It’s All in the Details

It’s All in the Details

A round with Mike Schmidt, the greatest third baseman ever, rekindled thoughts of the parallels between baseball and golf

By Michael Bamberger

When the Phillies retired Mike Schmidt’s jersey on a Saturday night in mid-May in 1990, his old club had a new and newly bulked-up center fielder. Nobody in baseball was more exciting to watch than Lenny Dykstra just then. He was batting .410 and turning liners in the gap into I-got-it performance art. 

Isn’t that what sport is, a kind of performance art? Aren’t sporting events a play of a kind, with a beginning, a middle and (sometimes) a surprise ending?

I’m sure Lenny Dykstra and Mike Schmidt, both golf nuts, will be following the Ryder Cup this week, to see how the shots are played, of course, but ultimately for the theater of it all. It’s a play in three acts: Friday as Act I, Saturday as Act II, the Sunday singles matches as Act III.

We sportswriters have our own rooting interests: an engaging protagonist, an unlikely plot twist, a surprising something. Get even one of those three and the story types itself. For example, Alan Shipnuck, in the fading light of the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, capturing for eternity the winner, Brooks Koepka, telling the trophy engraver how to spell his last name. 

If you watched that Open and read that story later, you had the feeling you’d be hearing more about this brash golfer with Mickey Mantle’s round shoulders, but you couldn’t know. Life is hard to predict. Koepka’s name is now in the golf pantheon. Five major titles is five more than most.

In 1990, I was covering the Phillies for the Philadelphia Inquirer and played some golf with Dykstra. On the course, Lenny drank and chewed and putted like a pro from 10 feet and in. He strutted, he double-downed, he bought out the shop. He parked his Mercedes over multiple spaces. Playing golf with him was fun, interesting and intense. As the Scots have said forever, golf reveals a man. (Or, yes, a person.) Dykstra ended that ’90 season batting .325. The pitchers are always gonna figure you out, over the course of the summer and into the fall. They have their own skill sets, of course, and they have egos. Nobody likes being shown up.

The pitcher and the hitter. Baseball’s balance and counterbalance. Golf, with no defense, has a yin and yang, too, but in a different way. A long power game and a short finesse game must reside in any golfer expecting to win, say, the U.S. Open. John Daly had both, in spades. You could say that Lenny Dykstra was to baseball what John Daly was to golf. Both could have been Hall of Famers. But, life.

A year after that night for Mike Schmidt and the retirement of his uniform number, at 1 o’clock early on a May morning, Dykstra was behind the wheel of his Mercedes when he crashed it into a suburban tree. He was drunk. Dykstra broke three ribs, a collarbone and a cheekbone. He bruised his heart. (Myocardial contusion, on his chart at Bryn Mawr Hospital.) A teammate, Darren Daulton, riding shotgun, injured an eye socket. The Phillies’ team doctor said they were both lucky to be alive. He suggested they go to church.

Somehow, Dykstra found his way back to the lineup that year and had both a productive season and career, though it was shorter than it might have been, 12 years, all in, and he was battered by the end of it. Somehow, he found his way to age 60 earlier this year. It was not by dint of clean living or counting his steps while playing golf. (Cart guy, for one thing.) But Dykstra never stopped loving baseball, or golf. Yes, he’s an ex-con. Still, he’s Lenny. He shows up at card shows and golf outings all the time and will talk your ears off, left and right.

Some years ago I called Dykstra and asked if he wanted to talk about his experience with steroids for a Sports Illustrated piece. Our golf games did a lot to develop a kind of rapport. The game is amazing that way. That doesn’t mean you’re going to get a yes but you might be in a better place to ask, and you might even have a working phone number. Lenny’s answer was immediate: “There’s no upside for me in that story, dude.”

He saved the subject for his book, House of Nails. You can look it up, the book. If you do, you might be surprised to see Stephen King, novelist and baseball fan, banging kitchen pots for House of Nails. As for looking things up, it has never been easier. It has never been easier to learn something new, to find something out.

