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The Philadelphia Phillies were mired in fifth place in the National League East in late June of 1985 when Mike Schmidt finally lost his cool. He was hitting .237 at the time, and even though he'd already led the Phillies to one World Series title and brought them to another World Series just two years earlier, he was viewed by his own fan base as an inscrutable and brooding character, the emotional opposite of everything Philadelphia craved in an athletic icon. Schmidt was 35 years old, at the tail end of his career, on the road to the Hall of Fame—yet still feeling underappreciated. And all of this is what led him to unload to a Canadian reporter during a three-game series in Montreal.
He called Phillies fans a "mob scene." He said they were "uncontrollable" and "beyond help." Referring to city whose—ahem—exuberant sports fans memorably pelted Santa Claus with snowballs, he said, "Whatever I've got in my career now, I would have had a great deal more if I played in Los Angeles or Chicago. You name a town, somewhere where they were just grateful to have me around. I drive in a hundred runs a year, hit forty home runs, probably have been on more winning teams on the course of my career than most guys. It's a damn shame to have negative fan reaction tied to it."
And then, on July 1, 1985, Schmidt had to come back home. Looking back, it's no wonder he tried to improvise a one-man on-field witness protection program.
The Phillies were playing the Cubs that day, and given the notorious reputation of Philadelphia fans, Schmidt and his teammates harbored a legitimate fear for their safety. It didn't matter that Schmidt was "absolutely right" about being more appreciated in another city, Associated Press reporter Rob Maaddi (who authored a biography of Schmidt), told VICE Sports. The fan base saw him as an aloof and scowling figure who didn't embrace the cantankerous spirit of a city that fell in love with NFL coach cum master troll Buddy Ryan and preferred its heroes, as Pete Rose once said, to "play hard, get dirty," and to "cuss and spit and never let them see you loafing."
"Schmidt was the best player in franchise history, yet he wasn't fully appreciated because he didn't fit the prototype Philly athlete," Maaddi said. "He was too cool, and there was a perception that he was nonchalant. In actuality, he cared so much that he was sensitive about it."
If nothing else, the often self-serious Schmidt found his sense of humor that day in Philadelphia. A crowd of more than 23,000 showed up at Veteran's Stadium prepared to boo him mercilessly; Schmidt said that his teammates were afraid to stand next to him during pregame drills. So he went back to the clubhouse, and found a shoulder-length crimson wig that belonged to goofball relief pitcher Larry Andersen. Teammate Steve Jeltz handed him a pair of Porsche sunglasses, and Schmidt put those on, too.
His teammates dared him to take the field in this hastily put-together disguise. Schmidt, who later admitted he was "scared out of his mind," finally agreed to do it. When his name was called in pregame introductions, the fans began to boo, and then they saw him rush onto the field in disguise, looking utterly ridiculous, taking his position at first base and tossing grounders to his teammates while that shaggy wig dragged down his back. Some of the boos turned to cheers, and the perceptions of at least a few Philadelphia fans began to shift. Schmidt eventually tossed the wig to a batboy, and the game began.
"I thought Schmitty loosened up the whole ballpark," his teammate Gary Matthews told reporters after the game. "I thought he turned around what could have been a tense situation. Hey, this is why they call this 'the show.' We're all actors."
The Phillies lost that game, and Schmidt struck out twice—the second time to end the game with the tying run on base—but he also had two hits. By the end of that season, he raised his average to .277, hit 33 home runs, and drove in 93. The following season, at the age of 36, he won his third National League Most Valuable Player Award. Eventually, the Phillies erected a statue of him outside their new home at Citizens Bank Park. The disguise didn't change everything for Schmidt, but it softened his image just enough to establish at least something of a détente with the fans who demanded so much of him. Maybe they would never fully understand him, but at least they could co-exist.
"Fans … appreciated it, but I don't think that turned the tide for him for good," Maaddi says.
So what helped turn that tide even further? Maaddi points to the time in 2009 when Schmidt returned to town to take part in a memorial honoring longtime Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas, whose home-run calls invoking Schmidt's full name had become as much a part of local lore as the home runs themselves. "That was the moment when fans truly identified with Mike," Maaddi said. "They mourned with him and felt his pain."
It will never be simple, this relationship Philadelphia has with the player widely recognized as the greatest hitter in franchise history. Even now, as a part-time broadcaster for the team, his relationship with a certain segment of the fan base is uneasy and occasionally contentious.
"I think there will always be a small fraction of fans who may not fully appreciate how great he was because of that Mr. Cool demeanor," Maaddi said. Which is why Schmidt was utterly correct in his critique of Phillies fans, and intelligent enough to recognize that the best way to diffuse the tension was to transform himself—at least for a brief moment on a July afternoon—into someone else altogether.
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