MEDFIELD, Mass. — Curt Schilling emerges from behind the wheel of a Ford F-150 that’s just rumbled into a small strip mall parking lot. It’s a miserable, rainy New England afternoon in mid-January, but Schilling offers a cheerful smile. A black-and-gold Navy SEAL cap hides his straw-colored hair, and his broad shoulders are tucked inside a black jacket adorned with a red, white and blue USO emblem.
He plops into a chair at a little Italian takeout joint a few minutes from his house, and looks, for a moment, like a normal middle-aged guy who’s enjoying the comforts of living in a small town. But he’s the only person in the shop who wonders if he’ll get a phone call this month telling him he’s been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
In the 25 years since he emerged as the outspoken ace of the ragtag, mullet-heavy 1993 Philadelphia Phillies, Schilling’s life has played out like a rollercoaster ride routed through a funhouse mirror, an endless series of breathtaking highs and surreal lows.
A combination of pinpoint control on the mound and hard-headed determination — perhaps you’ve heard of the Bloody Sock? — helped him to become one of the most dominant big game pitchers of his generation, one who collected three World Series rings and 3,116 strikeouts during a 20-year career.
But since retiring almost nine years ago, Schilling has seen his legacy routinely overshadowed by controversies that have been rooted, ironically, in his lack of control. He lost $50 million of his own fortune when 38 Studios, the video game company he created from scratch, went belly up in 2012, and then was fired from a cushy job as a baseball analyst at ESPN, thanks to a series of offensive social media posts.
He’s found a third act as the host of Whatever It Takes, a daily online radio show for the far-right Breitbart News. The show, broadcast from Schilling’s home, often finds the 51-year-old touting the Trump administration’s agenda and railing against liberals or the media. Conservatives love his shtick, while the liberal-leaning Salon has referred to him as a “sub-Trumpian right wing troll.”
Reconciling these different sides of Schilling, the ballplayer who donated millions to ALS research and the blabbermouth who delights in delivering offensive rants, is a task that gets even more attention around this time every year. The Hall of Fame will announce its 2018 inductees Wednesday evening, and it’s likely that this will be the sixth year in a row that Schilling hasn’t made the cut.
The debate over whether Schilling’s accomplishments should put him in Cooperstown — or whether his opinions should keep him out — is, in a way, a microcosm of a larger conversation that’s played out across the country in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. Are tweets and party affiliations now the true measure of a person’s character?
Schilling, of course, isn’t reluctant to delve into this topic. “I am who I am,” he says. “All the flaws, warts and weaknesses and whatever. I’m OK with that.”
‘The greatest pitcher or the biggest jackass’
There was a time when Curt Schilling wasn’t a human megaphone.
Born in Alaska and raised in Phoenix, he was immersed himself as a child in the pages of “Lord of the Rings.” His father, Cliff, was an army veteran and a man of few words, while his mother, Mary, was a “grammatical perfectionist” who taught her son how to speed read.
Schilling shunned the spotlight at school. “I was petrified of standing up in front of people and talking,” he says.
Cliff pushed his son to be good at whatever he chose to do — to go big or go home, a mindset that would eventually fuel some of his greatest successes and failures.
He ultimately threw himself into baseball. In 1986, the Boston Red Sox drafted a 19-year-old Schilling, who was pitching at a junior college in Arizona, and assigned him to a minor league affiliate in Greensboro, N.C. There he met the team’s then-manager, Dick Berardino, a baseball lifer who saw a competitive but immature kid who had a lot to say and a lot to learn.
The two men reconnected in 2004, when Schilling was traded from the Arizona Diamondbacks to the Red Sox. “He said, ‘Hey Skip, looking back, I was kind of a dick when I came to you,’” chuckles Berardino, 80.
Schilling had been shipped to the Baltimore Orioles by the time he made his major league debut in the fall of 1988. His biggest fan was missing; earlier that year, Cliff Schilling died of an abdominal aneurysm at the age of 54.
His career sputtered until he was flipped to the Phillies in 1992. Some took immediate notice of the new pitcher. “He walked in with Brian Bosworth hair and that walk that looks like a strut,” says former first baseman John Kruk. “It came across like, ‘This guy is either going to be the greatest pitcher who ever lived, or the biggest jackass.’”
Phillies pitching coach Johnny Podres told a somewhat lost Schilling he actually had the talent to become a Hall of Famer. Schilling began obsessively studying tape and scouting reports on opposing hitters. “It wasn’t like I’d had a drug problem or a drinking problem,” he says.
But even as his arm raised the team’s hopes, his personality raised some eyebrows in the clubhouse.
