On Curt Schilling

THE LIFE OF KINGS

Gifted, flawed

Mound warrior is a man of conflicts

June 28, 2008|By KEVIN VAN VALKENBURG

The pitching career of Curtis Montague "Curt" Schilling might have come to an end this week, and even though his time as an Oriole (1988-1990) was forgettable, Schilling's career with the Philadelphia Phillies, Arizona Diamondbacks and Boston Red Sox will certainly be remembered as anything but.

Whether you loved him or whether you wanted to stuff a rosin bag in his mouth (and over the years, I experienced both emotions), you can't deny that Schilling will easily go down as one of the most interesting and compelling athletes of his time.

Few superstars have ever had their id and their superego in such constant conflict as Curt Schilling did throughout his career. Schilling was a warrior on the mound, a competitive and ruthless fighter who could paint the corners of the strike zone and fire a fastball at your chin if the need arose. His desire to whip your butt was almost primal. He wanted the ball in big moments, and he also wanted the credit when he pitched well.

He suffered on the mound, famously pitching through the pain of ankle surgery in Game 6 of the 2004 American League Championship Series, and he wanted you to know just how much he was suffering. At the same time, his superego was constantly trying to hold those desires in check, and the result made him come across - as Holden Caulfield might say - as a total phony at times.

Every great athlete (just like every great writer) yearns to be praised for his or her gifts. It is their egos, often, that make them the kinds of intense competitors who refuse to accept failure. But Schilling never quite figured out how to mask his primal desire (a desire we all feel) to be loved and praised with baseball's expectations and its unwritten code that he remain the humble teammate who was just one part of a larger machine.

Curt Schilling was the rare athlete who could be both arrogant and needy, a person who loved the spotlight yet desperately wanted to seem the humble everyman. None of that made Schilling a bad person; in fact, in my eyes, it made him so much more human.

These conflicting desires experienced their greatest tug-of-war thanks to that famous bloody sock in 2004 at Yankee Stadium, when Schilling pitched one of the most memorable games in postseason history. I have no doubt that Schilling was hurting that night, that he summoned something deep within himself as he gritted his teeth through seven innings of bloody work. But he also wanted you to know just how heroic his performance was (while playing it down), which led a few media types to suggest that maybe it wasn't blood after all.

Those theories always struck me as idiotic and irresponsible, then and now. But the fact that they survived - and were revived as late as last year by Orioles broadcaster Gary Thorne - says something about how plenty of people view Schilling, fairly or unfairly. Were he and Randy Johnson really the best of pals in Arizona, or was it all just a good story that was manufactured by both Schilling and the media? Did his former manager really give him the nickname "Red Light Curt" for the way he posed for cameras at the top of the dugout during games? And wasn't it a little bit tacky the way he shamelessly put a towel over his head every time Mitch Williams was pitching in the 1993 World Series, as if to say, "Even I can't watch this guy screw up again"?

But when you think about it, did any of that even matter? He raised an incredible amount of money for Lou Gehrig's disease research, and if a cure is ever found, it will save thousands of lives. And whatever you thought about him as a person, there is no denying that - though he's not quite Hall of Fame material, regardless of what some media types think - he is one of the best postseason pitchers of all time. But isn't that how he should ultimately be remembered?

I'm going to miss Schilling, though. It's a shame he didn't figure out how to pitch while he was still an Oriole. He was never dull, and he was often insightful. He kept the media on their toes.

He was such a Freudian character: conflicted, like all of us, in what he wanted. It didn't matter to me whether the blood on his sock was real or fake because I knew he bled, just as I did. I could see just how beautifully gifted, flawed and human he was in everything he did.

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

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