college ball and a business major at Ohio University, where his coach, Bob Wren, recalls that he perfected his swing with a batting tee. “He must have hit four million balls,” recalls Wren. “He was a very coachable young man.”
When he graduated in 1972, Schmidt was not overlooked. The 6’2″, 198-pounder had a horrendous rookie year, but next season he was a Philadelphia regular. In the fall of ’73 he met Donna Wightman, a former singer working as a waitress in a Valley Forge, Pa. cocktail lounge. They were married in 1974, and that year he was named to the National League All-Star team. “Marriage settled me down,” says Mike. “Before, I was too much of a run-around to be physically and mentally ready for the game.”
This year Donna won a job co-hosting a TV talk show before Phillies games. “It keeps her from getting bored when I’m on the road,” says Mike. But Mike, a glum traditionalist, says, “I’ll keep an eye on it. If it gets in the way of her being a good housewife or, eventually, a good mother—then I’ll step in.” Donna reports that Mike is not the chauvinist he appears. “He’s very good around the house. If I’m busy and he needs something ironed, he irons it. When we clean the house, we clean it. The other guys would probably hate him if they knew how good he is to me.”
The Schmidts live in a new three-bedroom house in suburban West Berlin, N.J. It’s only a few miles from Schmidt’s best pal, guard Doug Collins of the Philadelphia 76ers. Schmidt and Collins golf together and play one-on-one basketball in Collins’ driveway. “Two years ago I wasn’t noticed at all,” explains Mike. “Last year people began to recognize me. This year we just cage ourselves in. It’s hard as hell.” But, unlike the frustration of striking out, this is one irritation Schmidt can handle. “Deep down inside,” he admits, “you don’t want it to stop.”