The once-shy pitcher had grown comfortable sharing his opinions on anything with reporters who approached him with notepads. If none were around, he’d sometimes call up WIP, and argue with sports talk radio host Angelo Cataldi.
“As a player, he was exactly what you dream of if you’re covering baseball,” says Jayson Stark, who covered the Phillies in those days for the Inquirer, and later worked alongside Schilling at ESPN.
Not all of his teammates loved his persona. “I can’t say he did anything harmful. He was just all about himself at first,” says Larry Bowa, who was the team’s third base coach at the time. “But it was to the point where Darren [Daulton] basically told him, ‘This isn’t about you, it’s about us.’”
Schilling agrees he had some growing up to do. “If I made anybody look like an ass, it was usually me.” He seemed oblivious to the fact that his opinions sometimes rubbed people the wrong way.
And then came the phenomenon that was the ‘93 Phillies.
The roster was an unlikely hodgepodge of former all-stars, spare parts, beer bellies and eccentric personalities. It grew into a living, breathing embodiment of the city’s obsession with underdogs.
“Shoot, none of us matured on that team,” Kruk says.
But Schilling cemented himself as a star. He pitched with ice in his veins as the team muscled its way to the World Series, where he unfurled a jaw-dropping Game 5 shutout at a packed Veterans Stadium against a Toronto Blue Jays lineup that had three future Hall of Famers
Schilling spent seven more seasons in Philadelphia, all of them on mind-numbingly awful teams. “I loved pitching at the Vet in front of 12,000 people, because they could still make it sound like 50,000,” he says. “And they were frickin’ loyal.”
As Schilling grew from a twenty-something kid to a thirty-something veteran, he couldn’t imagine that bigger thrills awaited him. And deeper, darker struggles.
No one else to blame
“She checks two boxes. She’s a woman, and she’s black.”
Schilling offers this assessment of Oprah Winfrey during a segment on Whatever It Takes, just a few days after the billionaire media mogul sparked speculation about a 2020 presidential bid by delivering a stirring speech at the Golden Globes.
He’s hunched over an iPad in his basement, with a headset clamped over his head and wireframe glasses perched on his nose.
Schilling takes a call from Sonnie Johnson, a fiery Breitbart podcast host who is nonetheless upset with Republicans’ response to the Oprah-for-President talk. “This is not just a woman,” she says, “this is freaking Oprah. If you can’t even give her some kind of decent level of respect, stop being so shocked when people won’t give it to Trump.”
He enjoys the repartee. But as his show unfolds — and the number of people watching on Periscope drops into double digits — it’s jarring to think he’s not far removed from appearing on national broadcasts for ESPN. The network hired Schilling in 2010, and paid him $2.5 million a year. “My guess is that, if you’d asked the baseball operations people back then, many of them would have said they thought he was the best analyst they had,” Stark says.
But ESPN suspended Schilling in 2015 after he retweeted a meme that compared Muslim extremists to Nazis. At the time, he publicly expressed regret over the tweet, but he privately fumed over the network’s response.
Behind the scenes, Kruk — who worked alongside his old teammate as an analyst — urged Schilling to dial back his political commentary. “He’d say, ‘You know me. I can’t not say something,’” Kruk explains. “I told him that what made him great as a pitcher could be his downfall as a broadcaster.”
The crises Schilling endured after baseball were mostly of his own making. The first was the most costly. Schilling’s vision for 38 Studios, the video game company he founded towards the end of his career, was ambitious: it would create a online role-playing game that would be bigger and better than multi-billion dollar smashes like World of Warcraft.
“It was going to be amazing,” Schilling says wistfully. The company grew to nearly 400 employees, and political officials in Rhode Island extended an eye-popping $75 million loan in 2010 to persuade Schilling to relocate its headquarters from Massachusetts.
Neither Schilling nor the New England pols who handed him millions seemed to worry that he didn’t have experience developing video games. He was the gutsy hero who helped the Red Sox end their 86-year World Series drought in 2004, pitching through the playoffs on an injured, sutured ankle that bled through his uniform socks. Nothing was impossible. Or so they thought.
The company burned through money and missed deadlines. Lincoln Chafee, the former governor of Rhode Island, recalls being summoned to 38 Studios’ headquarters in 2012. “It was April 13th. A Friday,” he says dryly. An employee told Chafee to fix himself some coffee while he waited to see Schilling. “I poured some cream into my coffee. It curdled immediately.”
Moments later, Schilling appeared and explained that the company needed more money. Chafee, whose predecessor had signed off on the loan, was not swayed, and 38 Studios ultimately filed for bankruptcy.
