Friday, March 13, 2009

Hall of Famer Schmidt: Bring on the world!

By Mike Schmidt, For The Associated Press
AMES, Iowa — Make no mistake, I'm here because of my friendship with Team USA manager Davey Johnson, and each day of this experience I'm more grateful.
Put away the perception that a Hall of Famer can't be a fan or couldn't be energized by the presence of a young player. Or even be a little in awe at times.

To understand what I mean, realize I retired in 1989 and was away from baseball for 10 years. Since 2000, I have spent at least a week in Phillies camp in what I call a coach-advisory role. Most of the summer, like you, I watch games on TV and listen to talk shows to formulate my opinions on today's game and its stars.

Now, coaching with Team USA, I have gone outside the Phillies, met and coached some serious names to add to Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard. So take this to the bank: THESE GUYS ARE GOOD.

Sure, lots of old-timers find it easy to criticize today's players. Their opinions are mostly formed from something they heard, or an issue they disagree with -- maybe the steroid thing -- watered-down pitching, small parks, juiced balls, maybe even jealously.

Hey, I admit, I'm jealous. I want to hit in Citizens Bank Park and own a jet. But that isn't reason to criticize today's stars. It's their era, their generation, and trust me, it was a lot harder for them to make it to the top than it was for me.

Simple fact, there are many more talented young baseball players today than ever. Think about it. We watch the Little League World Series now on TV and it's busting with bigger, more talented kids. Then they play on high school teams that play 40-game schedules, followed by a summer traveling team with another 40. Most have a local training center for hitting with a private coach, and a sense of physical conditioning.

Next are the college programs for those who don't opt to go pro, where schedules can reach 60-plus games. There are probably 100 great college baseball programs now, compared to 25 or 30 from 40 years ago.

But one ingredient is missing today. It's not a make-or-break career thing, it's not noticeable to fans, or an issue that would change baseball's entertainment value.

Most of today's major league stars grew as kids in an environment where baseball was about technique, routine, and repetition. Baseball "sense," the inner game, was seldom a priority.

Baseball "sense" is a knack for feeling the flow and rhythm of the game, knowing what is coming, sensing what to do, knowing your options, looking ahead in the game naturally.

It's mostly acquired naturally, through experience over time. It comes, too, through osmosis, from rubbing shoulders with good baseball men, coaches and players who have it and share it.

At Ohio University under coach Bob Wren, I got a degree in baseball "sense." He taught me more about baseball and its intricacies than anyone. When I played for the Phillies, we often sat around talking the game. Nothing was more fun than dissecting an element of the game, recalling a play or situation, or even rehashing an at-bat, weighing the options and logging all of it in the back of your mind. I had Dave Cash, Dick Allen, Pete Rose and Bob Boone as mentors. Later on, I found young teammates like Darren Daulton and Von Hayes, to name a couple, that I shared the mental game with regularly.

I could not get enough of it. Today, I surprise myself with my sense of recall during a game, even watching on TV. It really is like riding a bicycle.

Today's player is programmed more on the mechanical side than on the mental side. As a kid, his batting stroke or pitching delivery was cultivated much more than his baseball "sense." They get used to practice drills and routines. As they progress in physical size and talent, there is minimal, if any, exposure to baseball's inner game.

I'm not saying they are void of baseball "sense," just that it is not stressed. For example: I was 6-foot-2, 200 pounds and a power hitter. I loved to run the bases and wanted to be known as a great baserunner. I needed it to be a complete player, to leave no stone unturned, to be the best. I worked at the intricacies of baserunning. I knew how many strides I took to first base -- 15.

I studied and worked on the first crossover step to become a basestealer, and stole over 20 bases a couple of times. My goal was to join Willie Mays and Bobby Bonds in the 30-30 club. I stole my 30th in 1975 -- at least I thought I did -- to go along with 35 HRs, but was called out because Greg Luzinski interfered with the catcher's throw, so I never got credit.

I perfected the walking lead and a delayed steal technique. I even had a plan to get out of a rundown, as well as sliding tricks to avoid the tag. I know ... I, I, I ... but my point is I acquired and still have that "sense." Derek Jeter has it, Dustin Pedroia has it, and for sure Rollins and Utley have it. But in general, today's players lack in this area.

Why? I go back more than 30 years ago, when players were granted free agency, as the turning point in the evolution of the game as we know it today. When truly big money became available, the value of having an inner "sense" for the game diminished. It was about attaining numbers and elevating your position as a player, which replaced the team concept in a player's mind. Just ask Manny Ramirez. By the way, need I bring up baseball "sense" here? I digress.

So, with the pot of gold available as a result of individual accomplishment, why would anyone with 35-to-40 homer and 120 RBIs potential think baserunning -- let alone baseball "sense" -- mattered or even existed? Only a select few have.

Yes, these guys are good. They are more talented and skilled as hitters and pitchers than at anytime ever. They are what they are, products of the baseball world as they know it, not as us old folks know it. They live in a complicated world and have to please the masses everyday. If you had a chance to travel with Team USA, trust me, your whole outlook on this generation as players, and more importantly, as respectful young men would change.

I'm a kid again. Bring on the world!

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