Monday, June 23, 2003

Season-long Skid Has Schmidt Feeling Burrell's Pain

In his 18-year major-league career, Mike Schmidt won three MVP awards and one World Series MVP award. He hit 548 home runs to lead the National League eight times. He also drove in 1,595 runs, which led the league in RBIs four times. Only eight players in the history of the game hit more homers than Schmidt, which means that he might know a little something about hitting.

He should. He's certainly the best player the Phillies ever had.

But Mike Schmidt knows a lot about failure too. In 1973, Schmidt's first full season as a big leaguer, he hit just .196 and struck out 136 times in 132 games. In 1975, he whiffed 180 times, which at the time was the third-highest single-season total ever.

Only four players in the history of the game struck out more than Schmidt. In fact, he whiffed no fewer than 103 times in 12 of his first 13 seasons. If there hadn't been a labor stoppage in 1981, it would have been 13 for 13.

So yes, Schmidt knows a lot about failure.

He also knows a lot about what Pat Burrell is going through this season.

"I'm the only guy on the face of the earth right now that can feel his pain. I'm the only guy. Just from my career. I'm the only guy on the face of the earth that could hit the ball into the upper deck, and at the same time have played in a Philadelphia uniform, been booed till I can't stand it anymore, go on the field with anxiety kicking so hard that I can't control my sense of how to hit, and I wanna go out there and swing before [the pitcher] lets it go," said Schmidt, who was in town for the 1980s tribute. "I want to hit a 5-run home run with nobody on base. You lose it. There isn't a guy in here that can feel the pain that he feels right now.

"[Greg Gross] is his hitting coach, but he can't feel his pain. I'm the one that can help him from a psychological standpoint. I can lay on a couch next to him and say, 'Pat, I feel your pain. I've been there.'"

Burrell, as it has been well documented, has labored through a very difficult season. Following Sunday's 0-for-4 in 5-0 victory against the Boston Red Sox at the Vet, Burrell's batting average dipped to .202. In 67 games and 247 at-bats, Burrell has struck out 79 times. That comes to a staggering statistic: Burrell has struck out in 28 percent of his plate appearances. Toss in other variables and the would-be slugger has failed to hit a fair ball in 41 percent of his plate appearances.

Not at-bats, folks. That's plate appearances.

Schmidt, a part-time hitting instructor who last visited the team in Atlanta in April, says he looked over film with Burrell. At the time, Schmidt said Burrell was jumping at the ball a little bit and thinking "home run" too much.

Yet because of Burrell's struggles, manager Larry Bowa has moved the 26-year-old up and down in the lineup and benched him on occasion. Burrell has just one home run and three RBIs this month and just two home runs and four RBIs since May 20. It's gotten to the point, Schmidt elluded, that pitchers are waiting to face him instead of any other hitter in the lineup.

"You've got to want to be a clutch hitter," Schmidt said. "You don't want to be a dangerous hitter. You can be a dangerous hitter your entire career and make a lot of money. I was that guy a lot of times in my career."

Still, there are always glimmers of hope. Typically batting fourth or fifth in the lineup, which is not all that uncommon for a player who signed a six-year, $50 million deal before heading to spring training, Burrell went a promising 5-for-12 with two key doubles in three games against the Braves at the Vet. But against the Red Sox, the big-swinging right-hander went 0-for-8 with two more whiffs to slowly bring back the boo-birds.

So what's wrong with him? How can a player go from a breakout 37-home run, 116-RBI season in which he hit .286 to one where he still has to struggle to keep his average above the Mendoza line? More remarkably, Burrell is floundering despite the fact that he was given more support in the lineup with the addition of Jim Thome.

"His swing is a little too big. He jumps out. He doesn't let himself get deep," Schmidt explained. "He has a tendency to loop and try to pull, and that's an adrenaline thing. You jump out at the ball. A lot of time you see Pat's body will explode toward the pitcher based upon the motion, rather than reading the ball. You add in the anxiety, the booing."

Schmidt knows about the booing. Even when he was winning the MVP awards and smacking 40 homers a season, Schmidt heard the boos and he hated it. However, he did not have the pedigree Burrell had upon joining the Phillies. When Schmidt went through that difficult season in '73, he was still trying to figure out how to become a big leaguer, and because of those travails and the learning process that went along with it, Schmidt became a Hall of Famer.

Burrell, unlike Schmidt, has never struggled. At every level he's played, Burrell has been one of the best. Because of that, this rough '03 campaign has been extra agonizing because Burrell just can't shake the rough patches.

"I surely didn't have the 37-homer season under my belt, or the College MVP or No. 1 draft choice or greatest player in college history on my resume. I went through the minor leagues and couldn't even hit there, and the next thing you know, I was in a major-league uniform," Schmidt said.

