CLEARWATER, Fla. - Gene Michael is an adviser to Yankees miniboss Hank Steinbrenner these days. When Curt Schilling was emerging as one of the great control freaks - on and off the mound - "Stick" was the Yankees' general manager.
"I tried to trade for him," Michael was saying during a rain delay that turned the Phillies media and officials dining room into an any-port-in-storm. News of Schilling's blogignation had replaced Davey Johnson's curious and inept managing of Team USA in Sunday night's World Baseball Classic debacle as the No. 1 topic of conversation. "I kept calling Lee [Phils GM Lee
Thomas] and asking if Curt was available. He'd kind of laugh at me and say, 'No way.' But one day I called and Lee said, 'If Schilling comes up here one more time trying to run my ballclub, he's going on the market.' "
Schilling kept telling anybody who would listen that he wanted to stay in Philly, but only if they made a clear commitment to winning that included spending more money to obtain better players. Sometimes, Schil would call his favorite talk-radio station from his auto on the way to Veterans Stadium, and enumerate his many gripes. This was fingernails on the blackboard stuff to a front office that has always been loath to have its dirty laundry publicized, particularly by a 1993 hero who had become a face of the franchise.
Larry Andersen, now a radio voice, was the weary reliever who set up closer Mitch Williams that fatal Game 6 in Toronto, Schilling with the towel covering his head and face, Joe Carter up with one out, two runners on, the Phils clinging to a 6-5 lead. A lot of people on that bench have never fully forgiven Schilling for the way he showed up his teammate with the baseball world watching. And it didn't matter that Williams wound up serving the most dramatic World Series walkoff homer since Bill Mazeroski in 1960.
Cops, firefighters, ballplayers of all sports follow the same rough code of loyalty as Hollywood's Sam Spade, a private eye whose partner, Miles Archer, was set up by a femme fatale and shot to death. "When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it," Spade (Humphrey Bogart) says in "The Maltese Falcon." "It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it."
The Ballplayer Code has never been part of Schil's agenda. Maybe there is a special decoder ring you got by mailing in a cereal boxtop Curt missed while Army-bratting in Alaska. After the World Series, he distributed a button saying, "I Survived Watching Mitch Pitch in the 1993 World Series." Laughs were in short supply.
A frequent Jim Rome guest, Schilling has aired a number of pet peeves, including the alleged steroid abuse of Barry Bonds. He has ripped A-Rod, Manny Ramirez (had to wait in line for that one) and had running feuds in Arizona with sports reporter Pedro Gomez and in Boston with Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy. Don't invite Curt and the ESPN "SportsCenter" staff to the same party.
Bloody sock? Better have a lawyer handy before you insinuate that the blood on the famous red badge of Curt's World Series courage was really red paint. Schil shot that one down faster than he flanks a Battle of the Bulge panzer division while playing one of the military board games in which he has established himself as the equivalent of a bridge master.
Andersen rolled his eyes when I asked his reaction to Schilling's cyberspace announcement that his 20-year career is over. "I was taught that if you can't say something nice about somebody, don't say anything at all," he said. Then LA laughed mirthlessly. "It would probably make CNN."
As luck would have it, the showers that came gusting off Tampa Bay and doused another Bright House Field sellout forced Darren Daulton to land the mothership in the parking lot. He was holding court in the Hooters box with the usual gaggle of pals and fans who surround him here during the Countdown to Dec. 21, 2012, last day of the Mayan calendar. When that page is turned, he says, all humankind will continue to exist, but in a different form.
Dutch pointed to Andersen. "I'm with him," he said. OK, but the man did pitch a little. "What about his career. How good was he?"
"He gave you a good chance to win every time he took the ball," Daulton said. "He had exceptional command of his fastball. He was a legitimate ace for us."
And the Phillies would not have another one until Cole Hamels came along. He won 101 games over 8 1/2 seasons that swung wildly between All-Star level brilliance and career-threatening arm miseries. Wilmington orthopedic physician Dr. Craig Morgan saved his career with surgeries in 1995 and 1999. Schilling bypassed the Phillies' medical staff on both occasions. The second surgery was a procedure considered radical at the time that repaired a torn labrum with minimal cutting.
From that surgery until the shoulder deterioration that caused him to refuse surgery last year, which the Red Sox hoped would permit him to at least pitch late in the season - he collected $8 million while missing the entire season - Schilling was about as good as pitching gets. And during the Octobers that followed 22-6 and 23-7 seasons in Arizona, and a 21-6 in Boston, Curt established himself as one of the greatest postseason pitchers of all time. Certainly he has been the best of the three-tier playoff era. His October record, including the 1993 World Series with the Phils, was 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA in 19 starts.
I'm not going to dwell on the man's grating persona. The consummate control freak also controls one of the most successful and dedicated charities in the history of athletes giving back as a way of sharing their special gifts with the less-fortunate or dreadfully afflicted. The work he and wife Shonda have done in Philly on behalf of ALS research has raised millions.
Curt Schilling is as complex as a snowflake and it is dramatically correct that this master puppeteer chose to blog his retirement announcement. And why the hell not? He was the first professional athlete to use the "Dear Diary" of his generation as a means to make himself perfectly clear without fear of misrepresentation. *