After nearly two decades in the majors, six All-Star Games, two World Series rings, and an MVP trophy, Curt Schilling has conquered Major League Baseball. So what's left for an encore? Even he doesn't know.
Illustration by Todd Julie.
He wrote his legacy on a cold October night in the Bronx. Sporting a bloody sock that will forever be tattooed on the heart of Red Sox Nation, he willed himself through the most formidable lineup in baseball and lifted a group of self-proclaimed idiots over the "evil empire" of the New York Yankees. He was the missing piece, the unifying cog in Boston's quest to end an 86-year baseball curse.
Had Curt Schilling never set foot on the mound again, no one would have blamed him. The six-time all-star had reached the pinnacle of success for one of the most storied teams in professional sports. The countless hours of rehab he faced in the off-season, the lingering remnants from the most famous ankle injury in sports history, and the struggle to regain his pitching form under the constant scrutiny of the Boston media would have been enough to make most players want to walk away. But Schilling does not define himself by the status quo. He is driven to be great, obsessed with perfecting his craft. And that is why, three years removed from bringing a World Series victory to a city known for its almost unhealthy devotion to its beloved baseball team, at 40 years old, he is pressing on, playing his 19th year in Major League Baseball and his fourth season as the ace on a Red Sox pitching staff loaded with young talent.
Schilling joins a group of 40-year-old pitchers who defy the laws of aging and thrive, even as their contemporaries retire, get released, or are felled by injury. Pitchers like Roger Clemens (who Schilling admittedly would like to see come back to Boston) and Randy Johnson dominate hitters half their age at a time when baseballs are sailing out of the ballpark at an alarming rate.
Sure, we've seen pitchers in their 40s excel before: Nolan Ryan pitched a no-hitter when he was 44; 42-year-old Warren Spahn won 23 games. But never in the modern era have dominant 40-year-old pitchers been so prevalent, with Clemens, Johnson (Diamondbacks), Greg Maddux (Padres), Tom Glavine (Mets), and Kenny Rogers (Tigers) leading the charge of the AARP brigade.
"You think it gets easier as you get older, but it doesn't," says Schilling, who notched his 3,000th career strikeout and 200th win last year, boosting his career win-loss record to 207-138. "Approachwise, it's a matter of refining things, year in and year out."
Schilling's approach is that of a professional student. There was no epiphany or life-altering moment when everything clicked, no specific event when the game slowed down, as athletes often say. Instead, it was a series of small, and at times tedious, steps. A process of listening to the right people and compiling the right information.
"Getting to sit down and talk with Roger Clemens and being with Johnny Podres (who was my first pitching coach), Kevin Jordan, Lenny Dykstra, and Jason Varitek," Schilling says. "It just kind of happened."
He absorbs any piece of advice or statistical data that will give him an edge. He takes thousands of notes dissecting his opponent's strengths and weaknesses. Watch Schilling in the dugout after coming off the mound. Watch how he studies page after page of notes of the upcoming batters he will face next inning. He cannot settle. He doesn't know how - not even at 40, when most athletes are winding down their careers.
"It's who I am; I've never aspired to be middle-of-the-road," Schilling explains. "I've always tried to be great. If you fall short of great, sometimes you're still pretty good."
The Exception to the Rule
Schilling's career is an aberration from the typical path of a professional pitcher. Most good pitchers find themselves riding a wave of success for only a certain period of time, usually in the prime of their career. Then they find their production slowly dropping as their bodies give way to injury and old age. Hall of Fame pitchers Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer found themselves slipping in the end. Even the great Bob Gibson had a losing record the last two years of his career.
Not Schilling. His prime is in the latter stage of his career. Barring his injury-plagued season in 2005, he's been one of the most dominant pitchers in the game. There has been no fall, or career twilight, as of yet - just a steady increase in production.