Curt Schilling was a Philadelphia Phillies icon. However, the outspoken former pitcher’s comments compel us all to reconsider how we view our sports heroes.
It was Game 5 of the 1993 World Series, and the Philadelphia Phillies desperately needed a win to stave off elimination. They had lost Game 4 to the Toronto Blue Jays, 15-14, who took a commanding 3-1 series lead. The Blue Jays’ bats could not be silenced.
Until Curt Schilling took the mound.
Schilling had been hit around in Game 1. He gave up 2 home runs and conceded 6 earned runs over 6 1/3 innings. After two dominant performances in the NLCS against the Atlanta Braves, Schilling came down to earth.
Game 5 would be a different story. The previously potent Blue Jays offense was rendered punchless by the Phillies’ emerging ace.
With his mullet flapping in the breeze, Schilling went to work. He was clinical. He coupled an overpowering fastball with a biting splitter that looked like the former until it dove downward at some point during its 60 foot, 6-inch journey toward the plate. When Schilling was on top of his game, he was hard to hit.
Five hits, no runs, and nine innings later, it was over. Schilling delivered a complete game shutout.
As Philadelphia Phillies closer Mitch Williams labored through the ninth inning, Curt Schilling watched with a towel around his head. He was wrestling with the angst we all were feeling as we watched Williams struggle to find the strike zone. In retrospect, it’s fair to judge Schilling for being a bad teammate in that situation. In the moment, however, it seemed perfectly understandable.
The dream season of ’93 ended in a nightmare. Over the next few seasons, the colorful characters from that team would move on to the next stops in their professional careers. Schilling would remain, piloting the Phillies through some truly unremarkable seasons in the 90s; perhaps it was karmic punishment for the way he showed up Williams in the World Series.
Schilling was as impressive as the team was forgettable. He struck out over 300 batters in the 1997 season; he repeated the feat in 1998. For his career, Schilling boasted an impressive career WAR of 80.6, placing him 26th on the all-time list. Every player ahead of Schilling on the career WAR list is enshrined in the Hall of Fame, with the exception of Roger Clemens (a casualty of the PED era) and Mike Mussina (who belongs in the Hall of Fame).
His statistics and advanced metrics bear out the reality of his dominance, but you had to watch Schilling in action to appreciate him.
Every fifth day, Schilling gave the Phillies a professional start. During his tenure, the franchise never signed or developed a pitcher who could match the caliber of Schilling. The Phillies also failed to build a contending team around their ace.
By 2000, Schilling had enough. He wanted out of Philadelphia. The franchise’s ownership group, which was led by Bill Giles, could not match Schilling’s desire to win. In fact, Giles had once referred to the Philadelphia Phillies as a “small market” club. So, the team obliged Schilling’s trade request and sent him to Arizona. In return, the Phillies received a package that included Travis lee, Omar Daal, and Vicente Padilla.
It wasn’t enough. The franchise continued to flounder. Meanwhile, Schilling found immediate success with his new club. The Diamondbacks went on to win the World Series in 2001; Schilling and teammate Randy Johnson were named co-MVPs for the series. Schilling won two more World Series in Boston before calling it a career in 2008.
Despite his achievements outside of Philadelphia, Schilling will always be viewed by fans of a certain age as a Phillie. In Philadelphia, Schilling honed his craft and realized his considerable potential. It was fitting, then, when the franchise honored their longtime ace with a Wall of Fame induction in 2013.
Unfortunately, the Wall of Fame at Citizens Bank Park may be the highest personal honor Schilling attains for his playing career. What once seemed like a concrete possibility of selection to the Hall of Fame has devolved into a distant dream. Schilling has not helped his cause; in the course of attributing to his political views his year-to-year drop in voter support, the combative former pitcher characterized some of the sportswriters casting ballots as “scumbags.” Some writers took the slight personally, including local scribe Randy Miller, who works for NJ.com.
In truth, Schilling holds many controversial political views, which he is unafraid to express in blunt terms, consequences be damned. For example, his sharing of a social media meme that ridiculed allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice led to his termination at ESPN.
This space isn’t the forum for an extended analysis and comment on the merits of Schilling’s politics. Nonetheless, it is disheartening to see Schilling transition from an independent-minded conservative to a full-fledged radical who trades in grievance politics. Schilling’s recent criticism of Adam Jones serves as a perfect microcosm of his warped worldview. In Schilling’s estimation, Jones cannot possibly be the victim of racism at Fenway Park. It simply does not conform to the narrow social and political paradigm of the universe he has constructed. For Schilling, it’s victimization for me, but not for thee.
Should the light provided by Schilling’s comments as a retired player affect the way we view his career inside the lines? It shouldn’t, but for many of us, it does. And therein lies the problem.
As a society, we need to reevaluate the way we view athletes. Charles Barkley broached this topic in a famous Nike commercial, declaring that he was “not a role model.” Barkley was right.
Athletes are not the two-dimensional figures they appear to be on our televisions. They are fully-formed humans, subject to the same flaws and limitations that plague us all.
They are a complicated stew of admirable and detestable qualities. How do we define such people? More specifically, how should we view Curt Schilling? As a dedicated family man? As a surly teammate who showed up Mitch Williams in what was likely the most traumatic moment of the latter’s professional life? As a cancer survivor who bravely shared his story in the hope that current and future ballplayers would stop using tobacco? As an insensitive jerk incapable of summoning any measure of empathy for Adam Jones? As a generous contributor to ALS charities? As a regular poster of memes that reduce complex social and cultural issues to simplistic comparisons devoid of nuance and context? As a stellar baseball player? Or as an opportunistic political yakker hoping to remain relevant?
There is no easy answer to this question. No matter how you feel about Curt Schilling the man, though, Curt Schilling the pitcher is a Hall of Famer. He earned his place in Cooperstown. While the honorees are immortalized with bronze plaques, they are not made of the stuff. Such a truth should give us comfort. And hope.