Curtin' call

Posted: August 02, 2013

THE BIRTH of the best big-game pitcher of the last quarter-century took place two decades ago in South Philly.

The Phillies entered the day facing elimination and were three outs away from taking the World Series back to Toronto when Curt Schilling took the mound for the ninth inning at Veterans Stadium. He was working on a five-hit shutout.

"I remember kind of feeling the stadium moving," Schilling said.

With 62,706 people about to go berserk in the ballpark, Schilling made quick work of the only three batters he faced, including two guys who would finish in the top three of the American League MVP voting that year (John Olerud and Paul Molitor) and another who would hit the most famous home run in Blue Jays history 2 days later (Joe Carter).

"Hugging Dutch [Daulton] after Game 5 was over," Schilling said during an interview with the Daily News at the All-Star Game in New York. "I'll never forget that."

The 1993 Phillies were a ragtag collection of veterans, a group that caught the proverbial lightning in a bottle, a team that wasn't built to be a dynasty.

But Schilling was just 26 years old - 2 years older than Cole Hamels was in 2008. He had his whole career ahead of him.

Schilling eventually left his Phillies uniform behind and became a postseason hero for the Arizona Diamondbacks and a franchise icon for the Boston Red Sox. But his career as a big-league star began in Philly.

Schilling was the first pitcher in Phillies franchise history to pitch a shutout in the postseason and the first to win an NLCS MVP.

He ranks sixth in wins (101) and starts (226), fourth in strikeouts (1,554) and eighth in innings (1,659 1/3).

The Phillies will get Alumni Weekend started tonight by sending Schilling to Ashburn Alley to join the rest of the franchise's all-time greats. He will be inducted into the team's Wall of Fame.

"It's a franchise with a lot of tradition, Robin Roberts and Steve Carlton, so to be included with those names . . . " Schilling said. "Not to belittle anybody, but it's not like it's Tampa - there's over 100 years of history here. So it's very meaningful. I'm honored."

*          *          *

Curtis Montague Schilling arrived in the Phillies organization 5 days before Opening Day in 1992.

"We were trying to build ourselves up and we had two scouts, Ray Shore and Jimmy Stewart, who really liked his arm," then-Phillies general manager Lee Thomas said. "[Houston] at first said no. But then right before the end of spring training they called me back and that's how it happened."

Schilling came to the Phils in a trade that sent Jason Grimsley to the Astros.

Grimsley would go on to be best known as the guy who crawled through the bowels of Comiskey Park to replace the corked bat of teammate Albert Belle, which was being held in the umpires' room.

Schilling would go on to win 216 major league games, appear in six All-Star Games and finish as a Cy Young Award runner-up three times.

But the trade didn't seem that lopsided at the time; the Phillies were the 25-year-old Schilling's fourth organization.

"Maturity level," former Phils manager Jim Fregosi said of Schilling's quick ascension from young journeyman to top-of-the-rotation pitcher. "I think the positive reinforcement of his abilities and the fact that he matured to finally figure out what it takes to be a pitcher. There aren't too many guys that figure it out the first place they are."

Fregosi moved his new pitcher from the bullpen to the rotation in mid-May of 1992 and Schilling took off.

Schilling had a 2.27 ERA in 26 starts. He threw back-to-back shutouts in late July and racked up eight complete games in 15 starts after the All-Star break.

Schilling clicked with Johnny Podres, the pitching coach who had his own successful career as a postseason pitcher, and bench coach John Vukovich, who meticulously went over video and scouting reports with Schilling before starts.

"I think Curt was glad to get to us," Thomas said. "I think he saw he had something going there. And Johnny Podres was as good of a pitching coach as there was. It just made for good things with a guy with a good arm - a guy with better than a good arm."

"I mean, he had the talent, had the arm, had the stuff; it was just getting it through the head," said Larry Andersen, current Phillies broadcaster and former reliever. "Once he did that and started to believe in it, and I think that's where 'Pods' really made a big difference, getting him to believe how good he could be. Then it was up to him, and he did it, he took it to the next level. He really did."

*          *          *

A lot of things went right 20 years ago at the Vet, and one of them was Schilling's continuing rise into acehood.

The first Phillies postseason game in a decade, and the first of Schilling's career, began with him striking out the first five Atlanta Braves batters. Schilling led the Phils to wins in both games he pitched in the NLCS against the heavily favored Braves.

Although he stumbled in Game 1 of the World Series, Schilling bounced back in a big way 5 days later by shutting out the defending champion Blue Jays in Game 5. Toronto had just one batter advance beyond first base in the game's first seven innings and Schilling threw 147 pitches in going the distance.