"I changed, changed, changed my swing. I asked myself over and over, 'How am I going to be better?' I was always willing to try to do something new. I was always willing to do something. If Nolan Ryan was pitching, I'd go up there with a two-strike approach from the first pitch, shorten my stroke, choke up, and sometimes I'd still hit homers. I'd do that today against Pedro. I truly believe every day offers you a chance to put a different game plan out there, and I don't think the generation now is as cerebral. I truly think it's a lost art today with all the gladiator guys playing."

Although he hasn't seen Burrell play in person since the beginning of the year, Schmidt says it's obvious that Burrell has not made any adjustments. There were times, Schmidt says, when he tore his batting approach down completely and rebuilt it from scratch. Burrell doesn't have to go to that extreme, Schmidt says, but he does have to make some changes. Adjustments are, after all, the crux of the game.

"Right now I don't think he has a lifeline. When I feel that big long uppercut swing and I'm not letting the ball get deep, I know what to do now. He doesn't have that. He needs to adjust. I don't know that Pat understands that adjustments need to be made," Schmidt said. "There are players in the Hall of Fame that made adjustments throughout their career. I look at great players who have changed stances; have changed from standing tall to crouching down; changed from going to the plate to deep in the box; changed from opened stances to closed stances; from up over the knob to choked up. To this point, my perception is Pat hasn't been willing to make any adjustments. He gives me the impression that he feels like it's going to come. Today is going to be the change. He's entitled, as a player, to say that's the way he feels. [But] there will come a time — maybe — where he'll say, 'I can't figure it out. I want to make some changes,' and he goes to [hitting coach] Greg Gross, and they'll do something."

Schmidt is quick to point out that he is not the hitting coach and he doesn't want to step on Gross' toes. When Burrell has a problem, he should go and listen to Gross, who Schmidt says, is an outstanding hitting coach.

"[Gross] is a tremendous hitting coach, and from the psychological side of where he's at right now when he goes out on the field, we're telling him the same thing," Schmidt reasoned. "Greg is with him every day. I'm not. They work every day."

But if Burrell ever wants to talk to someone who was a big slugger with tons of strikeouts and lots of homers, Schmidt is always ready to talk.

But Schmidt is not going to be the one to take the first step. He does not want to overstep his bounds, nor does he want to be presumptuous in thinking that Burrell wants Mike Schmidt to help him. But if Mike Schmidt knew there was a Mike Schmidt there for him, Mike Schmidt would call Mike Schmidt.

Get it?

"I always like to make the analogy of golf. If I was a young golfer and I was struggling with my game, but I was teetering on having the ability to play on the PGA Tour, and Jack Nicklaus and I practiced on the same range every day, I would say, 'Jack, what do I need to do?'" Schmidt explained. "I would take every advantage I could to gain the power of input. Then it would be simple for me to block out that other guy [offering hitting tips] and the other guy if Nicklaus was there."

At the same time, Schmidt says he would watch and take pointers from other players. When Schmidt was playing, he borrowed from Steve Garvey and Roberto Clemente. And though he was a more feared hitter, Schmidt wanted to be like Greg Luzinski, who had the ability to hit a booming homer and loop a bleeder over the infield in a clutch spot.

"I used to say, 'Garvey can do it, why can't I do it? Clemente used to do it, why can't I do it? I have the same amount of ability,'" Schmidt said. "They were doing something different than I was in certain situations. Pat should be looking around and saying, 'What's A-Rod doing?' Why is his stroke so good?' I always was jealous about hitters. But that's me. Whether it's drive or not, I don't know. But I always wanted to be better than I was today. If I had two strikes, I would spread out like Albert Pujols. He's only hitting .380."

Doing something like that would cut down on all of those strikeouts, Schmidt says. And by cutting down on the strikeouts, Schmidt says if Burrell can do that, things will change.

"If you cut his strikeouts in half right now, he puts the ball in play 40 more times and he'd probably have six more home runs, 10 to 15 more hits and that translates into .250 with some production, versus where he is now," Schmidt said. "And that's very easy for us, guys like us, me, the media, fans, to look at and say that's easy to do, but it's not for a guy who all his life has been able to drive the ball, been able to have a big swing and be reasonably successful. You add in the frustration and the fact that he's got a lot of guys around him in the lineup who aren't picking him up for part of the year. So that puts more added pressure on him because he leaves a lot of guys on base and strikes out a lot in key situations."

And if the Phillies weren't struggling so much as a team, Burrell's troubles wouldn't be so magnified.

"You can put Pat Burrell right now in the middle of the Braves' batting order and he would probably go unnoticed," Schmidt surmised. "Everybody would say, 'Wait until he gets hot.'"

So what does Burrell think of all of this?

