Mike Schmidt of the Phillies dug his sneakered feet deep into the thick shag carpet, cocked an imaginary bat alongside his curly, reddish hair, stepped into an imaginary pitch and unloosed his home run swing. There was no crack, no sock, not even a cheer from Schmidt's wife Donna as the imaginary ball sailed across his comfortable den, through the glass door, past the terrace, over the swimming pool and into the vast green valley below. "When I was a kid I always tried to crush the ball," said Schmidt, who is 26, as he followed the flight of his make-believe homer. "I guess I'm still trying."
It is the personal purgatory of a home run hitter that success very often is a hit or miss proposition. The same hard, full cut that can send the ball into the distant bleachers can also send the hitter back to the dugout with his bat in his hands. It is his doing and his undoing.
This season, baseball's premier power whiffers, Schmidt and 6'6", 210-pound Dave (Kong) Kingman of the Mets, have been striking home runs and striking out at prodigious rates. While no one else in the National League has more than six homers and 11 strikeouts, Third Baseman Schmidt and Rightfielder Kingman already have nine and seven of the former and 15 and 21 of the latter. The strikeouts flow steadily; the home runs usually come in headline-making bunches. Kingman clouted six in a five-game stretch to take an early lead in the major league home run race, a contest he narrowly lost to Schmidt last season. But Schmidt overtook Kingman in a hurry. During a tear that extended into last week, he smacked seven in four games, including four straight during one windy afternoon in Chicago. In the history of baseball only three other players had accomplished that. The last National Leaguer to do it was the Boston Braves' Bob Lowe in 1894.
Characteristically, neither Kingman nor Schmidt had been hitting well before their hot streaks began. In 15 previous at bats, Kingman, who is 27 and has a .226 lifetime average, had hit one homer and two singles and had struck out six times. Schmidt, a .248 career batter, was 3 for 18 with one home run and nine strikeouts. Then, in successive visits to Wrigley Field and Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium, they started connecting—high, long and often.
"When you get in a groove like that the ball looks twice its normal size," says Kingman. "Other times it comes up to the plate looking like a golf ball. It doesn't matter how you feel, either. You can feel great and not hit a thing, then feel lousy and hit it out." Schmidt says the ball looked bigger to him, too, and that he was making perfect contact because he was in one of those elusive stretches when his swing is perfect. For both, when they hit the ball it stayed hit. During their streaks they struck out 12 times and had only two hits besides the home runs—a Schmidt single and a Kingman double.
The two sluggers erupt that way every so often, perhaps to prove they are still alive and playing. Kingman had 13 homers last July, Schmidt countered with 12 in August. To opponents, their streaks seem even more torrid than they are, because Schmidt and Kingman are not in the business of hitting cheap home runs. There are few players, if any, who can match them for distance. Kingman smashed a drive of more than 600 feet off the Yankees' Catfish Hunter in spring training last year that both New York teams still talk about. "I could have chopped that up into 35 singles," says Mets First Baseman Ed Kranepool.
Two weeks ago Kingman blasted a shot that Chicagoans believe was the longest ever hit at Wrigley Field. Estimated to have gone 650 feet on the fly, it carried over the left-field bleachers, across Waveland Avenue and down a side street. After landing, the ball bounced a couple of times before crashing into the side of a house. While Kingman was still circling the bases, the residents of the house poured out on the front porch to see who was knocking at their wall. Schmidt has not belted one that far in 1976, but he is well remembered in Houston where a couple of seasons back he stroked a ball off the Astrodome speaker, which is 117 feet above the field.
"Dave's style is to swing hard in case he hits it," says Kranepool. "When he's connecting, the only way to defense him is to sit in the upper deck. I've never seen anybody hit the ball farther."