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Schmidt keeps the wolves at bay

Labeled a hypochondriac when he was with Giants, Dodgers' new ace admits it's true. But there was a good reason.

April 09, 2007|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

Jason Schmidt's perceived failings the last five-plus years with the San Francisco Giants were revisited throughout the Bay Area over the weekend, in large part because he committed the unpardonable sin of becoming a Dodger.

Apparently, a team-record .678 winning percentage isn't enough Teflon when the colors change from orange and black to blue.

The harshest portrayal was of Schmidt as hypochondriac, a player who exaggerated minor aches and had to be prodded to take the mound. That's a strange charge when the record shows he made 29 to 32 starts in each of the last five seasons.

But it's a charge to which Schmidt confessed -- and explained -- for the first time to The Times.

"For two to three years I was fearful," he said. "Every time I'd get sick, I thought I had cancer. I never looked at it from a realistic point of view. I could have stubbed my toe and thought I had cancer."

The worries had a rational basis. His mother, Vicki, died of brain cancer at 53 about six months after she watched her son pitch against the Angels in the 2002 World Series. Several other of Schmidt's relatives have had the disease.

After the 2003 season -- during which he posted a healthy 17-5 record and 2.34 earned-run average -- he was so distraught over headaches and stomach pain that he traveled from his home near Kelso, Wash., to Arizona for tests to rule out the Big C.

"He had legitimate symptoms, and because of what he had gone through with his mom, we wanted him to take the right tests and put his mind at ease," said Stan Conte, the Giants' trainer at the time and now the Dodgers' trainer.

Schmidt eventually worked through his grief and accompanying qualms by contributing money to brain cancer research and reaching out to people suffering from the disease, and to their families.

He invited them to games, paid for their tickets, engaged in long talks and exchanged hugs.

"You hear of people getting cancer and never think it can happen to you or your family," he said. "When it does happen, there is nobody to help, nobody to say, 'This is what is going to happen.'

"I decided to help people. I was struck by what they go through, kids, older people, it can happen to anyone. We shared stories, and I tried to brighten their day."

Yet he spent so much time dwelling on a deadly disease that he couldn't help but wonder if he would be next.

"I saw how others dealt with it and that helped me through the process, but most people aren't gone from their families for six months trying to perform at an elite level," he said. "It was a difficult time."


Depicting Schmidt as a brooding worrywart is laughable to anyone who has spent time with him in the clubhouse, where he is an unrepentant prankster.

He'll squirt mustard into jelly doughnuts and plant them in the pregame spread. He'll pat a teammate on the rump the moment a game ends and the poor guy will be running onto the field with a cloth tail hanging from his behind. He'll empty a squirt gun on the leg of the security guard standing in front of the dugout. He'll stack paper cups on the protective helmet of an unsuspecting batboy and giggle like a grade-schooler.

But Schmidt's best trick is pitching effectively without the velocity he had earlier in his career.

Like "Dynasty" reruns, his pitches are all about the 80s, ranging from 82 to 89 mph most of the last two years. The same was true in spring training and in his first Dodgers start.

Yet he still averages a strikeout an inning, and his earned-run average hasn't climbed much since his mid-90s mph heyday. His pitches have tremendous movement, especially a changeup that he can throw softly or nearly as hard as his fastball. He has pinpoint control, and sometimes purposely walks a batter who gives him trouble because he knows he can execute pitches to the next hitter.

And it should be noted that despite ho-hum velocity, his first Dodgers start resulted in a victory, something with which Schmidt is extremely familiar: He is 85-43 since 2001.

That's why the Dodgers signed him to a three-year, $47-million contract and are handing him the ball in today's home opener.

"His was the dominant name in our staff meeting the day after the season ended," General Manager Ned Colletti said. "We felt we needed to shore up our pitching, and he was the guy we wanted.

"He's finicky from time to time, but once he's out there, he's as competitive as it gets. And when you look back at the end of the season, he hasn't missed many starts."

Colletti was in the San Francisco Giants' front office when they acquired the right-hander from the Pittsburgh Pirates midway through the 2001 season. He and Conte are thoroughly familiar with Schmidt's medical history -- and his pattern of pitching deep into games.

In 2005 a shoulder strain kept him out for two weeks in May and a groin strain forced him to miss several starts in September. He started the 2004 season on the disabled list because of rotator-cuff tendinitis.

Yet in those two seasons he was a combined 30-14 and pitched 397 innings.

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