"Obviously, if a guy is going to spend time with you, especially a guy who is in the Hall of Fame, you're going to listen to him," Burrell told reporters. "Right now, it's been a tough time for me period. I'm just not swinging the bat good, and that's been a fact all year. There's been a lot of people trying to help, and it finally got to the point where I said I gotta figure this out on my own.

"Obviously, I have so much respect for Mike and I have talked to him tons. I don't understand what this is all about. Obviously, this guy has done a lot of things in this game that I'm trying to do."

Still, all hope is not lost. Schmidt says Burrell will turn it around and it will come quickly. However,

"He can be straightened out quickly, but he has to want it," Schmidt said. "He has to be willing to go in another direction."

Once he sets his course, look out.

"When he comes out of what he's going through now, hopefully he puts a hot a month together and gets back on track," Schmidt said. "Obviously, with a start like this, he's not going to be come back and hit 60 or 55 [homers] and drive in 140, and we all think he's that kind of player. But when he gets rolling, he'll cover a lot of ground in two months. When that happens, he'll always remember this period that he went through and he'll have figured out what it was that got him out of it."

Who knows, maybe he'll follow a similar course that another Phillie with a big, looping swing forged 30 years ago.

E-mail John R. Finger

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Friday, June 13, 2003

While Phillies Struggle, Rolen Having Banner Season

NEW YORK — His chin had a big brush burn, the kind kids get when they skin their knees playing football or falling off a bike onto the macadam. His forehead had some nicks and cuts and a welt that looked like a sloppy swipe of a paintbrush. None of these bruises explained the elaborate ice bag wrapped in a towel around his neck, which he unwrapped as if he were some incomplete mummy before heading to the training room for what seemed like some much-needed treatment.

Still, Scott Rolen couldn't stop smiling.

"I went head first in Boston the other night," he laughed while in the visitor's clubhouse at Yankee Stadium before his Cardinals lost to the Yankees on Saturday. "I smacked my face and my feet went over my head and flipped me over.

Rolen was describing his attempt to score against the Red Sox two days earlier.

"You should have seen it," he said.

About the only thing baseball fans in Philadelphia have seen relating to their prodigal son these days is the prodigious ink he's littered the box scores with. A 2-for-4 with a couple of RBIs following the entry "Rolen, 3b" isn't an uncommon sight these days. Neither are the highlight reel plays and web gems he's made look so routine at third base. Remember all of those plays? A dive to the left in the hole. A backhand stab of a short hop and a rifle throw to beat the runner at second. A deft snag of a liner bullet-bound to the corner. They used to be a normal occurrence on the Vet NeXturf through the summer months not so long ago.

But that circus has set up its tent in another city.

Now here's the part that Philly sports fans don't want to hear: Rolen is the same as he was when he was a Phillie but better. Everything, from his skills on the field to his demeanor in the clubhouse, is more enhanced. His dry wit is more engaging and matched by the courteous desire to chat. Always an entertainer to the scribes, Rolen spoke quietly and engaged his questioner with a look that made one feel as if he were doing a one-on-one interview, even when there was a pack of reporters around. It was if he were the smartest and politest kid in the class but was unsure of himself and never raised his hand.

That was then.

These days Rolen is animated. Always quick with a joke wrapped in his "boy-from-Jasper-aw-shucks" disposition, Rolen is more apt to embrace his teammates, club officials and writers. Rolen not only carries the gait of a person who suddenly has had the weight of the world lifted from his coat-rack shoulders but also seems as if he's finally comfortable in his own skin.

The real Scott Rolen has arrived.

"He's better now than he's ever been, and he's the best defensive third baseman I've ever seen. And I saw Schmidt and Brooks Robinson," an American League scout said at Yankee Stadium on Saturday. "Not only is he better, but he obviously has much a much better team around him. He can just show up and go to work without worrying about being the center of everyone's attention.

"In Philadelphia he was only going to be a good player. In St. Louis he's going to be a star."

It's in St. Louis, where Rolen went to catch games as a kid (he went to games in Cincinnati too) that he has come into his own. Sure, he's done well on the field since the trade, smacking 26 homers and driving in 95 while hitting .288 in 122 games heading into Monday's action, but it's off the field where he has found his footing.

Rolen still makes his home in Florida but stays close to his roots in Jasper, Ind. He has launched his Enis Furley Foundation and Camp Emma Lou on Lake Monroe near Bloomington where children and their families with special needs can spend time together. The camp's motto is, "Live, Love, Laugh� and don't burn your marshmallow!"

That could easily be Rolen's motto as well. While certainly not the cause of the Phillies' backward step in 2002, Rolen and his contract situation was an admitted distraction. It was plain to see that Rolen's marshmallow was charred in Philly. The smile that resides on his face these days, despite the stiff neck that might force him to miss a game or two this week, was no where to be found last year at this time. In fact, the team's clubhouse was as tense as a waiting room of a root-canal clinic.

