If you grew up a fan of Michael Jack Schmidt, the man who had set virtually every Phillies offensive record during his outstanding 18-year career, it seemed inconceivable that there would come a day when the greatest slugger in team history would not be taking hacks at home plate in a Phils uniform.
When the 1989 season began, Schmidt had won three MVP awards. He had made 11 All-Star teams. He had snagged nine Gold Gloves and six Silver Sluggers. He had led the league in home runs eight times, hit more than 30 dingers 13 times, and led the league in RBIs four times. He was a sure-fire Hall of Famer already, owner of 542 home runs, 1,595 RBIs and 2,204 hits.
Yes, he was 39 years old, but it didn’t feel like the end was near. However, after a 1988 season in which he only played 108 games, hit just 12 home runs and an off-season in which he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder, he started ‘89 by hitting a meager .203 with a .297 on-base percentage and a .372 slugging percentage. He had hit just six home runs through the first two months of the season and had started to become a liability at third base.
May was a particularly brutal month for Schmidt. On May 28, at the end of a three-game series in San Francisco, he had tallied just seven hits in 60 at-bats (73 PAs), was 2-for-his last 41 and led the team in errors with eight. He was hitting .117 and had hit one home run that month, way back on May 2. So, when the team arrived in San Diego for the start of a series against the Padres, Schmidt shocked the world when, during a hastily called news conference in the team’s locker room, he called it a career.
Through uncontrollable sobs, Schmidt said the words that have become famous in Philadelphia sports lore.
“I left Dayton, Ohio, with two bad knees and a dream of becoming a baseball player; I thank God that dream came true.”
The unexpectedness of the announcement caught the team off-guard (quotes via the L.A. Times).
“I talked to him a little bit (Sunday) after the game,” said third base coach Larry Bowa, who played with Schmidt for parts of 10 seasons, “and he said, ‘That’s it.’ I said, ‘What do you mean that’s it?’
” ‘I can’t play up to my standards, and that’s it.’ He said, ‘Don’t try to talk me out of it.’ “
Schmidt told Phillie Manager Nick Leyva of his decision Sunday night as the team traveled to San Diego after a game in San Francisco. The players were informed of the decision in a meeting Sunday night in San Diego.
In a Philly.com article by Paul Hagen from 2009, Schmidt recounted that he made the decision to retire in that final game against the Giants in San Francisco when he made a critical error that loaded the bases and was followed immediately by a Will Clark grand slam. In a New York Times piece written the day after, Schmidt explained he didn’t want to be a part-time player.
‘’This is something I’ve been mulling over and praying about for a week or so,’’ Schmidt explained. ‘’I gave it some time to turn around on the field. I looked for signs and reasons every night to continue as a player, but I just couldn’t find them.’’
Schmidt was so respected by fans across baseball, perhaps moreso than in Philadelphia, that they voted him in as the starter at third base for the 1989 All Star Game (Schmidt at 4:25 mark).
Men and women of a certain age will always remember where they were the day Mike Schmidt surprisingly announced he was saying goodbye. He retired with 548 home runs for his career, 7th-most in MLB history upon his retirement, finished with 10 Gold Gloves at third, second only to Brooks Robinson’s 16 for the Baltimore Orioles, and is still generally considered the greatest third baseman in baseball history.
And it all came to an end in a darkly-lit clubhouse in San Diego, 30 years ago today.