Playing for Phils a dream come true for Schu

Playing for Phils a dream come true for Schu

Rick Schu grew up rooting for the Phillies, dreaming of playing for his favorite team. There were a couple of factors that set him apart, though.

First, he grew up thousands of miles from Philadelphia, in Fair Oaks, Calif.

"I think I was the only guy in Northern California who was a Phillies fan," he said with a laugh.

More incredibly, Schu not only played for the Phillies, but was at one time considered the heir apparent to his idol, Mike Schmidt. In 1985, Schmidt moved to first base so the 23-year-old Schu could play third.

"It was little bit of pressure to come up at that age and replace -- well, not replace -- but to move a Hall of Famer across the diamond. Let alone the pressure of playing in the big leagues. But it was all good," Schu said.

• Phillies Alumni

These days Schu, 53, is in his third year as hitting coach for the Nationals. He joined Washington as an organizational hitting instructor in 2010 and was promoted to the big club in July 2013. From that point until the end of the season, the Nats went 38-25 while leading the National League in home runs (70), slugging percentage (.417) and OPS (.748) and averaging 4.6 runs per game, second in the league.

Prior to that, Schu spent 12 years with the D-backs as a roving Minor League instructor, Minor League hitting coach and Major League hitting coach. In his final year, Arizona won the division and made it as far as the National League Championship Series before being beaten by the red-hot Rockies.

Schu came by his early allegiance to the Phillies honestly enough. His family is from Philadelphia, and he was born there. His father, Ken -- who pitched briefly in the White Sox system -- went to North Catholic High in Olney. His mother is also from Philadelphia. The family moved to Nevada when Rick was 4 months old, then to California.

He continued to follow the Phillies, and since he played third base, Schmidt became his favorite.

"He was my guy. He was the premier player," Schu said.

His chances of playing with Schmidt, much less supplanting him at the hot corner, seemed farfetched when Schu graduated from Del Campo High School in 1980. He went undrafted in June. Schmidt, meanwhile, was on the way to the first of his three NL MVP Awards and the Phillies won their first World Series in franchise history.

About a month after Willie Wilson struck out and Tug McGraw leaped high into the South Philadelphia night while mounted police ringed the field at Veterans Stadium, Schu quietly signed as a free agent with the Phillies. That, he said, remains one of his biggest thrills in baseball.

Things moved quickly after that. In 1983, just his third professional season, Schu was promoted to Triple-A Portland. The following year he earned a September callup. And in 1985, he was promoted at the end of May and became the everyday third baseman for the rest of the season as Schmidt moved to first.

It was a fairy tale that didn't have a happily-ever-after ending, though. In 1986, Schmidt moved back to third. Two years later, late in Spring Training, Schu was traded to the Orioles as part of a package that brought outfielder Mike Young to the Phillies.

Schu returned to the Phillies in 1991 and '92, but he spent the majority of his time at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He ended up playing nine years in the big leagues (Orioles, Angels, Tigers, Expos) and two years in Japan with the Nippon Ham Fighters. But the Phillies have always been special to him.

"Just the pride of wearing the uniform," said Schu. "The history of it. People I associated with in the Major and Minor Leagues. Bill Giles and the Pope [Paul Owens] and Granny Hamner and Lee Elia. Tony Taylor. Great people. Because every year as a Minor League guy coming up, you had the same coaches. Every year you'd come back, Major Leagues, the same thing. I made a lot of great friendships and just felt blessed to be part of a great organization like the Phillies."

In his current position, of course, his job description includes trying to beat the Phillies 18 or 19 times a season. That's baseball, of course, and so much has changed over the years. There are few familiar faces. Even the ballpark has changed.

"But once a Phillie, always a Phillie," he said with a smile. "I still love the organization."

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.