Former Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt revealed Sunday that he is recovering from an advanced form of skin cancer. The 64-year-old Hall of Famer avoided the sun at the Phillies’ spring training facility in Clearwater, Fla., as he spoke for the first time about his illness: Stage 3 melanoma, and the two operations and radiation and chemotherapy treatments that followed.
A routine check-up on a spot on his hand in August revealed the melanoma, said Schmidt, who now has a raspy voice, no more taste buds, and trouble concentrating. “I’ve done just about everything I can to destroy the cancer cells in my body,” he said, revealing an 8-inch scar from surgery to remove 35 lymph nodes.
Schmidt said he feels “fantastic” now and plans to join the Phillies’ television crew at 13 Sunday home games this season. The three-time National League Most Valuable Player hit 548 career home runs and led the Phillies to their first World Series title in 1980.
But his baseball career is indelibly tied to his spiritual journey, which he detailed in a 1987 Guideposts essay. In the space one year, Schmidt wrote, he went from a rich-but-dissatisfied baseball star to becoming a Christian, having his first child, and dealing with the scorn of the Philadelphia fans in what became his worst season in 1978.
The man God used to direct his emptiness toward Christ was Andre Thornton, a first baseman for the Cleveland Indians. In the fall of 1977, Thornton and his wife prayed with the Schmidts over dinner that they would be able to have a child. Schmidt wrote that Thornton’s own wife and daughter died in a car accident a week later. A week after that, Schmidt’s wife, Donna, was pregnant.
More than 25 years after that essay, Schmidt revealed Sunday the life lessons he’s still learning.
“The older you get, the more you realize that as you’re getting old, you’re thankful you’re a healthy man, but you still carry some sort of invincibility,” he said. “If you have been through athletically what I and these guys here have, you really do feel a bit invincible. It’s the best word I can use. I don’t [feel invincible] anymore.”
His newfound feelings of vulnerability, Schmidt said, were especially poignant during his experiences in the cancer ward.
“I’ve been in fusion and chemo centers sitting in a chair with a needle in my hand with people … dying all around me,” he said. “I hoped I would never see anything like that. It became normal for me for over a month to sit with these people who were further along with their cancer.”
For the most part, Schmidt managed to keep his illness private. But a late-January announcement from the Phillies that he would miss spring training for the first time in 12 years to “remain near his doctors” raised concerns. The 12-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove winner spent his entire playing career in Philadelphia, beginning as a rookie in 1972 and ending with his retirement in May 1989.
Perhaps Schmidt playing career is best remembered by the young baseball fans who grew up admiring him, like William Kashatus, who wrote when Schmidt retired, “When other superstar athletes were doing drugs, swapping wives and bad-mouthing umpires, Schmidt was speaking out against drug addiction, sponsoring a host of charitable organizations, rearing a family and playing the game of baseball with all the grace and dignity one would expect of a self-proclaimed Christian athlete. He was the most responsible hero a young boy could have.”