Schmidt carries the load for Giants
by Jerry Crasnick
PHILADELPHIA—Giants pitcher Jason Schmidt regards the Internet as so much more than a place to monitor current events and the National League standings. He thinks nothing of going online and dropping $75 for a batch of hand buzzers and electrified ink pens. And when he returns home to SBC Park to find a box of goodies at his locker, it's a nice pick-me-up. He also saves gas by eliminating trips to Jack's Joke Shop and Greg's Gag Emporium.
Schmidt was outed as a serial prankster in a recent Sports Illustrated profile. The publicity hasn't stopped him from blowing bubbles and furtively sticking them on the bill of teammate Kirk Rueter's cap. But Schmidt refrains from tired bits like fake vomit, because as anyone over age 6 knows, fake vomit is a surefire loser.
The joy buzzer—now that's a productive novelty item.
"One day I'll be bored in the dugout and say, 'Aw, what the heck,' and I'll go in and get the buzzer," Schmidt said. "Then somebody hits a home run and you start high-fiving and nail everybody. I like people to say, 'Ow.' The more it hurts, the better."
The beauty of being a starting pitcher is the four days between appearances to lurk in search of victims. Every fifth day, Schmidt dedicates himself to dispensing pain through uncomfortable oh-fers.
Randy Johnson practically made the world stand still while debating whether to waive his no-trade clause. Roger Clemens is still special at 42. Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez are a potential playoff nightmare for Red Sox opponents. Mark Mulder is gunning for the Cy Young Award and Johan Santana throws some indescribably nasty stuff in Minnesota. But baseball's best starter this year probably resides in San Francisco, where Schmidt is also adept at distributing high-fives on the pitcher's mound—sans buzzer.
Schmidt has thrown two one-hitters this season, and the league is batting under .200 against him. Before a groin injury forced him to miss a start in August, he was so dominant for such an extended run that Giants manager Felipe Alou compared him with Hall of Famer Juan Marichal, less for aesthetics than intangibles.
"Every time Juan Marichal took the mound for the Giants, we thought we would win the game," Alou said. "It's the same thing here. Every time Jason Schmidt takes the mound, his teammates think they're going to win."
One of Schmidt's most impressive traits is his ability to go deep into games. He threw at least six innings in 20 of his first 23 starts and ranked second in the majors to the Expos' Livan Hernandez in number of pitches thrown, even though he had surgery to repair a partially torn tendon in his elbow last October.
When Schmidt threw 389 pitches over three starts in May, front-office people throughout baseball privately questioned whether the Giants were playing fast-and-loose with his future. After Schmidt threw 144 pitches in a one-hitter against the Cubs, one front office man said Alou was guilty of "borderline managerial negligence."
General manager Brian Sabean replied that he trusted Alou, pitching coach Dave Righetti and trainer Stan Conte to make the call. His faith was borne out by the results.
It's not unusual for Schmidt to be clocked at 94 mph in the first inning and 96-97 in the sixth. His fellow Giants consider that a tribute to flawless mechanics.
"He stays back, he gets on top of the ball, and he finishes," reliever Matt Herges said. "He does a lot of stuff you can't teach."
The prankster and goofball in Schmidt has a studious side. When Schmidt was playing high school ball in Washington, his coach told him to watch how the big leaguers pitched, so Schmidt embraced Clemens as his role model. He even wore No. 21 as a tribute to the Rocket.
Schmidt signed with the Braves as an eighth-round draft choice in 1991, and two years later he received a mechanical overhaul from Matt West, then pitching coach for Class A Durham. In 1995 Schmidt arrived in Atlanta, where he refined his mental outlook by observing Greg Maddux.
Maddux believed in excellence through repetition, be it in games or playing catch. "He said when you're in a game you never try to throw a ball at a guy's chest, so why do it when you're playing catch?" Schmidt said. Mindful of that advice, Schmidt is now conditioned to aim for the belt buckle whenever he plays catch.
While it's natural to wonder what Schmidt might have accomplished had he stayed in Atlanta, he felt liberated when the Braves traded him to Pittsburgh for Denny Neagle in 1996. With Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz ahead of him, Schmidt figured he was destined to spend a lot of time getting skipped while bringing up the rear of the Atlanta rotation.
But Schmidt's five years in Pittsburgh were less than memorable. He went 44-46 as a Pirate and grew discouraged with the small crowds, sub-.500 finishes and the prospect of veterans constantly leaving town once they hit free agency.
"I didn't enjoy it too much over there," Schmidt said. "When you're a young kid and your goal is to play in the big leagues—and you get there and it doesn't feel like the big leagues—you get pretty miserable."
Schmidt showed he had the requisite October toughness in the National League Division Series last year, when he beat Florida 2-0 on an elbow bound for the operating table. He threw 110 pitches, almost all fastballs and changeups. He refrained from throwing his slider because it hurt too much, and he didn't need it.
With kids in the minors routinely throwing three to four pitches, Schmidt's reliance on the fastball and changeup makes him seem like a throwback. But he's adept at spotting his fastball or taking something off, depending on the hitter and the situation. And his changeup, which comes in at 89-90, dive-bombs like a splitter. Judging from the funky hacks that hitters take, Giants catcher A.J. Pierzynski says the pitch might as well be coming in at 70.
"It's one of the most devastating pitches I've seen since I've been in the game," said Alou, who broke into professional ball in 1956.
In mid-August, Schmidt struck out 11 batters, walked one and threw a complete-game four-hitter in a 7-0 win over the Pirates. The game marked a return to Pittsburgh for both Schmidt and Bonds, but only 24,446 fans showed up at PNC Park to watch it.
"How could that place not be filled to the brim?" Herges said. "One guy is Babe Ruth, and the other guy, in my opinion, is the best pitcher in the game right now. Wow. I feel blessed just to be on the same team watching them."
And that's no joke.
Jerry Crasnick is a contributing baseball writer for ESPN.com. You can contact him by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.