Mike Schmidt's Hall of Fame credentials have been in order for quite some time now - topped by eight National League home run titles and a record-tying three Most Valuable Player awards. This season the slugging Philadelphia Phillies third baseman added another key number to the list when he hit his 500th career home run, a three-run job with two out in the ninth inning that destroyed the Pittsburgh Pirates. Certain career statistics have that Cooperstown aura about them - like 300 pitching victories, 3,000 hits, and, of course, 500 homers. In fact, only 13 other players in baseball history have broken this barrier. Hank Aaron is the all-time leader with 755, followed by Babe Ruth (714) and Willie Mays (660), the only other players with more than 600.
To use a movie analogy, Schmidt is the Greta Garbo of major league baseball. He likes to be alone with his thoughts, his family, and his extraordinary collection of electric trains, which occupy most of the attic of his six-bedroom house in Media, Pa.
Despite his inclinations, however, Mike has never been insensitive to the needs of the press the way some stars are. And to probe his thoughts is to discover that he leaves nothing to chance.
Over the years, one of Schmidt's top priorities (and most baseball people think it is a manufactured one designed to keep him mentally sharp) has been maintaining consistency. Early in his career, Mike struck out far too frequently - even for a big swinger - and he has waged a continuing battle throughout his 15-plus big-league seasons to to keep his power figures up and his strikeouts down.
Even though Schmidt hit 36 home runs in 1974 and followed that with three consecutive seasons at 38, he was not happy with a four-year total of 589 strikeouts - more than any other hitter in the league. So he concentrated on improving that aspect of his game without sacrificing too much power - and a glance at his latest four-year statistics shows the results. From 1983 through 1986 his power totals were nearly identical (four fewer homers, eight more RBIs), while his strikeouts came down to a more respectable 427.
But hitting is only one aspect of Mike's overall outstanding play. His defensive brilliance is attested to by his 10 Gold Gloves, his attitude has always been great, and he is virtually a perennial All-Star team selection.
``If your job in this game is hitting, then you try to make sure you get as many good pitches as possible,'' Schmidt once told me. ``The point is, if you continually go after balls that are outside the strike zone, then these kind of pitches are the only ones you are ever going to see.
``Any time I've got the pitcher in the hole, like two balls and no strikes, I wait for the fastball. Maybe he throws me a slider for a strike, or another kind of breaking ball that's over the plate. It doesn't make any difference, I'm still going to wait for the fastball.
``Of course if the count evens up, I have to change my mind and go with the pitch if it's in the strike zone. But you'd be surprised how often I see the fastball when the pitcher is behind in the count.''
And when Schmidt does have a slump? ``I look for checkpoints that let me get back into a groove that's comfortable,'' Mike added. ``At this period in my career, nobody knows me better than I do.'' Shades of the Green Monster
Remember Gene Tenace, the unsung catcher whose four home runs led the Oakland A's to victory over Cincinnati in the 1974 World Series?
Now a coach with the Houston Astros, Tenace looked up from his newspaper in the visiting clubhouse at Dodger Stadium and commented on the story he'd been reading about Boston's celebration of Fenway Park's 75th anniversary.
``Like every other right-handed pull hitter, I used to love that ballpark when I first came into the American League,'' Tenace told me. ``It was only 315 feet down the line, and if you could get the ball up enough [the wall is 37 feet high], what would be a routine put-out in another park was a home run in Fenway.
``But after you've been around a while, you begin to realize that the Green Monster probably takes away more home runs than it gives up. I've seen guys go into Fenway who were hot with the bat, change their stance so they could better reach the wall, and then go into a slump for the next three weeks.''
Tenace added that he always felt that Fenway's left field wall was more responsible for knocking his team out of the 1975 American League playoffs - ending its bid for a fourth straight pennant and world championship - than was the play of the Red Sox.
``During that series, I saw Sal Bando hit four rising line drives for us that landed three-quarters of the way up the wall,'' Gene said. ``No question, anywhere else those hits would have been home runs.
``But those balls were hit so hard and bounced back off the wall to [Carl] Yastrzemski so quickly that I can only remember one time when Bando got extra bases. Fenway may be a fun park for the fans, but I hate to think of the number of good hitters over the years who have been suckered by its left field wall.''