I just looked up the results of the 2000 American Century Championship, a three-round, stroke-play celebrity tournament played in Lake Tahoe. (D. Trump and S. Daniels put it on the map beyond the golf audience some years later.) Schmidt played in 2000, shooting rounds of 75, 81 and 72 for 228, 18 shots back of the winner, NFL kicker Al Del Greco. Schmidt was 50 years old with dreams of playing the senior tour. Dykstra played, too, and shot 83, 91, 80 for 254. Golf is always hard, and harder yet with a pencil in hand.

Tom Watson, like Schmidt, was born in 1949. Lanny Wadkins and Tom Kite were, too. (So was Bruce Jenner, who matched Dykstra’s three-round score in that 2000 event.) Schmidt didn’t have enough years ahead of him or daylight to come close to catching up to a Watson or a Wadkins or  a Kite, let alone Andy North or John Mahaffey or Mark Hayes, to offer up six ’49ers here. His swing was compact and powerful, but from 60 yards and in the lifers can turn golf shots into magic tricks with less effort than you use to pour your morning O.J. They could take a Mike Schmidt 75 and turn it into a 70 while making it look like child’s play.

I got to play with Schmidt the other day. It. Was. A. Thrill. It was fun and interesting, not tense in any way. If you had grown up, as I did, on Seaver, Gibson, Bench and Schmidt, you’d have been pinching yourself, too. Tom, Bob, John and Mike. Amazing what adding a surname, and Hall-of-Fame numbers, does to short and common first names. 

Every name I mentioned to Schmidt conjured up something. Cleon Jones, batting hero of the ’69 Mets. Yep. Eddie Ferenz, the Phillies’ longtime traveling secretary. Yep. Ed Liberatore, the baseball lifer, in reference to the day he brought Ted Williams to Mike Piazza’s house. Yes on Ed, yes on Ted, yes on Mike.

Williams watched Piazza make some swings in a pro-worthy backyard batting cage when Piazza was 16. (Piazza’s father was a self-made millionaire, prominent in the car business and real estate in greater Philadelphia. Later, he and his son bought a golf course Mike played as a kid.) Williams said, “I don’t know if he has a position to play, but he’ll hit in every league he plays in.” Good eye, good eye. Tiger Woods said pretty much the same thing about Sam Burns after playing with him for the first time at Honda. That was in 2018. What he saw I don’t know, but Tiger was spotting promise just as Williams had. The best are always paying attention, seeing things, learning something new. Schmidt will whisper a question into his phone whenever he wants information about this topic or that one.

We played a huge, rolling Gary Player course just outside Philadelphia called Union League Liberty Hill. I was a last-minute fill-in. The host was a new pal, John Ryan, the chief counsel officer for the Temple University Health System, which has had a relationship with the Phillies, and thereby Schmidt, for years. (If you want to be an icon in your sport, play for one team your entire career. Or one major golf tour, for that matter.) The Phillies’ orthopedic surgeon, Milo Sewards, a member of the Temple faculty, was in the game, too.

Early in our round, I told Schmidt how I had once met George Brett at a Phillies game. You could say that Brett was to the Kansas City Royals what Schmidt was to the Phillies. They both played third and hit the dirt hard and the ball hard, too. They were both first-ballot Hall of Famers.

It’s All in the Details

Brett loves golf and knows Tom Watson and Fred Couples and many other golfers. On the night I met Brett, Fred had just been voted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. His induction was months away. Brett asked me, “That golf Hall of Fame—is that a real thing?” Schmidt laughed when I described the scene for him. Brett was giving Fred the needle from a thousand miles away, maybe knowing it might get back to him.

On the 1st tee, Mike suggested we toss balls for teams. I have found that ballplayers like to play for something, not just go for a four-hour stroll. I’m the same way. I was rooting hard for John, my new lawyer friend and now golf partner, until I learned the teams were Milo and me against John and Mike.

