Today marks the 31st anniversary of one of the most shocking moments involving the Phillies during my lifetime. At least it was a shocker to me, and I am sure that many of my age peers felt the same. It also marked a very obvious, both in hindsight and even at the time it took place, end of an era in Phillies baseball.
“Over the years of my career, I’ve set a high standard for myself as a player,” Schmidt told the Philadelphia Daily News at the time per Craig Muder at the Baseball Hall of Fame. “My skills – to do the little things on the field, to make the adjustments needed to hit, to make the routine play on defense and run the bases aggressively – have deteriorated.”
The announcement came during the day on a Monday while the Phillies were in the midst of what was an otherwise nondescript west coast road trip. The team was going nowhere. They had just been swept by the host Giants on a weekend in San Francisco which came after losing two of three in Los Angeles.
The Phillies had started out by winning six of their first eight games in that 1989 season and they were still at 9-6 after three weeks. Schmidt had homered in the first two games of the season and already was up to five home runs in those first few weeks.
But from that point onward the team had lost 22 of 31 games, and on that Monday morning it was a 10 of 13 losing stretch. Schmidt himself was part of the problem. Over his final dozen games he slashed .053/.213/.053 with no extra-base hits and just two RBIs.
At age 39 he was clearly not the superstar he had once been, at least not based on actual production. He was slashing just .203/.297/.372 overall in late May with six homers, 13 extra-base hits, 28 RBIs, 19 runs scored, and no stolen bases. Extrapolated out over a full season his numbers would play out to roughly 20 homers and 90 RBIs.
Three years earlier, Schmidt had won the third of his National League Most Valuable Player awards, the 10th of his career NL Gold Glove awards at third base, and his sixth NL Silver Slugger award at the position. Just two years earlier he had crushed 35 homers, knocked in 113 runs, hit .293, and was an NL All-Star for the 11th time. Included among those longballs was the 500th home run of his career in Major League Baseball.
Those were his last hurrahs, though we didn’t see it coming at the time. The 1988 season was the first hint that the clock was running out. Schmidt’s power was way down with just a dozen home runs through mid-August and he was hitting just .249, easily his lowest average in more than a decade.
It turns out that Schmidt had suffered a rotator cuff injury and was trying to play through it. The pain finally caused him to shut it down after an August 12 doubleheader at Veterans Stadium against the Pittsburgh Pirates and Schmidt would miss the final seven weeks of the season.
But he was healthy for the 1989 season by all reports. By that time, Schmidt had been a regular in the Phillies lineup since I was just 11 years old. I was now age 27, and he was a fixture and a legend with my beloved hometown team. Frankly, I just couldn’t even conceive of a Phillies team without Michael Jack Schmidt in the starting lineup.
On May 2, 1989 and fittingly at Veterans Stadium, Schmidt would blast his 548th home run. What no one could possibly know at the time was that it was also the final homer in that glorious career.
In retrospect it’s easy to see why he made the choice that he did. The team was not only going nowhere that year, but they had not been a legitimate contender since falling apart in September of 1984. Even the 1986 team that finished 11 games over .500 with 86 wins was never in contention, ending that year 21.5 games behind a 108-win New York Mets team that would go on to win the World Series.
Schmidt saw the writing on the wall. He was away from his home and family with an organization that appeared to be going nowhere both in the short and long terms. His own play had deteriorated to an average point, far below his high standards. He was no longer enjoying the game, didn’t see that ending, and had a long summer of baseball stretched out ahead of him. It was simply his time.
On Sunday, May 28, 1989 the Phillies were outslugged by the Giants in an 8-5 loss at Candlestick Park. Schmidt played the entire game at third base, going 0-3 and drawing a pair of walks. Watching that game on TV back in Philly, I had no idea that it would be the last time that I would watch him play.
Giants manager Roger Craig decided to make a move at that point, lifting lefty reliever Terry Mulholland and calling for right-hander Mike LaCoss to face Schmidt. The Phillies star worked a five-pitch walk to load the bases. It was the final plate appearance of Schmidt’s career.
Mark Ryal then singled, scoring Herr and moving everyone else up a bag. With Schmidt at second base, Curt Ford then grounded a ball to shortstop. Schmidt was rounding third base and looking back at he play as the Giants completed a 6-4-3 double play, Jose Uribe to Robby Thompson to Will Clark, to end the ball game.
Schmidt walked off the field, a fifth straight loss weighing heavily on his mind. Whether it was building, whether he was thinking about it for days or weeks, who knows? But sometime after that game, certainly after talking with his wife, Donna, on the phone and then sleeping on the idea, Schmidt decided it was time to hang ’em up.
It was Memorial Day, and Schmidt gave us all something to remember with his shocking announcement.
“I might be the happiest person in the stadium,” he said during the emotional press conference. “When you wake up in the morning and you’re a lot happier to be a former player than you were to be a player the morning before, you know you’ve done the right thing. I can’t tell you how relieved I am.”
Schmidt may have been relieved, but we Phillies fans were stunned. And we were left with a gaping hole in our baseball lives. Who would play third base now? Where was the team headed?
Despite the retirement announcement and his leaving the team, Schmidt was still elected by Major League Baseball fans as the starting third baseman on the National League All-Star team for 1989. Though invited, he chose not to participate in the game. However, he did make an appearance in his Phillies uniform during player introductions.
The Phillies first post-Schmidt game was that very night of his announcement on May 29. 1989. On that Monday evening at Jack Murphy Stadium, Chris James played the hot corner for the Phillies in the lineup submitted by manager Nick Leyva.
James would fill the role for the first few days, but then the Phillies began to make wholesale changes when he was dealt away to the Padres in exchange for John Kruk and Randy Ready on June 2. Ready then became the starting third baseman, but it would be a short-lived role.
Two weeks later, closer Steve Bedrosian was dealt to the Giants in a trade that brought Mulholland to the Phillies along with Charlie Hayes and Dennis Cook. That same day, Samuel was swapped to the Mets for Lenny Dykstra. From that point onward, Hayes took over the third base position for the Phillies. And while we didn’t know it yet, major pieces to the next Phillies pennant winners were acquired in Kruk, Dykstra, and Mulholland.
But that would only be revealed over the longer term. At the time, all seemed to be drifting aimlessly down at Veterans Stadium for we fans who had grown up with a winning Phillies team. That winning had been gone for years. And now the greatest player during that era, the greatest player in Phillies history, was also gone.