Even though I was raised a Yankees fan, I saw a lot of Mike Schmidt when I was growing up. That's because my father was (and is) an oppositional guy. When cable television became widespread, he was a holdout. He just wasn't interested in spending the money. Sure, we had a roof over our heads and food on the table (often frozen or carryout, but still), but no cable. Clearly someone should have called social services.
Dad was, or claimed to be, satisfied with the seven channels we had: CBS, NBC, NEW (ancient cartoons in the afternoon and repeats of "All in the Family" at night); ABC; WOR (Mets games and original programming like "The Joe Franklin Show," which was an inert talk show filmed in a closet that mostly focused on the hot entertainment topics circa 1922); PIX (Yankees games and a nice block of "Odd Couple," original "Star Trek," and "Twilight Zone" repeats at night); and PBS.
I know it's hard to believe now, but kids, that was all we had. Sort of. There was this whole other band of channels on something called UHF, Ultra-High Frequency. "Regular" TV was on VHF, Very-High Frequency. UHF was a weaker signal that allowed New Jerseyans to pick up programming from faraway Philadelphia and see ancient "Dr. Who" repeats and Phillies games, sometimes both at the same time:
The Doctor: The brontosaurus is large and placid!
Harry Kalas: Greg Luzinski crashes into left-field wall trying to get that shot off the bat of Brock, looks like a sure triple.
The Doctor: Something's going on contrary to the laws of the universe. I must find out what!
Harry Kalas: Brock goes into third standing up. Boy, that Greg Luzinski sure can hit.
Unfortunately, UHF reception was never great because it just wasn't as strong as your standard signal, and your typical TV sets of the day, which were made out of the same primitive materials with which the Clovis peoples pricked the wooly mammoth out of existence, didn't quite know how to decode the signal, so in general the picture was on the snowy side. Nevertheless, as a very enthusiastic young baseball fan, I found that UHF was my ideal fallback for those times of day when the Yankees or Mets were not playing. The Phillies weren't very good at that point -- this was during the 10-year dry spell that was bookended by their 1983 and 1993 World Series losses -- a period epitomized by their 1985-1988 starting shortstop Steve Jeltz, a career .210/.308/.268 hitter. They also had a marquee player, though, a guy everybody knew was a future Hall of Famer, slugging third baseman Michael Jack Schmidt.
It has been 25 years since Schmidt last played, so a brief refresher is in order: He was the greatest third baseman of all time. Okay? Done. A three-time MVP award-winner and nine-time Gold Glover who was worthy of his defensive reputation, Schmidt averaged .267/.380/.527 in his career and hit 548 home runs. Those numbers are plenty good on their own (and for those of you into wins above replacement, Schmidt was well over 100 for his career), but translate them to almost any era except the one in which he played and he adds another 100 round-trippers and his batting average rises up into the .290s.
My goal in watching Phillies games was to see the great player, who already had close to 500 home runs when I discovered the wonders of the UHF dial, hit a home run or two. I never did. I watched around two dozen Phillies games a year for a period of about five years and somehow never caught a game in which Schmidt launched one. This remains a subject of some bitterness with me, and there's not a thing I can do about it. Part of the problem, and indeed the point of this whole reminiscence, is that my televisual quest came to an abrupt end on May 29, 1989, when Schmidt unexpectedly retired.
Schmidt, 39, had had an off year in 1988 due to a rotator cuff injury, playing in only 108 games. As far as anyone knew, 1989 would be just another season in his career. There was no preseason announcement that this was his last hurrah, no farewell tour planned. Yet, when he struggled throughout the first quarter of the season, hitting .203/.297/.372, Schmidt concluded he just couldn't do it anymore and tearfully hung up his spikes.
You know the Derek Jeter story. He's a 40-year-old attempting to play shortstop after a layoff of more than a year due to his broken ankle (his 17 games last year notwithstanding). He hit .137 (7-for-51) in spring training. Jeter had already been evolving into a ground-ball machine even before the injury, and part of what was so disturbing about spring training was that a guy who in his last full season hit into a twin-killing in roughly a quarter of his opportunities piled up five GDPs in those 51 at-bats, a frightening rate. Last year, during that attenuated comeback, he was close to a 40 percent double-play rate. The major league average was 11 percent. Think about that: Last year, Dustin Pedroia led the majors with 168 double-play opportunities. He hit into 24 double plays, a rate of 14 percent. Given the same number of chances, Jeter would have hit into 40 double plays at his 2012 rate and 64 at his small-sample 2013 rate.
In contrast, Jim Rice, who led the AL in grounding into double plays four times and set a single-season record with 36 in 1984, never had a double-play rate higher than 20 percent, and just to characterize Jeter's ground-out/fly-out ratio of 2.75 from 2009 to present, Tommy John, sinkerball pitcher par excellence whose career ended the same day as Schmidt's, had a career ratio of only 2.31.
Unlike Schmidt, Jeter's retirement is planned. A farewell tour is envisioned that will no doubt resemble last season's Mariano Rivera lovefest. And yet, it is not difficult to envision a scenario in which Jeter just can't do it and takes Schmidt's road out. Yes, spring training stats are the ultimate small sample. Yes, perhaps the guy was just getting his timing untracked after the long layoff... Or maybe not. Jon Heyman quoted the scouts last week:
"He looks old and frail," one AL scout said. "He looks like he lost 10 to 15 pounds rehabbing his ankle and the biggest difference is in his strength. He always had the strength to muscle that pitch on the inner half to right field for a base hit. (I) don't see it anymore."
If the strength is a question to this scout, so is the speed. For the first time, Jeter is something other than an excellent or very good runner, at least according to this fellow with a stopwatch.
"Those infield hits are going to be limited now because he is a tick below average runner with a [bad] ankle," that scout also said. "He always figures out a way defensively, but you have to hit to be a regular. If anyone can prove me wrong it's Jeter. But the Yankees are going to have to make some really tough decisions if he doesn't start off well offensively."Twenty-five years ago, future Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt pulled the plug on his career after a slow start. Could Derek Jeter go the same way?
Photo credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
The Yankees begin the season on Tuesday evening at Houston. Pay close attention to Jeter. You might be expecting to say goodbye to him at leisure, but it might be over much faster than that. Oh, and hooray for cable TV. My father held out for years. I waited until he left town on a long vacation and had it installed without telling him. He hasn't looked back since, the old hypocrite -- and he watches the ballgames, too.