The home opener featured the usual pomp. Skydivers fell from above and landed safely on the grass at Citizens Bank Park. The players entered the stadium through the left-center field stands and high-fived fans on their way to field. It was a good scene (before the game started). A happy scene (again, before the game started). The kind of scene Mike Schmidt didn’t see -- or, at least, didn’t enjoy -- back when he played.
On a day that was as much about the atmosphere and the fans as it was about the players and the actual game, it was interesting that Schmidt (along with Kansas City Hall of Famer George Brett) threw out the first pitch (see story) before the Royals thumped the Phillies, 13-4 (see game recap). Schmidt thought so, too. He talked about that -- about how he didn’t always love the fans here and they didn’t always love him back.
His interaction with the city -- by turns sweet and sour during his playing days and for years afterward -- has been well chronicled. Schmidt doesn’t always like to discuss it, but he did on Friday. When he was asked to describe his relationship with the fans, he laughed a little first.
“It’s really good,” Schmidt said, “right now.”
He stopped for a second or two. You knew what the words meant and what the pause meant. The history. Everyone knows the history. It was uncomfortable for him back then -- partly because of the way Philadelphians operate, partly because of the way Schmidt did.
He said the environment at Veterans Stadium “back in the day” was “tougher.” He said he likes Citizens Bank Park quite a bit because there hasn’t “been a lot to boo about here” over the years. He said the atmosphere at the Vet “was not anywhere near as warm as it is here.” He said all that, and he said this, too:
“All of us players went through periods where we failed in clutch situations and got booed,” Schmidt said. “In that regard, it’s a tough town to be in. If you didn’t understand the passion the Philly sports fans have for their teams –- like I do now –- if I could go through it now, versus when I was a young ball player, I’d be a lot better at handling it. I’d have a totally different perspective on it. I wouldn’t think that I individually, personally, could change the personality of the city with a comment in the media or something on the field. I wouldn’t feel that I had to prove something every at-bat. I would sort of flow with it more, have some fun with it. That’s sort of like a 63-year-old brain talking to a 25-year-old ballplayer.”
Schmidt was fidgeting with a baseball as he talked. Every now and then he dropped his head a little bit. He didn’t quite shake it, but he didn’t need to. The message was unmistakable. For years –- long after he retired, long after the periodic antagonism between him and the city (and vice versa) had seemingly faded –- Schmidt was slow to forgive. He still hasn’t forgotten. But he has changed his perspective. Where once he seemed to blame the town for what he felt was unfair treatment –- he famously said that Philadelphia is the only place where you can experience the thrill of victory and the agony of reading about it the next day –- he now acknowledges the shared culpability. Mike Schmidt has regrets.
“Oh yeah,” Schmidt agreed. “Big-time regrets. Yeah. Sure. It’s hard to put it into words. I just wasn’t mature enough. I was way too sensitive, not nearly mature enough. Should have been able to play through it totally relaxed. Should have had the Tug McGraw-type attitude on the field. But I don’t get a second chance with that.”
It is, as Schmidt acknowledged, a “tough town.” He said “you could put a list together of guys who couldn’t make it in this town –- in all sports.” He’s right. Of course, he’s a guy who did make it in this town despite the often-contentious relationship he had with the fans and the media.
That Schmidt made it, that he excelled, isn’t surprising. He was a singular talent, one of the best of his or any other generation. No, what was surprising, at least a little, was hearing Schmidt openly admit his missteps and, beyond that, how he wishes he could have a second chance on that particular front.
The fans cheered wildly for Schmidt when he threw out the first pitch. That was expected. Schmidt said he was grateful. That was expected, too. And then Schmidt, in his own way, apologized for the past. That wasn’t quite so expected.