There’s a scene at the end of Quentin Tarantino’s blockbuster Pulp Fiction where Jules and Vincent are discussing why certain animals are more likeable than other animals. It’s a friendly debate, far from heated, with the two gentlemen finally agreeing that it really all comes down to personality.
“A dog’s got personality,” Jules says. “Personality goes a long way.”
It’s a debate that could spark up at any corner sports bar in South Philadelphia when the name Mike Schmidt is uttered. No one would ever argue Schmidt’s credentials – he is the greatest Phillie to wear the uniform, and the greatest third baseman to play the game.
Just in case you need a reminder, go to Cooperstown and read his Hall of Fame plaque.
But, getting back to that personality conversation. Schmidt often seemed aloof, disconnected from Phillies fans, with his demeanor on the field and with his oddly chosen words off it. This is a man who famously said, “Philadelphia is the only city where you can experience the thrill of victory and the agony of reading about it the next day.”
And, it must have felt that way for the greatest slugger in franchise history, trudging through eight full seasons before sniffing his first World Series.
That must have seemed like an eternity. Schmidt wasn’t used to waiting.
He played just two seasons in the minors before making his big-league debut in September 1972, smoking a home run just four days after being called up. The Phillies saw so much promise in that one clout that the team traded their starting third baseman the following year and the rest – thanks to a throaty assist from Harry Kalas’ legendary pipes – is history.
The legend of Mike Schmidt was born, right then and there.
Schmidt would hit 35 or more homers 11 times in his 18-year career. He slammed 548 dingers, good enough for 14th-best all-time. He won or tied for eight home-run crowns. He was a three-time Most Valuable Player (1980, 1981, 1986). He won 10 Gold Gloves and qualified for 12 All-Star teams. He batted .267, with 2,234 hits and 1,595 RBIs in 2,404 games. When he retired, he was the Phillies’ all-time leader in the following categories: games, at-bats, runs, hits, RBI, home runs, total bases, extra-base hits.
Some of the records may fade over time. Jimmy Rollins surpassed Schmidt’s all-time hits record in 2014. Some of the accomplishments may look less impressive, thanks to the Steroid Era. But the legend of Michael Jack Schmidt will remain.
Grandfathers will pass the real-life fables down to their grandchildren, recounting the April day Schmidt deposited a 3-0 pitch over the left-field fence in Pittsburgh for No. 500. Others will recall the 1976 slugfest in Chicago, when he sent four consecutive long balls over the ivy, the only player to do that at Wrigley Field. Then, there is the time he ran 270 feet, scoring from first base on a wild pitch, and doing all that running at the tender age of 39.
Or, the afternoon in San Diego when Mr. Cool finally erupted in an unexpected fireball of emotion, crying into the podium as he announced his retirement from baseball.
Finally. It was the moment that the entire city of Philadelphia had been longing for, a glimmer of Schmidt’s personality. The conquering hero, the MVP of the 1980 World Series, had let the city in on a secret spanning nearly two decades.
“I’ll always miss the goose bumps I got when you cheered me,” Schmidt told the fans at the Vet when his number was retired in 1990. “I’ve collected eighteen years of those goose bumps, from my first hit back in 1972 to the welcome you gave me tonight.”
Yes, he really did love Philly.
Today, as the Phillies’ organization looks to rebuild and pick up the pieces from its last World Series parade, perhaps the best coping mechanism is to look toward the past. Schmidt is known around the world as one of the greatest baseball players alive, the starting third baseman on Major League Baseball’s All-Century Team and All-Time Team.
He is a legend. More importantly, Schmidt is Philly’s legend. His presence is felt everywhere.
It is Schmidt’s awkward batting stance – in all its bronzed glory – that greets Phillies fans when they enter Citizens Bank Park through the third-base gate. It is Schmidt’s records that future Phillies players will forever be chasing. It is Schmidt’s grit and determination that little leaguers will aspire to emulate in the parks and sandlots, from Mount Airy to Malvern.
If it all comes down to personality, you could do a lot worse than Mike Schmidt.
Mike Greger is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Photo by the Philadelphia Bulletin via the Temple University Archives.