We played off Mike’s ball. Mike is 73 years old and he plays to a 5. Milo, John and I were all 12ish. Mike kept the card. John and Mike cleaned our clocks, even though there was some decent golf, at least at times. There was no gloating or smack talk. There was golf talk and baseball talk.

“I found out pretty fast that I was a 75-shooter,” Schmidt said, recalling his efforts to play the senior tour. He worked and worked but he couldn’t become another Ralph Terry, the Yankees pitcher who played some senior tour golf. A 75-shooter trending toward 72 is going to be lucky just to sample the clubhouse snacks.

But in his golfing prime Schmidt most likely would have been the best golfer, or one of them, at your club. He and his wife have a summer home in Rhode Island, and in 2013 he won the Rhode Island Senior Amateur Championship, shooting 2 under for 36 holes at the Pawtucket Country Club. He knows Billy Andrade and Brad Faxon and the Rhody golf scene. Lots of good players and courses in Rhode Island. Schmidt spends his winters in Jupiter, Fla. Lots of good golfers around there, too. Schmidt didn’t give Milo a swing tip until we got to 18. Schmidt called him Doc. The doctor was now the patient and he was all ears, trying to learn something new.

The odds were against Mike Schmidt making it to the senior tour, just as the odds were against Michael Jordan making it to the bigs as a baseball player. No sport does long odds like baseball. Millions and millions of kids around the world have big-league dreams and have had them for a hundred years. Way more. Not even 20,000 have made it to the majors. Of that group, Schmidt is one of the greatest ever, the consensus all-things-considered best third baseman in baseball history. (RIP, Brooks Robinson, another one-team player, a Baltimore Orioles lifer. Nobody ever fielded the corner as you did, grass hops and everything else.)

Hard to imagine that in his first full season, in 1973, he went to the plate 443 times and batted .196. South of the Mendoza Line! And from there he went to become an overwhelming first-ballot Hall of Famer, with an 18-year career, all of it with the Phillies. If you let the math stop you, you’d never leave the comfort of your den. George Brett pushed the phrase, Mendoza Line, into the lexicon, to describe a guy who doesn’t bat .200. It’s named for a real ballplayer (Mario) who spent a lot of his nine-year career batting in the .190s.

Mike hit some terrific shots in our game. He moves around a course sort of the way Arnold Palmer did, never wasting a motion. Curtis Strange had that quality. (Curtis always seems like a ballplayer to me.) Schmidt would sometimes mark his ball on the enormous Liberty Hill greens by making a small X in the grain with a tee. (No fishing around for a coin.) His lag putting was terrific. He routinely knew what we had all made without asking. He asked questions. He showed signs of irritation when his shots were not on the face but never came close to an outburst. Cool was always his thing. As a kid, Piazza used to sit as close to third base as he could, to study Schmidt and his cool. But Schmidt cared about this round and the shots he hit. No question about that. Schmidt’s golf matters to him.

Four hours later, we were eating lunch and talking about the baseball Hall of Fame. Schmidt is an active member with strong opinions. He believes Dick Allen should be in, for instance. He’s on the Veterans Committee, which looks at candidates no longer on the ballot. He asked me if I was a Hall of Fame voter.

I told him I was not. You have to be a 10-year member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to be a voter. I was a member for a year.

“No,” Schmidt said. “For the golf hall of fame. If that’s a real thing.”

The best are always paying attention. 

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]

1 thought on “It’s All in the Details”

  1. Mike also struck out 136 times in 367 plate appearances that 1st full season in the bigs… only to go on to be the greatest all-around 3rd baseman in the history of the game! I skipped my fraternity’s 16″ softball game in my freshman year to take the L down to Wrigley field to watch the fightin’ Phillies battle the Cubs. Bleachers were full so I had to sit obstructed view in the grandstand. Phils were down 12-1 in the fourth when a hustling Jay Johnstone dove head first on a tapped ball past the pitcher, so I stayed and took Cubs’ fans abuse (I was wearing my trusty Phillies hat)… until Michael Jack launched his 4th home of the day and my Phillies won 18-16! Glad to know that one of my childhood heroes loves golf as much as I do.

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