Mike Schmidt embroiled in controversy over Odubel Herrera comments

Herrera (L) and Schmidt (R), photo from Sports Illustrated
Michael Jack Schmidt is the greatest player in the 134-year history of the Philadelphia Phillies franchise. You will get few arguments to that statement.
The Baseball Hall of Famer and Phillies Wall of Famer is also widely considered to be the greatest all-around third baseman in the history of the game. Some might still argue for Brooks Robinson, but most of the arguments end there.
Neither of those statements is particularly controversial. But the living legend did utter some statements himself on a local sports radio program today which have become controversial.
On Tuesday, Schmidt made an appearance on Philadelphia’s influential SportsRadio 94 WIP. He joined the station’s morning program crew, known around town for their sometimes irreverent, sometimes controversial statements and opinions.
Schmidt has never been shy about speaking his mind either. It is one of the reasons that he was hired to do color commentary for local Comcast TV broadcasts during Phillies weekend home games.
Much as the WIP crew had to hope, Schmitty was predictably candid when commenting on the current state of the team. The Phillies have been trying to rebuild the organization since their recent glory era ended after the 2011 campaign.


The statements that created the controversy today revolved around a question on current center fielder Odubel Herrera.
First off, Schmidt stated that Herrera was nothing like himself as a player. He also said that he would probably hate to “play against him because of his antics on the field.” Among other things, Herrera is widely known as one of the most outlandish bat-flippers in the game today.
Schmidt then went on to expound on whether Herrera, signed by the Phillies to a long-term contract this past off-season, could be a locker room leader. This is where the supposed controversy comes in.
You can listen to the entire interview here at the local CBS website (partners to WIP SportsRadio.) Schmidt’s exact words in relation to Herrera’s leadership possibilities were as follows:
“My honest answer to that would be no because of a couple of things. First of all, it’s a language barrier. Because of that, I think he can’t be a guy that would sort of sit in a circle with four, five American players and talk about the game. Or try and learn about the game or discuss the inner workings of the game. Or come over to a guy and say, ‘Man, you gotta run that ball out.’ Just can’t be — because of the language barrier — that kind of a player.”


A number of local and national reporters were quick to jump all over the Hall of Famer. What was he saying, that Hispanic speakers couldn’t be locker room leaders?
That is exactly how those individuals and outlets chose to interpret Schmidt’s words. But factually, that is nothing more than misrepresenting what he said at best, and twisting his words to simply grab their own headlines at worst.
Let’s break that statement down to see what is really present. First, Schmidt was not asked if Latino players could be leaders. He was being asked about and thus was commenting solely on Herrera.
What Schmidt was quite obviously saying was that Herrera would have a difficult time leading a group of players if he couldn’t understand their language, and they couldn’t understand him. Herrera’s communication abilities in English could be described as “broken” at best.
Some folks might not like hearing that language could still be a legitimate barrier to communicating effective messages between people, but that is simple truth.
Schmidt never said English speakers were better. He never said that Hispanic speakers or Latino players couldn’t be leaders in a big league clubhouse. He simply said that Herrera, due to his own specific current limitation with language, would have a difficult time.

Mike Schmidt did NOT make a racial comment about Odubel Herrera on our show today. He was talking about a language barrier. That’s all.


Schmidt spoke of Herrera’s inconsistent season, and mentioned that it was the first time with the Phillies take we’ve seen such a stretch of poor performance from him.
“Odubel can be, you see what he’s doing the last three days. We saw the inconsistency to drop the batting average all the way down to the low-.200’s prior to the last three games. And that’s really the first time we’ve seen that kind of inconsistency from him.”
But Schmidt then went on to critique Herrera’s style of play, which some of those same folks who jumped on the language situation also jumped on as prejudicial.
“He’s more of a sort of, play the game, allow his exuberance for the game to kind of spread around the team. I think the fans love him. He’s not afraid to do things that sort of irk the other team if you will, and you know what that is. I probably would hate him if I played against him because of his antics on the field, but he’s not afraid. He’s not afraid to do that. He’s learning to play a really good centerfield. They haven’t figured out where he needs to hit in the batting order yet. But to answer your question, those are the reasons that I don’t think you can build a team around him.”


