Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt told Philadelphia radio station WIP on Tuesday morning that current Phillies center fielder Obudel Herrera was "not the type of player you build around." That's an arguable point, and one Phillies management obviously disagrees with, because Herrera is the only player they've signed through the 2021 season. But Schmidt really got himself into trouble with his next statement.
"It's a language barrier. Because of that, I think he can't be a guy that would sort of sit in a circle with four, five American players and talk about the game. Or try and learn about the game or discuss the inner workings of the game. Or come over to a guy and say, 'Man, you gotta run that ball out.' Just can't be -- because of the language barrier -- that kind of a player."
Schmidt then went on to tip his hand a little bit, talking about how he would "hate him if I played against him because of his antics on the field." That's the sort of stuff Ian Kinsler took heat for during the World Baseball Classic. Herrera said on Tuesday that Schmidt called him to apologize about his comments. Schmidt also released a statement through the Phillies:
"It's been made known to me that my answer on a radio interview this morning to the question, 'Can the Phillies build a team around Odubel Herrera' was disrespectful to Herrera and Latin players in general. I'm very sorry that this misinterpretation of my answer occurred and may have offended someone. I assure everyone I had no intention of that. Odubel is a dynamo on the field, and as he becomes more comfortable with the language, his leadership skills will improve, and no doubt he will be a centerpiece in the Phillies future."
For the sake of Schmidt's reputation -- a guy who, all told, had all sorts of crazy Philadelphia fans questioning his leadership back in the day -- let's take him at his word and assume that he was simply trying to say, in a ham-fisted way, that he thinks it might be difficult for a Spanish-speaking player to communicate in a "leadership" fashion with the rest of his team, or, as he put it, "American players."
Where might he have gotten this idea? Where do all retired baseball players get all their ideas? From when they were active players, of course. Schmidt played his last baseball game in 1989. Since then, every single time he has walked in a room, all anyone has wanted to talk about was what Mike Schmidt did before 1989. Schmidt beat cancer in 2013, but other than that, there isn't a whole lot from the past 28 years that wasn't directly related to what he did until 1989. Twenty-eight years is a long time to have to relive what you did previously. Why wouldn't players just relive their playing days all the time? That's all we ask of them.
So if you assume that Schmidt is still stuck in his mid-80s heyday, then we should look at what baseball was like when Schmidt played. Let's look at 1981, the second of Schmidt's three NL MVP Award-winning seasons and almost certainly the best of his career. (His slash line was .316/.435/.644, all career highs. Had that not been a strike-shortened season, Schmidt may have reached 50 homers, a mark he never quite made it to.) That '81 team was excellent, with Pete Rose and Gary Matthews' best season and a young Lonnie Smith, not to mention a pitching staff led by Steve Carlton, who threw 10 complete games in 24 total starts. You had Sparky Lyle and Tug McGraw in the bullpen. Dallas Green was the manager. That was a good team.
You know what that team wasn't, though? Diverse. Looking over that roster, there were only two players -- second baseman Manny Trillo (from Venezuela, like Herrera) and starting pitcher Nino Espinosa (from the Dominican Republic) -- who spoke Spanish. Could Trillo or Espinosa have been a "leader" on that team? I'm sure each of those men had the capabilities: You do not come from where they did to become high-quality Major League players without having a fire in your belly. But Trillo and Espinosa had to have felt different. There were just so many of those American guys like Schmidt, who may not have been compelled to learn their teammates' native language.
Now let's look at the current Phillies roster. You have Herrera from Venezuela, along with his fellow countrymen Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez. Maikel Franco is from the Dominican. Aaron Altherr can speak German, for crying out loud. Hector Neris, Vince Velasquez, Joely Rodriguez, Edubray Ramos, Andres Blanco -- the whole future of this Phillies team speaks Spanish. You know what those "American guys" who Schmidt thinks are the only ones qualified to lead his team did? They went out and learned Spanish. Manager Pete Mackanin, the actual leader of the team, certainly did. He can even conduct an interview in Spanish.
If Schmidt were a professional baseball player in the year 2017, he would know this, and he would know how ridiculous the idea that a Spanish speaker couldn't be a leader of a team is. The number of Spanish-speaking leaders of teams over the past decade is so large that it would be exhausting to even say them all. (I mean, I've never played or cheered or even cared about the Boston Red Sox in my entire life, but if David Ortiz asked me to do something, I'd follow him into hell.) This is an obvious fact. Heck, ask the Astros, the best team in baseball by a massive margin. You think Alex Bregman doesn't attempt to mimic every single thing Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Carlos Beltran do just because they grew up in different school systems? This is how baseball is, and has been for many years now. That doesn't mean there isn't still work to be done in this regard. But not to realize this is to have one's head deep in the sand.
But Schmidt isn't a professional baseball player in 2017. He was a professional baseball in 1981. We have made such progress since Schmidt was last in the trenches that, again, if you want to give him the benefit of every doubt, maybe he just doesn't know. We hope that this will be the start of a positive learning process for him. But whether or not you want to ridicule Mike Schmidt, the fact remains that baseball is a better, more diverse game, by a dramatic factor, than it was when Schmidt played. Thank heavens for that. Mike Schmidt might not know better. But an overwhelming majority of people still do.
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