Apr 10, 2011, 9:37 PM EDT
Over the next few weeks at The700Level, we’ll be posting poll matchups as part of our Philly March Madness competition.
Examine the cases of
the two fine Philadelphia athletes
below, and cast your vote at the
bottom as to which you think should
advance to the next round. And as
always, feel free to explain your
selection and/or debate the choices
in the comments section.
Today and tomorrow: The Final Four and the Finals. Here’s hoping
for our biggest voter turnout yet as we finally name a greatest Philly
athlete of the last 30 years.
Previously Defeated: (16) Keith Byars, (9) Wilbert Montgomery, (4) Ron Hextall, (3) Brian Dawkins
Sports Writers Say:
He was batting .203 with six homers, but when his glove also betrayed him, Mike Schmidt knew it was time. With two on and two out in a 3-3 game in San Francisco a week ago, the Phillies’ third baseman booted a grounder for what would have been the third out, a grounder he would have once handled routinely. When the next hitter, Will Clark, smashed a grand-slam homer, the Phillies were on their way to an 8-5 loss. And at age 39, Mike Schmidt decided that he won’t be playing baseball anymore. It’s baseball’s loss, not his. Too many baseball fans yearn for the good old days, as if nobody playing now could possibly be as good as the old-timers. But too many baseball fans don’t always appreciate the good now days. Over nearly two decades, Mike Schmidt was the third baseman of the good now days. While accumulating three National League most valuable player awards, he hit 548 homers and was voted 10 Gold Gloves. No other third baseman ever did what he did with both his bat and his glove. Not Brooks Robinson, not Eddie Mathews, not Pie Traynor.
If you saw Mike Schmidt play baseball, you can always say that you saw baseball’s best third baseman. Even the old-timers might not argue.
In assembling an all-time team, third base had always been the thinnest p
osition for candidates. Only seven are waiting for Mike Schmidt to join them in 1995 at the Hall of Fame: the old-timers Frank (Home Run) Baker, Fred Lindstrom and Jimmy Collins along with George Kell, Robinson, Mathews and Traynor. The other positions always had many more legends to choose from but Lou Gehrig dominated the first basemen, Rogers Hornsby the second basemen, Honus Wagner the shortstops. In the outfield, take any three: Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Pete Rose. Among the catchers, judge Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella and Johnny Bench. For pitching, consider Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Sandy Koufax, Bob Feller, Lefty Grove, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver.
But at third base, it’s no contest. As good as Traynor, Mathews and Robinson were in other years, none of them matched the complete package that Schmidt put together.
Season after season, Schmidt not only produced but he usually produced when the Phillies needed him to produce.
His 500th homer wasn’t merely a ceremonial cannon shot. It won a game in Pittsburgh. In the 1980 divisional race with the Expos, his home run in Montreal clinched the title. In the World Series against the Kansas City Royals that year he batted .381, hit two homers and drove in seven runs. He was selected as the m.v.p. as the Phillies won the Series for the only time in the franchise’s 106-year history. He once hit four homers in a game; he twice hit three homers in a game. He holds the National League career third-base records for double plays, total chances and assists. And in an era of free-agent soldiers of fortune, he wore only the Phillies’ uniform.
One reason was that the Phillies were wise enough to pay him what he was worth: more than $17 million over his career, more than any other baseball player in history except Dave Winfield.
Like every player, Schmidt had his slumps. When the Phillies lost the 1983 Series to the Orioles in five games, he batted .050, only one broken-bat single in 20 official times at bat. Even so, he never hid or sulked. After every game, he sat at his locker and answered questions, patiently, thoughtfully.
”I’d like to hit a five-run homer or a six-run homer,” he joked after the fourth game. ”You ever see one of those?” But his 1980 World Series ring had eased his burden as the Phillies’ most productive hitter, a burden that developed on the teams that lost the National League Championship Series in 1976, 1977 and 1978. When the Phillies won the 1980 Series, their manager was Dallas Green, now the Yankee manager.
”Schmitty was neat to be around,” Green recalled. ”He made you work at making him understand the game and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Schmidt also made opposing managers work. Charlie Fox, now a Yankee coach, once managed the Giants, the Expos and the Cubs against the Phillies.
