Phillies Great Mike Schmidt Talks About Cancer, Announcing and His Man Crush On Roy Halladay

In a wide-ranging interview, the Hall of Famer opens up about his former stint in the booth, the current team's prospects and Ryne Sandberg as a manager.

Photo | Howard Altman

Photo | Howard Altman

The best third baseman ever to play the game sits down on a metal picnic bench between the Phillies’ spring training practice field and Bright House Field and fiddles with his new press pass.

“I have the Gold Card,” Michael Jack Schmidt jokes to a group of reporters who have gathered around to hear him speak publicly for the first time since being diagnosed with skin cancer last summer.

The 64-year-old Hall of Famer, who will be returning to the broadcast booth during Sunday home games this season, spends the next half hour talking about coming back from cancer, his own limitations as a broadcaster, the current state of the Phillies and his bromantic crush on former Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay.

Mike Schmidt: Let me say something first: In my mind, I’ve got how I want to explain the reason why I missed spring training.

I’m not going to go into any detail. … My health problem is not the worst thing in world that can possibly happen. I am very lucky. In August, I had a mole on my back diagnosed as melanoma. … [I]t was determined to be stage three rather than stage one. It had gotten into my lymph system. … I had to have all the lymph nodes removed from under my arm. I had recovery from that for about a month — more scans. I was lucky enough the scans were clear, in other words, I had no other signs of melanoma in my body anywhere. I did have to do radiation for a month and chemotherapy for a month. It took me to about Valentine’s Day — my last infusion of chemo.

The reason we were a little bit vague, why my name was not on the list of visiting coaches, was that, all of that, and the follow-up and if announced something like that in December or January the media follow-up to that probably would have been pretty strong and I wasn’t in any type of health to be able to handle calls from media around the country and do interviews and have to say no to people over and over and over. I don’t know if we said the right thing. [Phillies Senior Vice President, Marketing & Advertising Sales] David Buck and I kind of choreographed that vague description of why I wasn’t able to, why I had to stay close to home so that’s pretty much it.

How are you feeling now?

Mike Schmidt: I feel fantastic right now. Actually tomorrow morning I have another scan. I will be going through these scans, hopefully for about five years. Hopefully it will stay clear and in the rest of my body I won’t have any issue. They are three months apart, hopefully then six months apart then a year apart, then they’ll turn me lose. I’ve done just about everything I can do to destroy any cancer cells that are in my body. Some of them are so microscopic you can’t detect them. That’s why you do radiation and the chemo. It was kind of a rough road for two or three months.

Was it scary?

Mike Schmidt: Was it scary? If you sit and ponder the possibilities that come from something like this, yes it could be. But also I am the luckiest man alive. I happened to duck into my dermatologist’s office one day. I was in Florida for one day to do a closing for a house and I had a little thing on my hand and I just went in there, and said, “Can you look at this?” and he said, “Why don’t I take a look at your whole body while you are here?’”Obviously the moral of the story is, everybody get your skin checked, I think at least once a month, now that I know what I know. But I caught it early. If I hadn’t I gone in to see my dermatologist back in late August I might still have it, it might have even went to stage three. So even though that was a tough couple of months, I am a very lucky man.

How much did it help your recovery being fit?

Mike Schmidt: The doctors say it does. They tell you chemotherapy affects everybody differently. I think someone that — I’m not in great shape — but someone in pretty decent shape handles it better than someone who isn’t. I only had one episode with nausea and a couple of episodes with chills. Most of my issues with the whole thing for a month, actually about six weeks, was mental. Dealing with it mentally. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I had no taste buds. I couldn’t speak. My voice was really raspy. A lot of side effects I had, one of them wasn’t that I was sick all the time, vomiting. That happens to some people.

Do you detect any difference?

Mike Schmidt: There’s no question — while you are playing, like these guys in here right now and their age and even after you retire to the age I am now — the older you get, the more you realize that as you are getting old, you are thankful that you are getting old in a healthy manner. You still carry some sense of invincibility if you have been through what I and these guys have been through athletically. You really do feel a bit invincible. … I don’t anymore. I feel, I don’t know if “normal” is the right word. I’ve been in chemo infusion centers sitting in a chair with a needle in my arm with people who are dying all around me. I hoped I would never see anything like that but it became normal for me for over a month to sit with these people who were further along with their cancer than I was. I was usually the most fortunate person in the room

Was the cancer the byproduct of spending a lot of time in the Florida sun?

