March 23-29, 2006
Cover Story : ArticleBatting Cleanup
Mike Schmidt dishes on Barry Bonds and what it'll take to save baseball.
Twenty-six seasons removed from that coronation, however, the sorry state of America's Game here has less to do with the Phils' history and more to do with an evolving culture that may have relegated baseball's best years to the history books.
The kids, it seems, would rather pre-order Major League 2K6 for their XBox 360 than head down to the park for a twilight doubleheader. And who needs to keep a scorecard to follow the game when they can monitor it in real time online? Couple that with the fact that the game's biggest slugger is currently engulfed in a highly publicized steroids scandal, and things look beyond bleak.
But all's not lost. Or so says Michael Jack Schmidt, Phillies third baseman extraordinaire, who was in town last week for a media blitz hawking his new book, Clearing the Bases: Juiced Players, Monster Salaries, Sham Records, and a Hall of Famer's Search for the Soul of Baseball.
"It's no New York Times best seller," explained Schmidt, sporting black from head to toe in a Rittenhouse Hotel conference room, "but in the baseball world, it'll get read, I hope by some of today's players."
In it, Schmidt both brags on himselfas should be expected from a man whose perceived aloofness alienated some fansand crusades to rescue the sport that made him a rich man from itself.
"We can't stop the fast track that society's on, with people demanding everything instantly. I mean, look, even I got a BlackBerry now and in a few years, I'm sure we'll have a chip in the back of our neck that opens up the garage door," he said. "I don't know if the game can be saved with that mentality coming from its fans.
"We need a slowing down of the game. Let's drop it into third gear for a while. Some people might not want to see 1-0 games, but we need to bring the subtlety, the thing that made the game great in the first place, back."
For baseball to thrive both regionally and nationally, he says parents need to tear their kids away from the computers and take them down to the park to appreciate a game that's gotten away from its roots. Plus, high-profile players need to rally kids into flagging youth programs, much in the way Tiger Woods ratcheted up youth involvement in golf.
When I told Schmidt that the role-model issue evoked memories of the time he passed by a 10-year-old me outside a baseball-card show in Cherry Hill, N.J., without signing an autograph, he conceded that he wished he'd done more to connect with fans during his playing daysto a point.
"I played with blinders on, afraid to look up from the field and see some guy giving me the finger. I mean, why work on my image and marketing when I have to play like the MVP?" he said. "I'm not sure if I could have taken my game to the level I did if I went the other way. If I had more of a free-spirited approach, maybe I could have played longer and my life would be different. I might not be a Hall of Famer, but maybe I'd be able to come back to Philly three or four times a year."
Of course, baseball's black eye is less a factor of what happens on the field and more a result of what happens off it. Like Shoeless Joe Jackson and the White Sox throwing the World Series. Or Pete Rose gambling away his good graces. And Bonds, whose pursuit of the all-time home-run record has taken a nasty hit courtesy of a book currently overshadowing Schmidt's.
In Game of Shadows, two San Francisco journalists make, with diligent documentation, the case that Bonds used steroids in his pursuit of Hank Aaron's home-run record. Excerpted in the March 13 Sports Illustrated, the accusations led to a he's-a-cheat buzz throughout the sporting worldto the point that politicians are calling for investigations. It's a stain, they say, on the national pastime.
In his book, Schmidt defends Bonds. In person, he does the same, saying he wouldn't condemn the slugger "until there's a confession or he fails a drug test." Having already copped to using "greenies"amphetamineson occasion to get up for games during his career, Schmidt went on to say, "If I had to vote for the Hall of Fame tomorrow, it's a yes" for Bonds.
Hypothesizing that it's not out of the question that the allegations against Bonds result from a vast baseball-wing conspiracy, Schmidt likened Bonds' predicament with his inability to connect with Philly fans:
"The court of public opinion's a bitch, isn't it?"
Few would know better.