”When you’re a manager,” Fox said, ”there’s always one player on the other team that you tell yourself, ‘Don’t let this man beat me.’ On the Phillies that man was Schmitty. With the game on the line, you’d tell your pitcher, ‘Get this guy out, then we’ll walk Schmitty, and get the next guy.’ But when you did pitch to him, you never knew how. Just when you thought you were getting him out inside, he’d start hitting the outside pitch to right center.”
At 6 feet 2 inches and 205 pounds, Schmidt was also considered one of the Phillies’ best baserunners. He stole 174 bases, with a high of 29 in 1975.
”He stole a base when the Phillies needed it, usually late in the game,” Fox said. ”He lulled you early in the game. In the third inning, the fifth inning, he’d take a little lead and never even make a move to steal. In the seventh or eighth or ninth when the Phillies needed a run, he’d take that same little lead and you’d figure he wasn’t going anywhere and boom, he’d steal.”
Mike Schmidt did it all. And he did it with a quiet style that embellished his stature. If you saw him play, you can always say you saw baseball’s best third baseman. -Dave Anderson, New York Times, 1989
Previously Defeated: (13) Jon Runyan, (5) Pete Rose, (1) Reggie White, (3) Donovan McNabb
Sports Writers Say:
The sky over St. Louis looked as gray and uninviting as cold oatmeal when Ryan Howard hit the most memorable moon shot of his career. He was 12, and his Little League team was playing a squad from Jefferson City. Howard, then known simply as Hurt, already had prodigious power from the port side. “When he made contact, it was like, Wow!” recalls his twin brother, Corey. “His home runs were loud.”
Late in the game, Hurt turned on a chest-high heater. According to family lore the ball soared over the infield, over the outfield, over a 20-foot chain-link fence in rightfield, over a parking lot and, depending on the storyteller, struck the wall of a Red Lobster, the base of a sign outside a Red Lobster or a Red Lobster sign’s red lobster.
Thirteen years later Howard still savors the swat. “It was my first actual bomb,” recalls the Philadelphia Phillies’ first baseman. “I watched it with a little awe.” An equally awed sportswriter recently paced off the distance b
etween home plate and the building. If the yarn is true, Ryan’s blast traveled at least 430 feet.
Laid end to end, Howard’s homers this season have traveled an estimated 4 1/4 miles, the longest going 491 feet. He had a major-league-leading 56 to go along with a major-league-leading 138 RBIs, including 41 in August, the most by any player in any month since Frank Howard had 41 in July 1962. He also pounded 14 homers and hit .348 last month to single-handedly launch the Phillies into wild-card contention. If Howard reaches 60 homers, he’ll become only the sixth player to accomplish the feat. “To hit 50 is really something,” says Philadelphia closer Tom Gordon. “Sixty is almost beyond comprehension. It’s magnificent.”
To date, the Magnificent Five includes Babe Ruth, who hit 60 in 1927, and Roger Maris, whose 61 came in ’61. The rest of the roster– Mark McGwire (65 and 70), Sammy Sosa (63, 64 and 66) and record-holder Barry Bonds (73)–is sullied by suspected steroid use. Should Howard pass Maris’s 61, a crusade is afoot to anoint him King of the Juiceless Dinger. Asked if he would take pride in such a title, he says, with a hint of diffidence, “I would.”
Then again, Ryan is dispassionately modest about his chances of even attaining 60. “If it happens, it happens,” he says with a small shrug. “If I were to do something like that and then wake up and reflect on the season one day at home in the off-season, I wouldn’t believe it.”
Baseball has seldom seen anything quite like Howard. The hulking 6’4″ 250-pounder looks like he was poured into his uniform and forgot to say when. As if stanchioned to the bag at first, he often seems as animated as the William Penn statue atop Philadelphia’s City Hall. “Ryan does get excited,” insists Philadelphia reliever Geoff Geary. “His excitement is just not extreme.” To prove a point, Geary shows a video he filmed surreptitiously on his cellphone. Facing his locker before a game, wired into an iPod, Howard, arms akimbo and hips swiveling, does a wobbly rumba. “That’s Ryan’s groove dance,” says Geary. “He gets down to get loose.”
Howard is only truly loose in the clubhouse, where he greets teammates with a dozen handshakes. “He’s got big old Mice and Men hands,” says Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins. “You know, like the ones Lenny had. There’s a lot of strong in those hands.”
