One day late in the greatness of his career, Mike Schmidt came out of the Philadelphia Phillies' dugout wearing a woman's curly wig and sunglasses.
There fell upon the gathered multitude at Veterans Stadium a silence of stupendous proportions, for surely their eyes betrayed them. They saw the tall and lithe frame of the athlete they'd known for a decade and more. They even saw the familiar No. 20.
But Mike Schmidt? The brooding Mike Schmidt whose face so often was a leave-me-alone scowl? That Mike Schmidt was throwing out grounders to his infielders while wearing a goofy disguise? Sooner would the Philly fans have expected Ben Franklin to drop from a kite in the sky.
Then the silence was transformed into laughter and applause, some of it delivered by people who stood in recognition of Schmidt's jest-in-truth.
Truly he had reason to work incognito in 1985. He had called Philadelphia fans "a mob scene" and accused them of being spoiled by his excellence even as they were jealous of his money. The bad feelings were mutual: fans long considered Schmidt an arrogant pretender who, after all, hadn't taken the Phillies to a World Series since going 1 for 20 when they lost to the Baltimore Orioles in '83.
Never a good idea in any town, picking a fight with Philadelphia fans is always a bad idea. Philadelphia has wonderful museums, universities and institutions of business and society that are models of sophistication. It's also a place where the Liberty Bell isn't the only thing that's cracked.
The schizophrenics there celebrated Schmidt when he helped win the 1980 World Series (eight for 21 with two home runs and seven RBI against the Kansas City Royals) and denigrated him after the '83 defeat that reaffirmed the city's tradition of failure. Three times the National League MVP, the elegant and graceful Schmidt couldn't please folks who adored athletes called "Concrete Chuck," "Hammer" and "Nails."
"This isn't so much a sports town as a hardware store," Philadelphia writer Glen Macnow once declared. "When it comes to sports, we are strictly row homes and lunch pails, clock-punchers and blue collars. . . . We demand our heroes to be gritty and rumpled, perhaps with a broken nose and a little dried blood caked under the fingernails."
So the Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik became a god who clotheslined Frank Gifford. The Philadelphia Flyers won with acts of criminality forgiven because they were committed on ice. Joe Frazier was Rocky Balboa, only with talent and real blood. As for the Phillies, Tug McGraw once said the trouble with losing a big game on the road was getting past the machine-gun nest at the airport.
Pete Rose understood the place: "It's not hard to become a fan favorite in Philly. Play hard, get dirty. Cuss and spit and never let them see you loafing. One more thing: Never lose a game."
Schmidt's best years came alongside Rose, who could make the brooder laugh and whose lust for notice relieved Schmidt of attention he never wanted. In Rose's years with the Phillies, 1979 through 1983, Schmidt reached career highs: .316, 48 home runs, 121 RBI, runs batted, .644 slugging average.
In those seasons, the Phillies won two National League championships and a World Series. "Rose made the difference," Schmidt said last week when he was elected to the Hall of Fame (the heartfelt start of a campaign to persuade baseball to pardon Rose, who as a young player in Cincinnati had been a hero to a teen-ager up the road in Dayton named Michael Jack Schmidt).
Rose on Schmidt: "Mike was the best player in the league three or four days a week when I got there. By the time I left, he had learned to be the best seven days a week."
Still, the wonder of Schmidt's career is that he did it all in Philadelphia, where fans who wear their hearts on their sleeves were never sure Schmidt had a heart. He was stoic, cool and studious, a college graduate, of all things, an artist sipping wine in a bully's shot-and-chaser town.
Utterly unfair. The man's only crime was to come to the ballpark with a gift so large he made hard things look easy. Schmidt also came with an integrity that marked him as a man to whom family and religion mattered more than his work, which, as he showed for 18 seasons, mattered greatly.
The irony of Schmidt's alienation from Philadelphia fans was that few players were ever more intent on success.
To critics of his introspection, Schmidt said, "Someone put the pitcher's rubber 60 feet 6 inches from home plate. Six inches closer and the curveball doesn't have time to break; six inches farther back, it breaks too soon. Now you're going to tell me this game doesn't deserve a great deal of thought?"
Schmidt also said, "If effort equated with dirt, my uniform would be as black as a coal mine in night time."
The best third baseman ever, baseball's best player for the last 20 years, Mike Schmidt at bat was an efficient wonder of power, his hitting stroke beautiful in its quickness and compactness, the bat moving from a high position sharply downward to send the baseball a great distance in a hurry.
With a glove, Schmidt deserved mention in paragraphs starring Brooks Robinson, there with Graig Nettles as fielders whose acrobatics were those of jungle cats chasing down the night's dinner.
Thirteen seasons he hit over 30 home runs or more. Only Henry Aaron, with 15, did it more often. Eight times Schmidt led the National League in home runs. No one else has done that. Ten times he won Gold Gloves as his league's best fielding third baseman.