CLEARWATER, Fla. - Great retired players often say, with great fondness, they can still hear the echoes of the crowds they played before.
The echoes Mike Schmidt hears aren't so pleasant. Nearly 20 years after he retired, the Hall of Fame third baseman, the best player in Phillies history, can still hear the boos that chased him to the dugout after a strikeout.
"To me, it was personal," Schmidt said. "It hurt. Booing shouldn't hurt."
That would be unfortunate and nothing more except for one thing: Schmidt's insight into the relationship between Philadelphia fans and their sports stars remains relevant. Actually, given the added intensity brought by talk radio, the Internet and 24-hour sports channels, Schmidt's words may resonate more than ever.
Schmidt arrived in Clearwater yesterday for his annual stint as a guest instructor. Not only did he know he would be asked about his perceived off-season criticism of outfielder Pat Burrell, Schmidt took the time to type out a prepared statement to cover the topic. After clarifying his comments and apologizing for any misunderstanding, Schmidt made a remarkable and, well, Schmitty-esque revelation.
"Since meeting Pat six years ago," Schmidt said, "I have relived my career through him, as we have so many similarities. I root for him every game."
The more you think about that, the more stunning that admission is. Schmidt hit 548 home runs, was MVP of the National League in the Phillies' only championship season, and played the living daylights out of third base. And when he sees Burrell - .258 average, 188 homers - he sees himself.
"It's not Ryan Howard, it's not Chase Utley, it's not Jimmy Rollins," Schmidt said. "The guy I identify with on this team is Pat. I see so much of myself in him, for a lot of reasons: having to deal with striking out; the adrenaline factor affecting your ability to hit; wanting to do so [much] in front of the Philly fans.
"I know he's the guy on the team that has to accept the brunt of the negativism at the Phillies' ballpark now."
And that's the key. When Schmidt played, he sensed the fans simply liked Greg Luzinski, Gary Matthews, Larry Bowa and Garry Maddox more than they liked him. It made him press. It made him bitter. It's the kind of thing that can ruin a player, but Schmidt is so complex a personality, it may have made him better.
Burrell is not that complex.
The common thread, of course, is the appearance of effort. Not actual effort - no one tried harder than Schmidt, and Burrell works endlessly at trying to correct his most maddening habits - but the appearance of effort.
Schmidt appeared to be aloof. Donovan McNabb smiles or stands in the wrong way at the wrong place. Andy Reid and Charlie Manuel don't yell and scream, so they must be too easy on players. This is what fans see. It isn't necessarily accurate.
"They didn't know I was out in my garage in Media at 3 o'clock in the morning, beating balls off a batting tee," Schmidt said. "They didn't know what I went through to be the player that I was."
In a fascinating twist, Schmidt now watches Burrell with the same perspective as fans once watched him. He judges Burrell on what he thinks Burrell could be more than on what he is. That makes the strikeouts and the clueless at-bats all the more frustrating.
Unlike the average fan, however, Schmidt also understands just how difficult it is to play major-league baseball, day in and day out, at the highest level. He knows how stubborn he was about accepting coaching, and how much better a hitter he was when the light finally came on for him.
"It took me 14 years," Schmidt said.
Burrell has played half that long. He is a compelling figure, because he has shown flashes of greatness. Those flashes have been interrupted by long periods of "mediocrity," to use the word Schmidt tried to take back yesterday.
If Burrell can put it all together, the Phillies will have as good a lineup as there is in the National League.
"Big Papi wouldn't be Big Papi without Manny Ramirez," Schmidt said, referring to Boston's David Ortiz, and how successful he is with Ramirez hitting behind him. "[Burrell] can be this guy. I can imagine how good the Phillies will be when he does become this guy."
And it's there, in the tension between hoping a player or team succeeds and disappointment when a player or team falls short, that the fans' frustration comes into play. That frustration is spelled "B-O-O."
Nobody understands that better than Schmidt. He learned a lot from his experiences. Unfortunately, they are lessons that Burrell, McNabb and no doubt future Philadelphia athletes will have to learn for themselves.