On KJR this morning, Mitch Levy asked Bill Krueger, the former major-league pitcher, if he could envision Ken Griffey Jr. or Mike Sweeney walking into the front office and saying, “I just don’t have it anymore. It’s time to hang it up.”
Krueger, who played with Griffey in 1991 and 1995, quickly answered no. He said great players of that caliber aren’t wired like that. They think they are just one good at-bat from turning things around.
I agree. Players always say they will know when it’s time, but they rarely do. And I’ve already written that I don’t think it’s time yet for Griffey. Yet there is one player of his caliber — a first-ballot Hall of Famer — who actually did walk away in the middle of the season when he came to the conclusion that he simply could not play up to the standards he had built for himself.
I’m talking about Michael Jack Schmidt, the Phillies’ superstar, who retired on May 29 of the 1989 season. He was hitting .203 at the time, with six homers through 42 games. Schmidt was 39 and racked by a series of physical ailments that made him a shadow of the player many consider the greatest all-around third baseman of all-time.
I happened to cover Schmidt’s final game, though none of us knew it at the time. The Phillies were playing the Giants at Candlestick, and I was covering baseball in the Bay Area, then for the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. In what would be his final at-bat, Schmidt reached base on a roller that Giants shortstop Jose Uribe misplayed. The official scorer, Mike Lefkow of the Contra Costa Times, originally ruled it a hit, then changed it to an error. The Philles would later lobby Lefkow to change the call back to a hit, so Schmidt would have a base hit in his final at-bat, but Lefkow declined. In his final plate appearance, later in the game, Schmidt walked. When he reached first base, he told first-base coach Tony Taylor of the decision he had already made in his head, but had yet to announce. In a story last year in the Philadelphia Daily News, Paul Hagen detailed how Schmidt stepped down:
Schmidt: “It was going to be my last series, my last game, my last at-bat. I was thinking, ‘I need a mentor here. Who do I tell first? My wife? The owner? The general manager? A friend?’
“It turned out to be [first-base coach] Tony Taylor. I walked [in the ninth inning] and when I got to first I looked at him and said. ‘You’ve just seen my last at-bat.’ He looked at me like, ‘Are you crazy?’ ”
Taylor, who retired from baseball after the 2004 season and now lives in Miami: “It happened exactly like that. I was very surprised. I said, ‘No, no, don’t do it.’ I was more than surprised. I was shocked. I never expected him to do that. I knew he was still a great player.”
After the game, as the rest of the team was getting ready to fly to San Diego for the next series, Schmidt called his wife, Donna, and his agent. Manager Nick Leyva found out at the airport, before the charter flight took off.
Schmidt: “I asked Nick Leyva if I could speak to him. We walked back down the stairs of the plane and onto the tarmac. I told him I wanted to retire. He was a little shocked. He said all the things you would expect. ‘Are you sure? It’s a big step.’ That sort of thing.”
Leyva, now third-base coach for the Toronto Blue Jays: “I had no idea. We had kind of speculated about it. He didn’t look like he was enjoying himself. He was a proud man and he wasn’t playing up to his capabilities.
“I was sitting on the plane. He came up and said, ‘I need to talk to you.’ He said, ‘I’ve made up my mind . . . ‘ I said, ‘Are you sure?’ I mean, when you’re the manager of a player the caliber of Mike Schmidt, you want to talk him out of it.”
After the plane leveled off at its cruising altitude, Schmidt asked to address his teammates. He took the microphone and told the rest of the traveling party that he planned to retire.
A Sporting News article from 1989 on his retirement press conference, which took place when the team landed in San Diego for a series with the Padres, has some revealing quotes from Schmidt:
“Over the years of my career, I’ve set high standards for myself as a player, and I’ve always said that when I feel I can’t perform up to those standards, it would be time to retire,” he told six mini-cams, seven newspaper photographers and a gaggle of other news media crammed into the visiting football locker room to record the moment. “I feel like I could ask the Phillies to keep me on to add to my statistics, but my love for the game won’t let me do that.
“My skills to do the things on the field, to make the adjustments to hit, to make the routine play on defense and to run the bases aggressively have deteriorated.”
According to the article, Schmidt hit five home runs in April, but only one in May. He managed seven hits in his final 60 at-bats and was in a 2-for-41 skid that included a bunt single when he decided to retire.
The Schmidt quote that was the most poignant to me involved his reaction to watching the Giants’ star players, Will Clark and Kevin Mitchell, both in their prime and in the process of leading the Giants into the World Series:
“I went out on the field and looked at Kevin Mitchell and Will Clark and wondered if I could compete,” he said. “That’s the player I was. That’s the way I played the game, like Kevin Mitchell or Will Clark.
“It’s very hard to watch guys replacing you at the top when you’re fighting like hell to keep up.
“I watched those guys, and I felt very small. I felt like a shadow of those guys.”
And finally, there was this quote from Schmidt:
“Quitting is a word I don’t want associated with my retirement,” he said. “I’m hoping it’s a catalyst for our team. You may not be able to tell, but this is a joyous time for me. I’ve had a great career.”
Will it come to that for Griffey? I sincerely hope not. I’d like to see him go out with some glory — perhaps not a “blaze” but at least a wisp. I still think he can be a contributing member of this team in a more limited role. But it’s instructive to look back at a superstar who did exactly what Mitch asked Krueger about today.
(Photo by Associated Press)