Schilling lost $50 million of his own money in 38 Studios. “I had to come home and sit my family down and explain exactly what I’d done,” he says. “That’s a conversation I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”
He had a heart attack and a mini-stroke months before 38 Studios hit bottom, problems that he attributes to terrible eating habits. Then, in 2014, came something worse: squamous cell carcinoma. Mouth cancer.
Addicted to chewing tobacco throughout his playing career, Schilling admits he ignored numerous warnings to quit. Seven weeks of radiation and chemotherapy wiped out his taste buds and salivary glands, and sunk him into depression. “I had nobody to blame but myself,” he says.“If I got cancer again, I don’t know if I’d do the treatment again.”
Talking baseball at ESPN was like a light in the darkness.
But Schilling soon dug new holes for himself. After the network instructed employees to refrain from taking jabs at presidential candidates, Schilling told an interviewer that Hillary Clinton should’ve been buried under a jail.
In April 2016, he shared another meme on Facebook, this one a photo of a large man in a wig and women’s clothing. It was a reaction to a North Carolina law that prevented transgendered individuals from using public restrooms for the gender they identify as.
“A man is a man no matter what they call themselves,” Schilling wrote. “I don’t care what they are, who they sleep with, men’s room was designed for the penis, women’s not so much. Now you need laws telling us differently? Pathetic.”
ESPN, fed up, fired him.
Schilling says he misses the job, but doesn’t second guess the old post. “I got fired because I didn’t follow their rules, not the rules. At the time, a lot of people were saying stuff about politics. Just most of them were doing it from a liberal’s perspective, and I wasn’t.”
Schilling quickly found a sympathetic ear in Steve Bannon, the now-exiled executive chairman of Breitbart and former White House chief strategist. Bannon introduced him to various higher-ups at Breitbart, and the idea for Schilling’s radio show was born.
He toyed with running against U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but quietly abandoned the idea out of consideration for his family. “They’ve already given enough of their lives to me,” he says.
A tale of two Curts
An ex-athlete’s words and actions take on a different weight in retirement, when they’ve lost the ability to redeem themselves on the field.
Schilling, to his credit, might be the most philanthropic of his former teammates. His charity, Curt’s Pitch for ALS, has raised more than $10 million for research into the deadly disease. His wife started a foundation for skin cancer education after she battled melanoma, and both have raised awareness about autism after the youngest of their four children was diagnosed with Aspergers, a syndrome that impacts a person’s social skills.
When hurricanes ravaged parts of Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico last year, Schilling collected and delivered supplies. “We ran into people who were burying their family members in their front yard,” he says of Puerto Rico.
But get him in front of a computer, and a different side emerges. “Ok, so much awesome here,” he tweeted in November 2016 above a photo of t-shirt that read: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.” Hall of Fame voters — a.k.a. professional baseball writers — took notice, and Schilling’s name appeared on just 45 percent of their ballots last year, far from the needed 75 percent.
“That’s the only tweet that I look at and think maybe somebody could have taken it the wrong way,” Schilling says. He insists that he was joking about the death of modern journalism.
But at a time when people are being arrested for threatening to kill journalists, his defense falls flat. And he still spouts off about the transgender community — “Why does the world need to understand?” he barked during a recent show —only to explain, off the air, that one of his sons runs the LGBTQ club in high school.
It’s comments such as these that some Hall of Fame voters cite as a reason to keep Schilling off their ballots. But the Hall is not exactly a bastion of purity; its ranks have included racists, alcoholics and drug abusers.
Former players who were interviewed for this story, including Kruk, Tommy Greene, Luis Gonzalez and Mike Koplove, all described Schilling as a good (if mouthy) teammate, and point to his career accomplishments: the 216 career wins, the 11-2 record in the playoffs, the best strikeouts-to-walk ratio of any pitcher since 1900. Even an old foe like Angelo Cataldi believes Schilling belongs in Cooperstown. “He didn’t do anything horrific. He’s just such an off-putting human being,” Cataldi says.
Schilling swears that he doesn’t care if gets in the Hall, that he’s content living in a town of 12,668, just 40 minutes from Boston, where some remember him as a legend.
Then he offers a surprising admission: he’s given up tweeting. “What does it say about me if I can’t live my life without Twitter?” he asks. For a moment, it seems possible that Schilling has considered the harm he’s done to himself. If his comments aren’t going viral on social media, maybe a clearer path to the Hall will open.
But just as quickly as that hint of maturity and restraint emerges, Schilling pulls it back with a hearty laugh. “There’s always Facebook.”
Published at Wed, 24 Jan 2018 14:47:13 +0000