Schilling was known for throwing laser-like fastballs and nasty splitters and sliders, for sending more than 300 hitters home to mama over two consecutive seasons in 1997-98, and for going the distance more often than any other pitcher three times in his career (1996, 98, and 2000). Driven by a fierce competitiveness, Schilling found ways to dominate hitters in spite of three potentially career-ending shoulder surgeries. He was also an outspoken advocate for young pitchers, whom he felt were often overworked by their mangers.
Schilling never hesitated to publicly air his beliefs. He lambasted Chicago Cubs‘ general manger Jerry Riggelman for his overuse of Kerry Wood when the rookie phenom injured his arm late in the 1998 season and then, at the behest of management, pitched in a single game tie-breaker. The extra game led to a more severe injury that required surgery, forcing Wood to miss the 1999 season. Although correct, Schilling’s public criticism of Cubs management was frowned upon around the league.
Schilling’s unstinting claim that the Phillies’ commitment to winning had disappeared after their 1993 NL championship season ultimately precipitated his trade to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the middle of the 2000 campaign. At times, he was so outspoken that general manger Ed Wade felt comelled to respond in the press. “Much of what Curt says is irresponsible and his comments often are not based upon facts,” Wade told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Every fifth day, Curt has the opportunity to go out and be a horse on the mound. Unfortunately, on the other four days, he tends to say things which are detrimental to the club and clearly self-serving.”
No one doubted Schilling’s desire to win, a drive that sometimes needed to be held in check. on August 4, 1999 his pregnant wife, Shonda, was hospitalized to treat a life-threatening blood clot. Scheduled to make his first start since shoulder surgery, Schilling prepared to go into the game until manager Terry Francona sent him home. “As much as I would have liked to have him pitch,” said Francona, “I told him I thought he might regret that later.” Luckily, the emergency turned out to be just a scare, and Schilling’s wife gave birth to their third child a few days later.
Schilling didn’t truly achieve new perspective on his life until two years later in 2001, when Shonda was diagnosed with melanoma, a skin cancer. She required four months of surgery and treatment to send the disease into remission, and its effect on Schilling off the field was telling. “Her battle hasn’t made me a better pitcher,” he said, “but it’s made me a better person, I hope, and a better husband and father.” On the field, he continued to excel, posting his first-ever 20-win season while amassing over 250 strikeouts.
The irony of Shonda’s diagnosis is that Schilling, by all the laws of probability, was the one who should have contracted cancer. He suffered from an addiction to chewing tobacco, and his father, an inveterate smoker, died of lung cancer when Schilling was ten. After the birth of Schilling’s first child, he decided he didn’t want to repeat family history and attempted to quit chewing tobacco before spring training in 1995.
He later described the experience to Baseball Weekly: “I quit cold turkey one time and for two weeks. I couldn’t believe I had done it. I was feeling OK and then one night I got violently ill. I threw up all night, headaches, sweating –- everything.” Another failed attempt to quit followed in 1998, after he had a white lesion removed from his jaw, and he was foiled for a third time in 2000, when he accepted a golf buddy’s offer of just one “dip”.
Schilling’s finest moment may not have been on the mound. After terrorists attacked New York City on September 11, 2001, he wrote an open letter to baseball fans, offering what solace he could: “Please know that athletes in this country look to your husbands and wives as they may have looked at the men of our profession when they were young, as heroes, as idols, for they are everything every man should strive to be in life and they died in a way reserved only for those who would make the ultimate sacrifice for this nation, and for the freedom we oftentimes take for granted.”
In recent times, pitchers have gotten in the habit of covering their faces to prevent the opposition from reading their lips when their catchers visit the mound. Schilling was credited with starting this tradition of the “coverup,” a practice which began during the 1993 World Series when catcher Darren Daulton suggested it. The next season he continued using the tactic to keep all his mound meetings classified, his glove gradually creeping over his face from just under his nose until all one could see were two eyes glowing under the brim of his cap. While many hitters claimed their lip-reading skills didn’t extend beyond cuss-words, pitchers’ paranoia ruled the day, and, under Schilling’s influence, it became a baseball fixture.