The critics see in phrases like “exuberance” and “irk the other team” and “antics on the field” an allusion to his ethnic background. Instead, what they are is, once again, simple truths regarding Herrera individually. Schmidt never mentions race or ethnicity, or anything other than what he has seen in Odubel himself.
Herrera does play the game with a youthful exuberance. He does wear his heart on his sleeve out there. He does do things, especially the bat-flipping, that irk the opposition. His antics have indeed been frowned upon by opposing players.
And Herrera has indeed been moved up and down the batting order by skipper Pete Mackanin. More simple truth. He has been at the top, middle, and bottom of the order. When at his best, Herrera is a high-average hitter with speed and some pop.
Herrera fits the profile of what the great Phillies teams of the last decade used to get from a Jimmy Rollins or a Shane Victorino. More of a 1-2 hitter in a lineup. Schmidt actually went on to state that himself.
“Now I truly think he can hit second or first on a championship team. There’s no question about that.”


Schmidt then spoke about qualities of hustle, camaraderie, and returned to the communication question.
“But to build a team around a guy, he has to sprint every ball out like Chase Utley used to do. He has to be more of a, I want to say, friend to everybody. Not that he’s not a friend. It’s hard to describe what I mean. The language barrier means a lot because his communication with his teammates is limited because of the language barrier. And, so, I don’t think I’m disrespecting him by any means.”
I’ll admit that he loses me with the “friend” comments. But to be fair, he seems to lose himself with that one.
My bet is that he is simply harking back to his own relationships with teammates, perhaps jn comparison to what he knows about the current state of the Phillies locker room. I have seen it written about players changing quickly and going their separate ways immediately after games.
You can be argumentative, and opine that Schmidt is indeed being disrespectful towards Herrera by commenting critically in this type of interview. But again, the man is simply being honest.
Frankly, on the hustle commentary, he is right on track. Herrera has been criticized and even benched due to a lack of hustle in the past.


Schmidt wraps up the Herrera portion of the radio interview by giving some examples of who he would consider a locker room leader.
“But when you say “build a team around” somebody, you’re generally taking about a Roy Halladay as a pitcher. Cliff Lee. You’re talking about a Mike Trout kind of player. Players that are automatic all-stars every year. I think an Aaron Altherr can become that kind of guy. I think as Tommy Joseph learns and gets better, he can become a 30-home run, 100 RBI player. We got some young players in the minor leagues eventually that could become those kind of players.”
Schmidt is obviously defaulting to players who were respected in recent Phillies locker rooms, such as Doc and Cliff. He also tosses in current players Altherr and Joseph as possible leaders. And he mentions the perpetual tease to Phillies fans, local boy Mike Trout, generally considered the best player in the game today. A player whose workouts in preparation for the game are as legendary as his on-field exploits.
There are many reasons why a writer or commentator would misrepresent Schmidt’s exact words by inserting their own interpretations. The bigger the target, the bigger the headline. Call Mike Schmidt a racist or say that he is prejudiced, you create much in the way of click-baiting.


A line from one of my all-time favorite films comes to mind. In “Jaws”, the mayor of the town of Amity wants Chief Brody and Matt Hooper to be very sure before stating that a Great White shark is feeding off his beach.
“Martin,” the mayor says to Brody, “it’s all psychological. You yell barracuda, everybody says “Huh? What?” You yell shark, we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.”
The difference is that Hooper and Brody were right, there was a shark in the water. Attempts to paint Mike Schmidt as ignorant or prejudiced in reference to his Herrera commentary are, like that town of Amity, purely fictional.