"I've never seen anything like it - I've never seen a guy go that long and dominate a great team," former Phils first baseman John Kruk said. "I mean, he dominated that offense. You hear, 'Oh, it was cold out, it was rainy . . . ' They got shut out because Curt Schilling was better than them . . . And we knew he had to go deep because our bullpen was worn out in Game 5. That gave us a chance in Game 6. He gave us a chance to win the World Series."

Schilling, however, also provided one of the more indelible images of the '93 season - one that remains a sore talking point among many today - when he made a habit of finding a spot on the bench and throwing a towel over his head when unpredictable closer Mitch Williams was on the mound. Since Williams went on to give up a walkoff, World Series-clinching home run to Joe Carter in Game 6, the video of Schilling and the towel is a fixture in the retelling of the 1993 postseason.

"That's one of the two or three things in my life I really regret, that's absolutely one that I'll always regret," Schilling said. "The truth is when I was made aware of it, I stopped. I apologized and he thought it was a joke. But apparently his story changed 10 years later, but that's fine. But people that know me know that I would never, ever show up [a teammate]."

Williams declined to speak to the Daily News for this story.

"That year was really about a team, and to have somebody do that, to me it really took away from what we did all year as a team," Andersen said. "I know there was frustration. To do it once and have somebody say something [is one thing], but then to continue to do it? It tainted things for me."

"It [bothered me] and I told him it did," said Kruk, who now works with Schilling as an ESPN baseball analyst. "He's told me that it was something he did, that he wasn't consciously showing up Mitch. I have to take his word for it. But it's over . . . I think those petty differences from when we played are over and done."

*          *          *

While the '93 team would disassemble in a few short years, Schilling was a mainstay in the Phillies' rotation in an otherwise forgettable decade of the 1990s.

The Phils had a losing record in every other season during the decade; they lost more than 90 games three times. But they had one of baseball's best pitchers in Schilling.

Schilling went to three straight All-Star Games from 1997 to '99. He went 17-11 with a 2.97 ERA and a franchise-record 319 strikeouts in 1997; he struck out 300 again in 1998.

"He struck out 300 two years in a row - people don't do that anymore," said Terry Francona, the former Phillies manager and current Cleveland Indians skipper. "This was a guy pitching on a team pretty much in third or fourth place, winning 70-something games. But when he was out there, we were a good team because of him. He was as good as anybody."

But after taking the mound in a stadium that shook in the fall of '93, Schilling wasn't fond of pitching for a losing team as the decade drew to a close. He wanted out and he wasn't shy about it.

"You put a microphone in front of him, he was going to talk," Kruk said of his often-vocal former teammate.

"It got made out to be that there was a lot of animosity; there wasn't," Schilling said. "We just weren't good. And the ownership wasn't willing to spend the money to make us good. And I wasn't OK with that. I wasn't afraid to say something about it. Which probably didn't win me a lot of friends and influence of people in the front office, but we're there to win and I expected from them what they expect from us. And as players, I didn't feel like we got that. So I was vocal about it."

Phillies team president David Montgomery chuckled when reminded of Schilling's outspokenness.

"We were chasing our [new] ballpark at the time, and we were really heavily into it," Montgomery said. "And I remember one quote he said, 'By the time they get that new ballpark, [my son] Gehrig will be pitching for them.' I hate to say it, but, Schill being Schill."

Schilling eventually talked his way into forcing the Phillies to trade him in the summer of 2000. But before he left, Schilling's verbal jabs at the organization produced one of the best quotes in the 130-year history of the organization, from then-general manager Ed Wade.

"Every fifth day, Curt's our horse," Wade said. "The other 4 days, he's our horse's ass."

Five days before the trade deadline, Wade traded Schilling to Arizona for the forgettable foursome of pitchers Omar Daal, Vicente Padilla and Nelson Figueroa and first baseman Travis Lee.

"It's never fun to trade star players who still have a lot of ability, but unfortunately time and circumstance dictate what you have to do," Wade said. "We knew because of the economic environment we weren't going to be able to retain him."

Schilling's no-trade clause also complicated matters.

"We had gotten a very short list of clubs, stating where he'd be willing to go," Wade said. "That list got shorter on the 11th hour. By the time we got to the point of trading him, we only had one option, so we tried to make the best move we could with Arizona."

Two and a half years later, the only player remaining from the Schilling trade was the erratic and enigmatic Padilla, a career .500 pitcher in his Phillies career.

*          *          *

Schilling wanted to play for a winner and his post-Phillies career really couldn't have gone any better.

In his first full season in Arizona in 2001, Schilling won a career-best 22 games to go alongside a 2.98 ERA; led the NL in complete games (six) and innings pitched (256 2/3) and led all of baseball in strikeout-to-walk ratio (7.51). Schilling finished runner-up to teammate Randy Johnson for the NL Cy Young Award and the two led the Diamondbacks to a memorable World Series win over the Yankees.

Schilling went 1-0 with a 1.69 ERA in three starts in the '01 World Series.

Three years later he starred in one of baseball's most historic postseasons. Schilling, now paired with Pedro Martinez in Boston, won three of the four games he started in the 2004 postseason to help the Red Sox earn their first World Series since 1918.

After the Red Sox were buried in a 3-0 hole in the ALCS against the Yankees, Schilling helped Boston come all the way back and force a Game 7 when he took the mound in Game 6 with an injured ankle and held New York to one run in seven innings.

"The night we gave him the ball and he had the bloody sock, truth be told, he had no business pitching that game, let alone going out there and winning it," Francona said. "It's funny because I had so much faith in him, I never thought he wouldn't pitch or wouldn't win. That's how much confidence I had. That's probably the biggest compliment you can give somebody."

Schilling was arguably the best postseason starting pitcher of his generation and perhaps one of the best in baseball history.

Schilling went 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA in 19 postseason starts with the Phillies, Diamondbacks and Red Sox. In seven World Series starts, he went 4-1 with a 2.06 ERA.

Of the 55 pitchers in baseball history who have logged at least 40 World Series innings, Schilling's ERA ranks 13th all-time. And Bob Gibson is the only pitcher among the dozen ahead of Schilling to pitch in the last 50 years.

Schilling's .846 winning postseason percentage is third in history, behind Lefty Gomez (1.00) and Mariano Rivera (.889). Among pitchers who have logged at least 80 postseason innings, Schilling's 2.23 ERA ranks fourth all-time, behind Christy Mathewson (0.97), Waite Hoyt (1.83) and Gibson (1.89).

All of those aforementioned pitchers are in the Hall of Fame, except Rivera, who will be a first-ballot selection, and Schilling. Schilling went 216-146 with a 3.46 ERA in 20 big-league seasons, but his postseason numbers are what may punch his ticket to Cooperstown.

"I think Curt is a genuine Hall of Fame guy," Thomas said. "You don't come across guys who do what he does, winning games, and not just games, big games. If he's not a Hall of Famer, I don't know who is."

*          *          *

The plaque bearing Schilling's likeness that will make its debut at Citizens Bank Park tonight will obviously come with a Phillies "P" on the hat. But, if Schilling is one day honored at Cooperstown, what letter will be emblazoned on his Hall of Fame plaque?

"Someone asked me the other night and we got into a discussion about it," Schilling said. "It's challenging because I became a [regular] big-league player in Philly, I spent [nine] of my [20] years there. But the things people know me for happened in Arizona, happened in Boston. So I don't know. I don't think I'd have a problem with any of them."

Schilling went 101-78 with a 3.35 ERA, 61 complete games and 14 shutouts in 242 games in Philadelphia. In Arizona, he went 58-28 with a 3.14 ERA, 18 complete games and five shutouts in 108 games, and, in Boston, he went 53-29 with a 3.95 ERA, four complete games and one shutout in 119 games.

Schilling spent more time in Philly (9 years) than in Arizona and Boston combined (4 years each). But the Hall of Fame would make the decision if the time comes.

"You're probably flipping a coin there [between Philadelphia and Boston]," said Larry Bowa, who coached third base for the '93 Phillies and watched Schilling dominate the Yankees as a member of New York's coaching staff. "It's got to be one of those two. And he did win two World Series in Boston."

*          *          *

Schilling's playing career ended in 2007, a year before his former team would win its own World Series.

His post-playing career hasn't been any less dramatic. Before becoming an on-air analyst at ESPN, Schilling created the video game company "38 Studios."

The company entered Chapter 7 bankruptcy last summer amid allegations of mismanagement and unmet obligations. The failed venture hurt the state of Rhode Island more than it did Schilling; the state government initially offered 38 Studios a $75 million loan to encourage Schilling to open his company in Providence and is now left having to pay $112.6 million in debts.

It's a matter Schilling, of course, would rather leave behind.

On the baseball field, Schilling may be remembered as the righthander who teamed with one of the game's best lefthanders of all time, Randy Johnson, in Phoenix, and he is definitely remembered for the bloody sock in Boston's unforgettable 2004 postseason. But his career took off in Philadelphia.

And his postseason heroics began when he wore red pinstripes in October 1993.

"He swears to me even now that he was going to fight Fregosi to pitch Game 7," Kruk said.

"Schilling was going to pitch on short rest," Thomas said of the game that was never played. "And you know what? I would have taken my chances on him because I think he would have done great."

Schilling didn't get that chance, of course. But tonight, he'll get to celebrate his sometimes forgotten Philadelphia career.

"I have nothing but outstanding memories," Schilling said. "I got married, had our kids, life in the big leagues began for us [in Philadelphia]. It's an honor and I'm proud to be able to do it."


On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

Blog: ph.ly/HighCheese

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