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Schmidt bat turns fans into believers

Like all big sluggers, Mike Schmidt learned long ago that the fans are never satisfied -- especially at home. But thanks to the World series, the slugging Philadelphia third baseman finally got a chance to showcase his tremendous value to a ballclub -- and maybe get a fuller measure of appreciation both locally and nationally than he has received in the past.

Oh, everybody always knew he hit a lot of home runs, and serious baseball followers were aware that he is an outstanding fielder as well, but few really understood what a complete ballplayer he is -- his outstanding speed for a big man (he has stolen as many as 29 bases in a season), his aggressiveness at bat, in the field, and on the basepaths, and all the little things he does that don't show up in box scores. Furthermore, there were always questions about his ability in the clutch, especially in post-season action.

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Part of it was the public's typical refusal to do a little simple arithmetic. No hitter from Babe Ruth and ty Cobb on down ever has or ever will drive in as many runs as he leaves on base. For every two or three times that even a top slugger hits a home run or otherwise comes through in that situation, there are six or seven time when he ignominiously strikes out, pops up, hits into a double play, or otherwise fails to produce.

Obviously, many of these failures are going to come in key spots. And over the years, this has a cumulative effect on the hometown fans, who retain the images of all those strikeouts, etc., by their own hero and tend not to consider the fact that it's pretty much the fact with all others as well.

Another fact in Schmidt's case, though, was that he plays in Philadelphia -- a town where the baseball public has a long history of hostile behavior toward those who hit the most home runs and drive in the most runs for its team. Del Ennis, the slugging star of Phildelphia's last pennant winner in 1950, found that out; so did Richie Allen, who was virtually booed out of town in the 1960s despite his very productive bat; and so has Greg Luzinski in recent seasons.

Schmidt never experienced anything that bad, but the fans have gotten on him at various times -- and not always without reason. He did strike out an inordinate number of times in his early years, and although he has cut the figures down since then he is usually well over the century mark.

Also, there was no getting around the fact that he was something of a bust in post-season appearances, with an overall .182 batting average and not a single home run in Philadelphia's 1976, '77, and '78 playoff losses. And in the minds of some fans, this translated into a tendency to fail in any crucial spot.

Not any more, though. You don't find clutch situations any bigger than the two Mike faced in Montreal two weeks ago, when he hit a solo home run to trigger the Friday night victory that lifted his team into first place, then blasted a two-run, 11th-inning shot Saturday to clinch the East Division title.

In the playoff against Houston, his bat went cold (he hit only .208 with no homers and one RBI), but he was there when the team needed him most in the final stages of the wild fourth game. Down two games to one and trailing 2-1 in this contest, the Phillies were six outs away form elimination when Schmidt stroked a game-tying single in the midst of the three-run rally that propelled the team to itss eventual victory.

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And finally in his first World Series he came to life with a superb all-round performance.

In Game 1 of the series Mike worked Kansas City ace Dennis Leonard for a walk in the midst of a big rally that erased a 4-0 deficit and sent the Phillies on to victory, and he also singled and drew another walk in that contest. In Game 2 he went 2-for-4, including a run-scoring double in the big eight inning that won the game. And then came Game 3.

The 6 ft. 2 in., 203-pound Schmidt's slugging figures through the years speak for themselves -- three straight National League home run titles in the mid-'70s , 45 circuit clouts in 1979, a major league-leading 48 this past season, and an average of well over 100 RBIs for the last seven years. And yet a harmless bunt that rolled foul in the eight inning of this third game may well have been as important to the team as any of his big hits of yore.

There were men of first and third and the score 3-3, when Mike caught third baseman George Brett flat footed with a perfectly timed bunt. There was no possible play, but the ball just went foul, after which he flied out and the Royals went on to win in 10 innings.

Ironically, Schmidt was the goat of this game in the eyes of some observers, who looked at the box score and saw that he had left nine runners on base. They ignored the fact that he did hit a home run, that he hit the ball hard several other times, and that it took a great catch of his line drive by Frank White to retire him the last time.

They also ignored the foul bunt -- and not too many people paid attention when he laid one down the next day too, this time beating it out for a single in another losing cause.

By Game 5, the threat of a bunt was in the air when Schmidt, who had earlier blasted his second series homer, led off the ninth with his team trailing 3-2. KC Manager Jim Frey moved Brett in a few steps to guard against any more surprises Mike might have in mind in order to get the tying run on base, so the Phillie slugger swung away and hit a smash that just ticked off Brett's glove -- an easy out if he had been playing back, but here a single that started the two-run rally which brought the Phillies home on the verge of their first world championship instead of down 3-2 with their backs to the wall.

At this point even the doubters of old had to notice that Schmidt was hitting .389 with two homers and five RBIs through the first five games, led all players on both teams with six runs scored, and had handled 17 chances flawlessly in the field.

And the old idea that Mike just wasn't one of those players who could rise to the occasion has long since been relegated to the category of ancient myths that have now been exploded.

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