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Schmidt keeps the wolves at bay

Times Staff Writer

Jason Schmidt’s perceived failings the last five-plus years with the San Francisco Giants were revisited throughout the Bay Area over the weekend, in large part because he committed the unpardonable sin of becoming a Dodger.

Apparently, a team-record .678 winning percentage isn’t enough Teflon when the colors change from orange and black to blue.

The harshest portrayal was of Schmidt as hypochondriac, a player who exaggerated minor aches and had to be prodded to take the mound. That’s a strange charge when the record shows he made 29 to 32 starts in each of the last five seasons.

But it’s a charge to which Schmidt confessed -- and explained -- for the first time to The Times.

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“For two to three years I was fearful,” he said. “Every time I’d get sick, I thought I had cancer. I never looked at it from a realistic point of view. I could have stubbed my toe and thought I had cancer.”

The worries had a rational basis. His mother, Vicki, died of brain cancer at 53 about six months after she watched her son pitch against the Angels in the 2002 World Series. Several other of Schmidt’s relatives have had the disease.

After the 2003 season -- during which he posted a healthy 17-5 record and 2.34 earned-run average -- he was so distraught over headaches and stomach pain that he traveled from his home near Kelso, Wash., to Arizona for tests to rule out the Big C.

“He had legitimate symptoms, and because of what he had gone through with his mom, we wanted him to take the right tests and put his mind at ease,” said Stan Conte, the Giants’ trainer at the time and now the Dodgers’ trainer.

Schmidt eventually worked through his grief and accompanying qualms by contributing money to brain cancer research and reaching out to people suffering from the disease, and to their families.

He invited them to games, paid for their tickets, engaged in long talks and exchanged hugs.

“You hear of people getting cancer and never think it can happen to you or your family,” he said. “When it does happen, there is nobody to help, nobody to say, ‘This is what is going to happen.’

“I decided to help people. I was struck by what they go through, kids, older people, it can happen to anyone. We shared stories, and I tried to brighten their day.”

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Yet he spent so much time dwelling on a deadly disease that he couldn’t help but wonder if he would be next.

“I saw how others dealt with it and that helped me through the process, but most people aren’t gone from their families for six months trying to perform at an elite level,” he said. “It was a difficult time.”

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Depicting Schmidt as a brooding worrywart is laughable to anyone who has spent time with him in the clubhouse, where he is an unrepentant prankster.

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He’ll squirt mustard into jelly doughnuts and plant them in the pregame spread. He’ll pat a teammate on the rump the moment a game ends and the poor guy will be running onto the field with a cloth tail hanging from his behind. He’ll empty a squirt gun on the leg of the security guard standing in front of the dugout. He’ll stack paper cups on the protective helmet of an unsuspecting batboy and giggle like a grade-schooler.

But Schmidt’s best trick is pitching effectively without the velocity he had earlier in his career.

Like “Dynasty” reruns, his pitches are all about the 80s, ranging from 82 to 89 mph most of the last two years. The same was true in spring training and in his first Dodgers start.

Yet he still averages a strikeout an inning, and his earned-run average hasn’t climbed much since his mid-90s mph heyday. His pitches have tremendous movement, especially a changeup that he can throw softly or nearly as hard as his fastball. He has pinpoint control, and sometimes purposely walks a batter who gives him trouble because he knows he can execute pitches to the next hitter.

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And it should be noted that despite ho-hum velocity, his first Dodgers start resulted in a victory, something with which Schmidt is extremely familiar: He is 85-43 since 2001.

That’s why the Dodgers signed him to a three-year, $47-million contract and are handing him the ball in today’s home opener.

“His was the dominant name in our staff meeting the day after the season ended,” General Manager Ned Colletti said. “We felt we needed to shore up our pitching, and he was the guy we wanted.

“He’s finicky from time to time, but once he’s out there, he’s as competitive as it gets. And when you look back at the end of the season, he hasn’t missed many starts.”

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Colletti was in the San Francisco Giants’ front office when they acquired the right-hander from the Pittsburgh Pirates midway through the 2001 season. He and Conte are thoroughly familiar with Schmidt’s medical history -- and his pattern of pitching deep into games.

In 2005 a shoulder strain kept him out for two weeks in May and a groin strain forced him to miss several starts in September. He started the 2004 season on the disabled list because of rotator-cuff tendinitis.

Yet in those two seasons he was a combined 30-14 and pitched 397 innings.