Last August, Mike Schmidt hit the nail on the head when talking about Rolen and his relationship with Philly.

"In Philadelphia, he was never able to free up enough to enjoy playing the game," Schmidt said then. "He's wound tight like I am. You try and please everybody and you end up not having fun. You are the focal guy and there's always an issue. It drives you crazy. A new environment where he's not the focal point, he's going to blend in. That's what he is looking for, to be left alone and play the game. He has a better chance to reach his potential in that environment [in St. Louis] than he did over here."

Watching Rolen on Saturday made one wonder who that old guy was. Criticized by blathering talk-show types for not showing enough emotion and carrying a cool attitude toward the fans like Schmidt, that old Rolen is long gone.

"This is where I belong," he said. "I learned a lot in Philadelphia, and I'm thankful for the time that I spent there, but it's different here. I don't take bitterness with me at all. If I didn't have that experience, I don't think I'd be as complete "

There is also a nurturing atmosphere in St. Louis that wasn't available in Philadelphia. Although both men are old-school baseball men, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and Phils manager Larry Bowa are as different as night and day. As a Phillie, Rolen and Bowa often clashed and had two well-publicized blowups in Tampa in 2001 and Clearwater in 2002. Sensitivity training to Bowa is using a player's proper name while showing disgust for a misdeed.

La Russa is equally intense, but he has a better rapport with his players. Part of that might be because he is a multi-lingual attorney who is an animal-rights advocate. For Rolen, who speaks of his dogs Enis and Emma as if they are his sired children, La Russa's interest in such causes must impress the third baseman.

Rolen certainly is a fan favorite too. On June 1, thousands lined up early at Busch Stadium before a game against the Pirates to receive a Scott Rolen bobblehead doll. Apparently, as many as eight busloads of fans made the three-hour trip from Jasper, Ind. to get a memento of their hometown boy and watch him play.

They might have seen his best game as a Cardinal. Rolen reached base three times, including a key double in the third inning. He also drew an important walk in the seventh to lead a decisive two-run surge. But he saved the best for last.

With two outs in the ninth, and the Cardinals clinging to a precarious one-run lead, Rolen leaped high to snag Reggie Sanders' sizzling extra-base bid, a backhand catch that ended the game.

The crowd, of course, forced a post-game curtain call, just like it did when he hit a grand slam to cap off a 4-for-5 win over the Orioles last Sunday. And the three-run shot he hit with two outs in the ninth to beat the Cubs on May 23. These days, Rolen has made enough curtain calls in Busch Stadium to make even Pavarotti blush, but it was something Rolen spurned in Philly. Not that it matters anymore. Rolen is exactly where he wants to be.

"I'm in a place where I'm really happy," he said. "I always said that a happy ballplayer is a good ballplayer, and I feel pretty good."

He ought to. Usually pegged into manager Tony LaRussa's lineup behind Jim Edmonds and Albert Pujols ("He's the best player I've ever managed," LaRussa said of Pujols in New York.), Rolen is eighth in the National League with 51 RBIs, which sets him on a pace for 125.

Of course it doesn't hurt that Rolen's numbers are as good as anyone in the National League. In fact, if he weren't on the same team as Pujols and Edmonds, who are one-two in batting in the league, Rolen could be the leading candidate for the league's MVP award.

Sorry folks, he's been that good.

Rolen's good fortune comes as his former team is beginning its slow spiral down the commode. Full of promise after the acquisitions of David Bell, Kevin Millwood and Jim Thome, the Phillies could most definitely use Rolen's bat, if not his goldglove at third base. At the end of play on Sunday, Rolen is hitting .293 with 12 homers and 51 RBIs. But those numbers don't fully explain how good he's been. With runners in scoring position, Rolen is hitting .344 and has reached base in 56 of the Cardinals' 66 games.

At the same time, his fifth gold glove for his work at third base is all but a given, and his team will be right there when the pennant race heats up.

Nevertheless, Philadelphia is not fully in Rolen's rear-view mirror. He made a lot of friends during his seven years as a Phillie and still chats with some of his old teammates. Dan Plesac calls now and then. Randy Wolf's brother Jim, a big-league umpire, passes along messages. Then there's Jim Thome, whom Rolen was essentially traded for. According to Rolen, the pair talks regularly about baseball.

Interestingly, Rolen says he's asked frequently about whether he'd made a mistake in leaving Philadelphia since the Phils have added Thome.

"If I would have stayed there, there was no way they would have gotten Thome," Rolen said. "They might have been able to get Millwood, but there's no way they would have been able to have Thome and me on the same team."

Yeah, but Rolen and Pujols, Edmonds, Edgar Renteria and Tino Martinez on the same team?

If Rolen isn't in heaven, St. Louis might be the next best place.

E-mail John R. Finger


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