Mike Schmidt:  No, for me — first of all anybody can get melanoma, anybody. Light-skin, dark-skin. I know people who are olive-skinned that have had serous melanoma operations. In my case, it ran in the family. My grandfather suffered from it. He didn’t die from it. He was, oh gosh, this is back 30, 40 years ago. He died in the late ’70s or ’80s. He had his ear taken off, but he died from something else … in the early years, baseball years, we didn’t do sunscreen. We played day games in spring training. We wanted to get tanned, actually. So I am sure it had something to do with it, although it had something to do with other skin issues that I have. The melanoma is on my back. It’s a mole. I can’t say it’s sun-related, though a doctor probably says it is. I don’t like sitting where I am right now. You get scared of the sun, man, I’m telling you . It’s an evil thing, but we need it.

What was the timing of your decision to come back to the booth?

Mike Schmidt:  About 10 days following my [chemo] — Valentine’s Day was my last one — I started to get my life back, started to be energetic about talking to people, returning phone calls. In fact, that was one of the things that really helped me heal. People came out of nowhere. People I hadn’t talked to. I had an hour-and-a-half phone call with Ed Farmer [retired right-handed pitcher]. Remember Ed Farmer? I hadn’t talked to him in 10 years and uh, I started to really enjoy returning phone calls and talking to people who reached out to me, when [previously] I just declined to answer their calls because I didn’t have the energy or wherewithall to speak to anyone at the time. And I called them all back and got a lot of energy and a lot of healing from knowing how many people cared about me. I really did. It’s fantastic. That would have never happened. That’s a really nice byproduct of the problem that I had. I rekindled about 10 friendships that had been really, really strong friendships when I played ball and I’m back in the saddle with those guys now.

[After the Phillies fired their announcers] [David Buck] called me said I was on the long list of people they were interviewing for the color analyst job and David asked me if I was interested in the full-time color analyst job. My quick answer was no. My lifestyle won’t let me get back on the airplanes and travel with the team again so he and Sean sort of choreographed the “Sundays with Schmidt” concept. So I am doing 13. I am very excited about it, doing 13 Sunday home games. I’ll come in on Saturday afternoon, sit through the Saturday night broadcast and chat with the guys, maybe do a little tease on Saturday night and come back on Sunday and do the broadcast on Sunday. I guess I’ll be with both of the guys. We’ll both do nine innings on Sunday. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

You were an announcer back in 1990. What are your thoughts about doing it again?

Mike Schmidt: I was the typical l retiree that felt the next step in life was broadcasting it. You see it all the time. PRISM was the opportunity back in the day. Jim Barniak was the play-by-pay guy. Garry Maddox and I shared the booth with Jim Barniak — two games a week, three games a week , I can’t remember exactly how many. I have to be honest with you, I think my content was good but I don’t think back then … I just couldn’t get excited about a ground ball single up the middle. I can say, “that was good hitting , two strikes, hit a ground ball up the middle.” They wanted me to be more excited about little things. I spoke to so-and-so before the game. I was in the clubhouse hanging around the batting cage and we had a nice chat with the manager, and I was uncomfortable doing that. I had just retired and I didn’t want to now start coming in in my coat and my tie that I was going to wear on the broadcast and stand around and wait for someone to talk to me. Or go up to the guys that I just played with and say, ’Hey you have to give me something for the broadcast tonight.’

What was comfortable for me was just coming to the game, watching the game, telling some stories, reacting to what I saw on the field . I didn’t do a lot of research. I didn’t look at batting averages. I just watched the game and people saw it through my eyes. That wasn’t necessarily what the job description was. That’s the best way I can put it. You need — they wanted a guy who was going to dive in there and do the research and go talk to players, and come up with, you know, a lot of ammunition. So they watched the game and I always believed, hey, I’ll be entertaining enough. Let me just watch the game and talk into the microphone. And it got a little uncomfortable when they wanted me to take some lessons. Remember Andrea Kirby? She used to coach a lot of the young guys who wanted to be broadcasters. So they made me spend time with her and watch tapes and it was a little uncomfortable. That won’t happen this year. That won’t happen.

What’s going to be your style?

Mike Schmidt: My style? Remember, I am not a full-time guy and I am only doing 13 Sunday home games. And it’s going to be much like it has always been when they asked me to visit the booth — when they asked me to come in for an inning or promote something or talk about something. I used to have a blast with Wheels and Maddox, er Matthews, when I’d jawbone for a couple of innings and Sarge and I would play off each other and we’d have some laughs and we’d talk about back when and tell some stories. It was very light-hearted, not as informative. I think Shawn Olesiak  would agree with this. Sunday broadcasts are not going to be filled with information and stats. It’s going to be more of an entertainment day. Who knows what’s going to come up but it’ll be lighter.