In 2003 he took a week’s bereavement leave when his mother died and had surgery after the season to remove scar tissue and repair a tendon in his right elbow.

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He missed the first three weeks of the 2002 season because of a strained right groin.

Yet in those two seasons he was a combined 30-13 and pitched 393 innings.

In 2000 he missed two weeks in April because of shoulder inflammation, which recurred in June. He had season-ending surgery to repair partial fraying of the rotator cuff.

Yet from 2002 to 2006 he logged 1,003 innings while giving up only 814 hits and striking out a cool 1,000.

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“He’s a bona fide No. 1 guy,” said Mark Sweeney, his former Giants teammate. “It’s a loss for us, and L.A.'s gain. There aren’t too many No. 1 guys in the game, and Jason is one of the best.”

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At every rung of the minor league ladder Schmidt would call his mother on the way home from the ballpark, from Pulaski, Va., Macon, Ga., and Durham, N.C. The tradition continued as he got older, from his major league debut with the Atlanta Braves to his bumpy ride with the Pirates to his tenure as Giants ace.

“It was my stress relief after a game,” he said. “Call my mom.”

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Schmidt’s parents divorced when he was 5, and his mother remarried Ray Schmidt, a machinist at a paper mill who had daughters in their teens and 20s. Jason and his sister took his name, and a bond was formed around baseball.

Ray Schmidt is a die-hard Dodgers fan. A Dodgers jacket got him through the Washington winters. Dodgers memorabilia covered his walls.

“I did root for them through him,” Schmidt said. “When Kirk Gibson hit the home run in 1988, I was jumping up and down in our living room. It was the best thing I’d ever seen.”

Ray bought him his first glove and taught him the fundamentals.

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“I told him to make me play catch whether I felt like it or not,” Schmidt said. “We’d go to the street, and he’d sit on a bucket we used to wash the car. He’d have me throw to him, and if I didn’t hit the glove, he wouldn’t budge. The ball would roll down the street and I had to go get it. My control got better fast.”

Schmidt was 6 feet 4 by the eighth grade, and his potential as a pitcher was recognized by a local community college and American Legion coach, Steve Farrington.

“He’s the guy who drove me and made me realize what I could do,” Schmidt said. “He tutored me all the way up.”

The Braves drafted him in the eighth round in 1991, and four years later he was in the big leagues. Still, he returned to his small-town roots in the off-seasons, eventually marrying a Washington girl, Bethany. They have three children and split their time between their hometown and Scottsdale, Ariz.

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“I try not to let baseball define me as a person,” Schmidt said. “I’m not the kind who will drop my name at a restaurant to get a table right away. I’d rather wait an hour. I don’t like to be noticed.

“When the time comes to walk away, I won’t have a hard time shedding the title of ballplayer.”

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Schmidt will be all business today. No pranks. No nonsense. It’s the way he’s always been on game day.

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“I’ve been called Jekyll and Hyde,” he said. “When I’m on the mound, everything changes. It’s temporary insanity.”

The aches and pains he tells Conte about between starts are pushed aside. His face transforms. Gone is the goofy grin, replaced by a searing stare and set jaw.

“I’ll want to keep going and going and going,” he said. “I’ll throw 130 pitches if they let me.”

He’ll take a peek at the radar-gun readings. But they won’t faze him.

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“I threw 87 mph all year in 2005 and beat myself up over it,” he said. “The second half, I decided just to go out there and play catch with the catcher. I’ve learned not to give it so much emphasis. Live and learn.”

For Schmidt, the living starts when the umpire says, “Play ball.”

“All the thinking I do between starts, the doubts I have sometimes and wondering about stuff I can’t control, it goes away for those nine innings,” he said. “Competition has a wonderful way of simplifying everything and bringing out your best.”

steve.henson@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

About Schmidt

Where Dodgers pitcher Jason Schmidt ranks among active National League pitchers in key statistical categories (through Saturday):

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*--* Category No. Rank Leader Strikeouts 1,733 7 Greg Maddux (3,173) Wins 128 7 Greg Maddux (333) Innings pitched 1,958.0 10 Greg Maddux (4,621.2) Games started 305 10 Greg Maddux (674) Shutouts 9 10 Greg Maddux (35) Hits given up 1,801 11 Greg Maddux (4,306) Earned runs given up 850 12 Tom Glavine (1,599) Home runs given up 179 13 Tom Glavine (323) Complete games 20 T-13 Greg Maddux (108) Earned-run average 3.91 T-14 Randy Johnson (2.65)

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Source: MLB.com.


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