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Mike Schmidt due for recognition at last as baseball's top player

Along Madison Avenue and in the consciousness of the general public he's not in the same league as Reggie Jackson, Pete Rose, or Fernando Valenzuela when it comes to recognition and ''marketability.'' But take a poll among baseball people as to who has been the game's top all-around player so far over the last half dozen or so years and there isn't much doubt that Mike Schmidt would come out on top.

The slugging third baseman of the Philadelphia Phillies has surely been the most devastating hitter around in that time, as even the most cursory examination of his statistics discloses. From 1973 through 1981 he accumulated 313 home runs - far more than Jackson, Dave Kingman, George Foster, or any other slugger hit in the same period. And although this is only his 10th big league season, Mike's feat of having led the major leagues in homers five times is already second on the all-time list behind Babe Ruth's total of nine. Furthermore, at age 32 he presumably has another decade or so to add to these accomplishments.

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But power statistics are only one aspect of Schmidt's value. Mike is an outstanding baserunner with enough speed to have stolen 23 and 29 bases in consecutive seasons in the mid-1970s and to have hit 11 triples two years after that. And although he once had a reputation as a free-swinging slugger who struck out too frequently to be a really good hitter, he has lately been cutting down on the whiffs and raising his batting average dramatically. He reached a then-personal high of .286 in 1980, tacked on 30 more points to a fourth-best-in-the-league .316 in the abbreviated 1981 campaign, and has hit in the .290s most of this season.

''I feel I can win a batting title some year,'' he says - and given his progress so far, who can doubt him?

Then there is defense. Casual fans tend to stereotype sluggers as average fielders, but Schmidt is the classic refutation of that theory. Mike has a great arm and he makes all the plays - charging slow hit balls, guarding the line, diving to his left, etc. He's right up there defensively with the likes of Brooks Robinson and Graig Nettles, and his six Gold Gloves constitute a National League record for a third baseman.

All this has been duly recognized in baseball circles. Schmidt's 1980 and 1981 Most Valuable Player awards make him only the third National Leaguer and the seventh player in either league so honored twice in a row. He was also the MVP of the 1980 World Series; holds the major league record for home runs by a third baseman in a season (48); and is third in that category lifetime behind Eddie Mathews (481) and Ron Santo (334). He's up there in the financial league, too, with a six-year contract which began this season at a figure variously estimated at $1.2 to $1.5 million per annum.

Considering all this, it took a lot longer than it should have for Philadelphia fans to appreciate what they had. Elsewhere the public was even slower to awaken to the fact. But by now most people are finally beginning to realize that Mike has quietly been putting together the kind of numbers that seem certain to add up to eventual Hall of Fame election.

''Quietly'' is the key word, because Schmidt is just not the flamboyant type who makes the gossip columns, gets a candy bar named after him, or winds up with his image all over the TV screen endorsing products. On the contrary, he's basically a family man who prefers to spend his free time with his wife, Donna, and their two small children; who goes about his business at the ballpark without fanfare; and who will take whatever recognition his exploits give him without going out of his way to get more. One can hardly help comparing his situation, in fact, to that of Hank Aaron, who spent most of his baseball years overshadowed by more publicized stars like Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle until late in his career the public suddenly realized that he was the one who was about to break Ruth's all-time home run record.

''I get enough attention here,'' Schmidt said when asked how he felt about this state of affairs. ''I know I would have had more national exposure if I had played in New York or Los Angeles, but this is enough.''

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Schmidt, who at 6 ft., 2 in. and 203 pounds possesses an imposing combination of speed, strength, and coordination, is one of those athletes who seem to do well in anything they try. He played football and basketball in high school, is a fine golfer, tennis player, and swimmer, and has repeatedly excelled in the Superstars competition. In baseball he was a two-time All-American at Ohio University, from which he graduated in 1971 with a degree in business administration.

Even with all this going for him, Mike had problems at first hitting big league pitching. His rookie season of 1973 was notable for 18 home runs - but also for a .196 batting average and an almost unbelievable 136 strikeouts in 367 at-bats. He kept on swinging and missing a lot too, leading the league in strikeouts the next three years. He improved his batting average, though, and he also led the league in homers the same three seasons while averaging more than 100 RBIs.

By that time Schmidt was the big hitter on a perennial contender that had a bad habit of losing year after year in the playoffs. And no matter how much Mike contributed during the regular campaign, it all got quickly forgotten when he failed in those post-season games. In retrospect, it seems the fans had short memories, but Schmidt doesn't fault them.

''People said Mike Schmidt didn't come through enough in big games in those days,'' he said. ''Well, maybe he didn't! I didn't hit well in those first three playoffs (.182 with no home runs). For that matter, I didn't hit well in the 1980 playoffs either. We wouldn't have been in the World Series if some others hadn't carried us then.''

The Phillies did get in the Series, though, and that was when Schmidt silenced his critics for good. Actually, he started a week or so earlier with dramatic late home runs in two straight games at Montreal including an 11 th-inning game-winner in the one that clinched the division title. His playoff performance against Houston wasn't that bad either, for despite a .208 average he came through with some key hits. And in his first World Series he batted . 381 with two homers and seven RBIs, fielded brilliantly, and was named MVP of Philadelphia's six-game victory over Kansas City.

Last year didn't have such a happy ending, but it did have that second straight regular season MVP award. And this year, despite a fairly sharp drop in his power statistics to date, Mike is a big cog as always in the team's quest for a fifth National League East title in the last seven seasons.

Like all players in the fishbowl that occupies Philadelphia's notorious media spotlight, Schmidt is subjected to constant scrutiny on the field. He was only half-joking when he quipped a couple of years ago that the so-called City of Brotherly Love was the only place where one could experience ''the thrill of victory and the agony of reading about it the next day.'' But at this point he is so popular here that he seldom has to worry about such problems any more.

As for the national spotlight, even a quiet man like Mike Schmidt will have trouble avoiding it if he wins a third straight regular season MVP award - a feat no one in major league history has accomplished. So far, 1982 hasn't looked like that sort of a year for him in terms of individual statistics, but he could still salvage a shot at it with a big second half - especially if the voters consider the many intangible contributions he makes to the team's success.

All you have to do to get an idea of this factor is check Philadelphia's record. When Schmidt missed 15 games with an injury in late April and May, the club went into a tailspin that left it buried in last place with a 6-14 won-lost mark. Since then, with Mike not only supplying his own thunder in the cleanup spot but also taking the pressure off other hitters, it has played close to .640 ball and climbed up to first place.

It's obvious that other teams have been ''pitching around'' Schmidt - i.e., seldom giving him anything good in key spots, even at the risk of walking him. The result is that even though he missed those 15 games, Mike leads the league by wide margins in both walks and on-base percentage, while other hitters have had to take up some of the RBI slack.

It takes a lot of patience and discipline to handle a situation like that in the best interests of the club rather than swing at bad pitches - and Schmidt has been equal to the challenge. Of course his own statistics have suffered as a result, but that's a price this consummate team player will happily pay if it helps put the Phillies in the playoffs, and perhaps the World Series, once again.

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