Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Twenty Years On


By Bob Herpen
The Phanatic Magazine

Coming off a year in which the Phillies made a spectacular second-half climb from fourth to second place, finished with a respectable 86-75 mark, and boasted the National League MVP, John Felske’s third year at the helm began a dismal 1-8. Felske, bench coach Lee Elia, and virtually the entire club were under fire after a home sweep to the Mets left them an astonishing 5 ½ games out of first just 10 days into the season.

However, a cooling salve known as a trip to Three Rivers Stadium to face the bottom-dwelling Pirates for a three-game weekend series greeted the Phils on the third weekend of April.

Meanwhile, as rancor filled the minds of thousands of baseball fans across the Delaware Valley, and that discontent seeped out to fill hundreds of column inches in the Daily News and Inquirer, an oasis of hope and achievement shimmered in the distance.

Third baseman Mike Schmidt was only five home runs away from joining a select few members in the 500 Home Run Club.

He went deep for number 496 in front of a large, spirited crowd at a chilly Veterans Stadium on the very same night he accepted his MVP plaque before the start of a four-game series with Chicago. The Phillies lost, 4-3. 497 came the next day, a solo shot for the Phils’ only run in a desultory 9-1 loss.

Defeat washed over this club swiftly like a tsunami, but Michael Jack kept a spark within people’s hearts alive. He was going to do it - and soon. If there was any doubt, the sign that hung over the 400-level in center field since early in 1986 for the countdown to 500, was a conspicuous reminder.

He goes deep for the third time in the young season, in the first game of three with the defending World Champion Mets - a 7-5 loss which dropped the Fightins to 1-6. The buzz was palpable, though. Talk is centered around good-natured bets between teammates and among the public on what day number five-oh-oh would occur.

Two more games would pass, setbacks of 4-1 and 9-3 against New York, to leave the team in that deep hole at the bottom of the NL East. Schmidt would go 1-for-5 with one RBI, but Mr. Spaulding did not say goodbye to the field of play off his bat in either of those two outings.

But the Pirates would supply some badly needed oxygen into this wheezing ball club on Good Friday night, as a four-run 10th inning sent Philly to a 6-2 win, their second of the season. Schmitty even hit a key blast, his 499th. It was a long, arcing shot to left off Bob Patterson that broke a 1-1 tie in the fifth. The next day’s Inquirer sports section ran a long banner headline to that fact, in dire expectation of the real milestone just within reach.

Saturday, April 18th was a day the Phillies had all to themselves on the sports scene. The Flyers had concluded their Patrick Division semifinal series with the New York Rangers two days before, and would not skate again until the following Monday. It was an era which pre-dated football mini-camp frenzy, so the Eagles were off the radar, and the Sixers enjoyed an off day before their season-finale at Washington. Felske’s boys seized the opportunity, going up 5-0 in the third off Pirates starter Bob Walk, and led 5-1 through six thanks to Don Carman’s performance on the hill.

Then, things went characteristically dark. Carman gave up a run in the seventh, and Steve Bedrosian was rocked for four in the eighth - the coup de grace being slight-hitting second baseman Johnny Ray’s three run homer to give the Pirates a 6-5 advantage.

In the ninth, facing former nemesis Don Robinson, there were two men on with two outs. Juan Samuel stood at second after reaching on a force play and stealing second. Von Hayes was at first after working a crucial walk. Mike Schmidt stepped up to the plate literally with the game in his hands.

Robinson threw three balls so far out of the zone that even Schmidt wouldn’t have considered bringing the bat off his shoulders. He had to throw a strike now, or risk a bases-loaded situation with on-deck clean-up hitter Chris James. The fourth pitch left his right hand, sailed towards the plate, and into history. It was slightly down and in, but in a spot where any power-hitter could extend his arms and get some air under it.

Harry Kalas took it from there.

“Swing and a long drive!!…There it is!…The career 500th home run for Michael Jack Schmidt…”

With one mighty belt, the greatest third baseman in baseball history recaptured the lead for his team, and became one of baseball’s immortals. He was the 14th man to reach the 500 plateau, the first since Willie McCovey in 1978.

The images that followed are iconic. Cameras following the path of the ball as it landed in the second deck in left field. Schmidt’s wife and family cheering exuberantly. Old Number 20 himself actually letting a bit of emotion through as he pumped his arms and legs in sync while running the basepaths. Everybody in the Phillies dugout running onto the field and mobbing him at home plate in joyous celebration.

Felske’s boys held on and won the game, 8-6, but would lose the Easter Sunday tilt to the Buccos to drop to 3-9. They would lose two of three in Montreal and face a rain-out at the Vet with the Pirates before the home crowd got to welcome their reluctant, aloof hero one week later with a thunderous ovation.

That sign in center remained until the last of Schmidt’s 548 home runs departed in 1989. The memory of the chase and the achievement should live on well into future generations - one of the rare times the Baseball Gods directed a beam of light through the clouds, just for us.
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