Baseball Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt leads clinic in Portsmouth
PORTSMOUTH — The man with the white hair and Carnegie Abbey cap and golf shirt knew he could impart plenty of baseball wisdom to the three dozen or so kids from the Newport County Boys and Girls Club who showed up at a free clinic Thursday.
He just wasn't sure if they'd know who he was. If any of the kids did recognize his name, he joked, “it's probably because their fathers Googled me for them.”
After all, he retired from Major League Baseball back in 1989, after 16 years, 548 home runs, 10 Gold Gloves and one World Series ring with the Philadelphia Phillies. None of the kids in front of him were older than 15.
"I'm Mike Schmidt,” he said by way of introduction, as the teens huddled together on a small grandstand at Portsmouth Abbey’s baseball fields, where the clinic was run. “I don't know if that means anything to you. I'm a Hall of Famer. I was a hitter and a player way, way back before any of you were born. I played in the old days. We had TV, but we didn't have ESPN."
Derek Gittus, the Abbey’s varsity baseball coach, told the kids that Mr. Schmidt was being modest.
"He was voted the greatest third baseman of all time,” said Mr. Gittus.
Indeed, Mr. Schmidt was the highest-rated third baseman on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 greatest baseball players, and tops most any other list as well. His three MVP awards and 404 assists in one season (1974) are still records for a third basemen.
"If I tell you something about baseball, you better believe it. Because it's the truth,” the 63-year-old Mr. Schmidt told the youngsters gathered before him.
The clinic, for boys and girls ages 13 to 15 who were interested in baseball or softball, wasn’t simply a one-off event Mr. Schmidt agreed to as part of a promotional tour. He now lives in Portsmouth, specifically at the Newport Beach Club which is part of the Carnegie Abbey complex. He recently closed on one of the club’s “cottages” after having visited the club for the past six years.
“My daughter and the grandkids live in Boston, so they’re 40 minutes away. It’s a really nice thing for us,” said Mr. Schmidt, who’s a golfer, boater and fishing enthusiast who’s hosted many fund-raising tournaments in this area and in Florida, where he also lives.
The free clinic was a collaborative effort between Carnegie Abbey and Portsmouth Abbey, with Abbey varsity baseball coach Derek Gittus, his assistants and members of his team taking part. “I got together with some of our coaches and teachers here and a few of our players to help out for a nice little community service project,” said Mr. Gittus.
Technically, it wasn’t the first time Mr. Schmidt has taught baseball in Portsmouth.
“We used to have a little baseball function in April around Easter over at Carnegie Abbey called ‘Bunnies and Baseball’ for the younger kids. But you could call this the first full-blown clinic,” he said.
Wayne Turner, director of tennis and youth activities at Carnegie Abbey Club, said it was the first of hopefully many opportunities for Mr. Schmidt to give back to some of the island’s nonprofits.
“He tries to promote the club and lifestyle through baseball any way he can,” Mr. Turner said. “This will be the only one for this year, but Mike and I will sit down soon and bang heads to see what we can come up with next year. Portsmouth Abbey’s been really good to us to give us the facility and we’d like to do this even bigger and better next year.”
Swing down, not up
Mr. Schmidt, who had 2,234 hits and 1,595 runs batted in during a sparkling MLB career, spent most of the clinic talking about batting, offering pointers and encouragement to youngsters as they hit from a tee or swung at balls tossed at them from a short distance.
His mantra for the clinic was: Always swing down.
“Envision in your mind that you're trying to drive the ball down,” he said, adding that the bat will meet the ball on a level plane if the hitter follows this advice. “In baseball, there are a lot of hitters who could be better if they got rid of the uppercut swing. You will see unbelievable results if you just hit down at the ball."
Colin Martin, 15, got some good one-on-one time with the Hall of Famer and saw his swing improve in no time. "You can definitely see a difference," said Colin, a sophomore at Rogers High School in Newport.
Kaitlin Young, 14, was on fire, smoking ball after ball that Mr. Schmidt tossed to the young slugger. “Nine perfect hits in a row,” marveled the 1980 World Series MVP before adding, “Now I'm gonna make you pick them all up."
There was one teenager at the clinic who was very familiar with Mr. Schmidt. Michael Stark, who pitched a no-hitter for the Abbey before graduating in the spring, said he even had one of his baseball cards. That drew a smile and a high-five from the Phillies star, who quipped he was glad “somebody knew me around here.”
"He's quite possibly the best third baseman ever," said Michael, who helped his former coaches out at the clinic Thursday before he was to head off for Boston College.
Although the Boys & Girls Club kids received a crash course on him beforehand — “We did some research and they were very impressed when I started telling them who they were actually going to go see,” said Jackie Lewandowski, director of operations for the organization — few of them were aware of Mr. Schmidt’s stature among the baseball gods.
“I think a lot of their fathers might be a little more excited than they are,” said Mr. Gittus, who was in the prime of his teenage years when Mr. Schmidt retired in 1989. “I’ve got a lot of good memories watching him and his peers play.”
But 14-year-old Tayler Stevens, who joined friends Maddy Young and Allison Gallagher in the first group of kids who hit with Mr. Schmidt, had no idea.
“To be honest, I watch football more," said Tayler.
Colin Martin said he was in fact familiar with Mr. Schmidt, but it had nothing to do with baseball.
"My dad said he saw him in a fishing tournament a couple weeks before," he said.
Nothing fake about Portsmouth
When asked what he likes most about Portsmouth, Mr. Schmidt said the town reminds him of where he’s from — Dayton, Ohio.
“Just because it’s an easygoing, laid-back town, lots of little mom-and-pop establishments and restaurants that we’ve found and loved,” he said. “I love the people — Northeastern people. There’s just nothing fake about them, and they’re not trying to impress people. My main home is Jupiter, Florida, and you know, that’s the home of facelifts and Bentleys.”
He loves the fishing here, too. But he hasn’t been out on his boat this year as much as he’d like.
“Actually, I haven’t yet caught a striper this year. I will,” he said.
And where are his favorite spots?
“I haven’t found them yet. And if I did, I wouldn’t tell you because I’d have to kill you.”
Watch Mike Schmidt help one hitter out with his swing: