O's fans, Schilling wonder `What if?'

Phillies: Since being dealt by the Orioles in one of the worst trades in franchise history, Curt Schilling has gone on to become one of baseball's dominant pitchers.

July 09, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- It's difficult not to look at the numbers that Philadelphia Phillies ace Curt Schilling has put together over the past few years and wonder what might have been.

What if the Orioles had realized what they had when they made him the third player in the infamous trade that also sent outfielder Steve Finley and pitcher Pete Harnisch to the Houston Astros for injury-hampered first baseman Glenn Davis?

It's an old story. Every one of the players in the Orioles' half of that package went on to bigger and better things. Davis was a tremendous bust who cost the franchise the core of its youth movement and millions in guaranteed salary.

Orioles fans still think about it, especially at a time when the club is starved for young talent and wallowing at the bottom of the American League East standings.

Schilling still thinks about it, too.

"I think about if Finley and Harnisch and I had stayed to develop there and wonder how it would have been," Schilling said earlier this week. "I was crushed when they traded me."

There certainly is no guarantee that the organization would have handled him correctly or that the team -- differently configured -- would have developed into one that reached the American League Championship Series in 1996 and '97. But this is baseball, where the what-ifs are half the fun.

Instead, Schilling is looking forward to the opportunity to pitch against the few remaining Orioles he played with when he was struggling to establish himself as a major-league pitcher in Baltimore from 1988 to 1990. That opportunity is scheduled to arrive tonight, in the opening game of the interleague series between the Orioles and the Phillies at Veterans Stadium.

"I'm excited," he said. "I've never faced the Orioles in a regular-season game. Cal [Ripken] and Brady [Anderson] are two of my oldest friends in the game. Brady tried to teach me how to dress. He's one of my mentors. And I respect Cal as much as anybody I've played with, even though I didn't get to play with him very long.

"It's one of the things I know I'll tell my kids about -- that I played with him -- and it's something I'll always be very proud of."

Schilling appeared in parts of three seasons for the Orioles, making four starts during the disastrous 1988 season before working almost entirely out of the bullpen in 1989 and '90. He was used strictly as a reliever during his one season in Houston before the Astros dealt him to the Phillies for pitcher Jason Grimsley in a deal that has to haunt the Astros almost as much as the Davis trade haunts the Orioles.

He won 16 games to help lead the Phillies to the World Series in 1993 and struck out 319 batters to set the National League record for a right-handed pitcher on the way to a 17-victory season in 1997. He followed that up with 300 strikeouts and 15 wins last year, and is on his way to another dominating performance this season.

If he defeats the Orioles, he'll head to the All-Star Game tied with St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Kent Bottenfield for the National League lead with 13 victories.

The Phillies have come along for the ride this time. Thanks to Schilling's consistency and a breakthrough performance by journeyman Paul Byrd (11-4), the club is seven games over .500 and very much alive in the National League wild-card race.

Even Schilling has to admit to being a little surprised. He angered management earlier this season when he publicly questioned the team's commitment to building a winner. His comments were widely viewed as an attempt to goad the front office into trading him, but he says now that he doesn't want to go anywhere but the playoffs with the Phillies.

"We've got a legitimate club," he said. "We've got some of the same questions as a lot of teams, the same ifs and buts about the pitching staff. But our offense is ranked third in the league and our defense is as good as anybody -- I don't care where it ranks. It's just a question of how far we can go. We're a lot of fun to watch."

Clearly, he regrets ruffling some feathers in the front office, but Schilling has never been afraid to speak his mind.

"I said some things that I shouldn't have said in that forum," he said. "I said what I felt, but being honest doesn't mean you're right."

There apparently are no residual hard feelings. General manager Ed Wade just said for the umpteenth time that he wasn't interested in dealing Schilling, and now it looks as if the Phillies are in a position to build a good, young starting rotation around him.

"Curt has been vocal since the day I got here," said manager Terry Francona. "Schill is Schill. He's never going to change, and I'm not sure I'm ever going to ask him to change. He says things once in a while and puts his foot in his mouth, but he means well. He's harmless, except when he gets on the mound."

Schilling, at 32, is trying to be more circumspect. He made headlines last year when he took a public stand against the use of smokeless tobacco. He quit dipping after doctors removed a small lesion from his mouth that could have led to oral cancer, then made headlines again recently with the revelation that he had fallen off the wagon.

"I'm not embarrassed about being a human being," he said. "It's not any easier for me to quit than anyone else. I'm dealing with it. I haven't failed, because I haven't stopped trying to quit. I just learned the most valuable lesson. You never can have `just one more' again."

Pub Date: 7/09/99

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