What’s your impression of this team?

Mike Schmidt: Let me first say, this is my first day here. I haven’t even talked to any of the players. I think I have watched maybe four, five innings of one game — the first game against the Yankees here. I am getting all my information on I’m reading all your articles and watching the videos and the highlights and trying to stay abreast of what’s going on. I’m a little bit aware of a couple of the — what do you call them — disciplinary issues that have happened at this point, for a lack of a better word. I don’t know if that’s the truth or not. I don’t know anything in detail on that. I just know that [First baseman] Ryan [Howard] hit sixth or fifth one day and [shortstop] Jimmy [Rollins] didn’t play for a few days and I don’t know the reasons why. I am going to chat with [manager] Ryne Sandberg here later this morning and we’ll probably get into a little of that and he’ll fill me in. I think Ryne, from my perspective, is off to a great start as manager. I hear nothing but good things about Ryne Sandberg and how he’s running the camp. He certainly has the experience in the minor leagues of working with, you know, professional baseball players. He commands a lot of respect as a Hall of Famer and because he put a lot of time in at the lower level – successful time – he’s always been a winning manager.

The team … if the team can stay healthy the entire year, people like Cliff Lee and [Cole] Hamels and [Kyle] Kendrick and you know, your starting staff can stay healthy, [closer Jonathan} Papelbon will stay healthy, you get back to MVP-caliber years from [Chase] Utley and Rollins and Howard, and Domonic Brown continues to develop. Marlin Byrd looks like a fantastic addition, you know, hitting third or fourth or fifth, and some protection for Ryan. I think health is a key issue. I know you guys have heard this before, but I think Howard needs 500-600 at-bats. Utley needs 500-600 at bats, These guys can’t go on the DL for a month-and-a-half. … You can argue who is the most important. But the team needs to be healthy. All due respect to our bench but I don’t think we have the strongest bench — even with [Bobby] Abreu — in the league and I would think maybe Atlanta or Washington is a little bit stronger depth-wise , but I still think we have a team that is to be reckoned with.

When you were a player did you recognize guys you think would have made good managers? Did you think Ryne Sandberg would be?

Mike Schmidt: [Base on the] career he had — becoming a Hall of Famer, the money he made as a player, I [normally] don’t think that would add up to a guy that would be a great manager some day. The great manager prospects we saw were guys that sat on the bench, John Vukovich kind of guys that sat and watched the game. They weren’t as involved in the game and they took it all in, and went about their work every day and they had a love for baseball. They did not make what you would call big money and needed to continue to work in the game. They were guys that developed a lot of friends in the game that they can lean on when they retire and get out of the game.

Is that why so few Hall of Famers become managers?

Mike Schmidt: I think it’s all the reasons I just mentioned. A lot of cases they don’t need to work, don’t need the money, given everything they have accomplished in most cases 18- to 23-year careers. They are tired of traveling. They are tired of room service. They are tired of the lifestyle that you guys have with the late nights, you know what I mean? And sleeping in, the hotels and in today’s world there’s a tremendous amount of screaming and “sign this and sign that” and hotels are hard to get in and out of. There’s a lot, a lot of hassles of travel and lifestyle. I think somebody that has made enough money and wants to get back and see their family and be with their family, that’s almost me. I am almost describing myself, and Roy Halladay is probably going to fall into that role, I know.

You had enough as the manager of the Phillies’ Clearwater Single A affiliate in 2004 right?

Mike Schmidt: Well, as that worked out, yeah. As that worked out, that could have worked out a lot differently. Charlie [Manuel] was hired then and I — that was a window for me to become manager. Whether it be of this team or another team, I was of the mindset that I was going to go back into baseball, and I wanted to manage. I wanted to manage in the big leagues but it did not work out, and you know, everything is for the best. At least I think it is. The plan for my life was to not become a manger and I’m so happy it wasn’t, that it worked out the way it did.

Photo | Howard Altman

Photo | Howard Altman

Do you want to return as a guest instructor in spring training?

Mike Schmidt: Oh yeah, God willing. God willing I will be in uniform next year. I’m looking forward to that, especially with the guys that are now back. I’d love to get to know Roy Halladay, that’s why I got the little stubble on my face trying to look like Roy Halladay. It just isn’t working. But I’d love to get to know him and Brad Lidge and some of the guys, the younger guys, that are now guest instructing. Yeah, I got it on my calendar.

Is the broadcasting thing just one year?

Mike Schmidt: I think we negotiated a one-year contract, did we not? So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Howard Altman, former City Paper editor and Pretzel Logic columnist, covers national security for The Tampa Tribune.