You need strong hands to dispatch fastballs into the troposphere. “Ryan uses an inside-out swing for wallburners to left, but his homers to center and right have a trajectory unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” says pitcher Jamie Moyer, a veteran of 20 seasons. “They start out like routine flies and carry and carry and carry until they land 30 rows back in the bleachers. They’re absolutely majestic.”
At Citizens Bank Park, Howard’s most regal blasts alight in the upper deck in right, a veritable petri dish of costumed Phillies fan clubs, from Flash Gordon’s “Superheroes” to Chase Utley’s ” Utley’s Uglies.” Three clubs vie for Howard supremacy: the leonine-garbed “Ryan’s Lions,” the Homer Simpson–masked “Homer’s Homers” and ” Howard’s Howards,” who sport bowl cuts like Moe Howard of Three Stooges fame. All chant “M-V-P!” when their hero steps to the plate.
“Phillies fans go crazy for the shut-up-and-play type,” says Jerry Getz, a Philly sports-radio gadfly known as Jerry on the Mobile. “Howard seems like a quiet, clean-cut John Kruk, an accessible, almost jolly guy who plays the game like he loves it. He’s the anti-T.O.”
In the Phillies’ dugout Howard is called everything from Rhinoceros to Man-Mountain to One-Man Gang. The consensus favorite, however, is John Coffey, after the gentle gargantuan in The Green Mile. “John Coffey was a big guy and a good, kind person,” says Howard. “I act like that sometimes, too, just to throw people off.”
By most accounts it’s no act. “Ryan has always been even tempered,” says Corey, his fraternal twin. “The only thing that sets him off is hearing people say he can’t do things. They’ve said he can’t hit lefties, he can’t hit off-speed pitches, he can’t hit for a high average. Whatever they’ve said Ryan can’t do, he’s gone out and done.”
Their father, Ron, a project manager for IBM in St. Louis, forbade the word can’t in his home. So Ryan set out to show his old man he could. At Lafayette High he played defensive end, power forward, first base and trombone in the marching band. He played each of them ably but baseball best. Two years ago Howard, who was drafted by the Phils in the fifth round of the 2001 draft out of Southwest Missouri State, hit 46 homers for two farm teams. All that stood in his way in Philadelphia was power-hitting first baseman Jim Thome and his six-year, $85 million contract. “I’d heard Ryan hit bombs,” Rollins says. “But I figured there were 85 million reasons I wouldn’t see him anytime soon.”
The following spring Howard auditioned in left, flunked and was sent back to Triple A. “The Phillies traditionally give you one shot,” Rollins says. “If you’re demoted after that, you might as well cancel Christmas.”
For Howard, Christmas came in July. When Thome’s season was cut short by injuries, Howard–the International League leader in hitting (.371), on-base percentage (.467) and slugging (.690) at the time–got another chance. He made the most of it, mashing 22 homers (10 in the final month) to help propel the Phils to within a game of the playoffs.
Last November the Phils settled their first base question by trading Thome to the White Sox. Questions about Howard, however, remained to be settled. Though he was Rookie of the Year in 2005, for example, he batted only .148 against southpaws. At week’s end he was up to .283 and had hit 15 of his homers off lefties. “Two years ago he had raw power, but he tried to cover the entire strike zone,” says Astros third base coach Doug Mansolino. “The difference now is patience and selectivity: He only swings at pitches in his strike zone.” (His strikeout-to-walk ratio has improved from 3 to 1 last season to under 2 to 1 this year.)
Pity the pitcher who trespasses in Howard’s zone. Last week Houston’s Russ Springer tried to bust him with a cutter up and in. Howard swatted the righthander’s pitch off the face of the second deck. “Lefthanded batters are supposed to foul that off or hit it on the ground,” says Astros infielder Aubrey Huff. “I don’t think there’s another big leaguer who could have hit it out.”
The crack of Howard’s 34 1/2-ounce bat was easy on Rollins’s ear. “When he connected, it was loud, like somebody had turned up the volume,” says Rollins. “It was a beautiful sound, and I knew the ball would be leaving the yard.” -Franz Lidz, Sports Illustrated, 2006
Elite Eight Results:
(1) Julius Erving (53.6%) over (2) Chase Utley (46.4%)
(2) Allen Iverson (68.1%) over (5) Brian Westbrook (31.9%)
(1) Mike Schmidt (51.6%) over (3) Brian Dawkins (48.4%)
(4) Ryan Howard (72.9%) over (3) Donovan McNabb (27.1%)
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