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Arizona Diamondbacks All-Time Top 50: #5, Curt Schilling

No player proved quite as divisive as Curt Schilling in our poll.

Curt Schilling waits in dugout Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
  • Avg ranking (high/low/most common): 7.32 (2/50/5)
  • Seasons: 2000-2003
  • Stats: 108 games, 781.2 IP, 3.14 ERA, 148 ERA+, 26.0 bWAR
  • Best season: 2001 - 35 games, 256.2 IP, 2.98 ERA, 157 ERA+, 8.8 bWAR

“It’s all about preparation-execution-belief. I do more preparation on game day than anyone else. More than anything it’s the reason for my success. Whether it’s true or not, it’s what I believe... It’s all about passion-pride-hard work.”
-- Curt Schilling

Nobody had a bigger spread of opinions expressed about him than Curt Schilling, being rated from #2 all the way down to dead-last in our 50. I strongly suspect the latter rating was significantly impacted by his post-baseball... ah, “adventures.” However, we are not going to touch on any of that here. I like the SnakePit how it is, and would rather it not be reduced to a smoking wasteland. If you want to roll your eyes at political arguments, you’ll find Facebook over there... >>> We’ve also covered his playing time before and after Arizona when we looked at his Hall of Fame credentials last month. Therefore, here, we’ll concentrate only on his time with the Diamondbacks: more than enough there!

It began on July 26, 2000, when he was traded by the Philadelphia Phillies to Arizona, in likely the first blockbuster deal in franchise history. He was already a three-time All-Star in 1997-99, and cost the D-backs four players: Omar Daal, Nelson Figueroa, Travis Lee and Vicente Padilla. In theory, this could have been simply a rental for a season and a half, as no extension was discussed before the deal. But Schilling was so keen to come here, he waived the right to demand a trade at the end of the year. Perhaps that was explained by his statement about the time in Philadelphia: “I was booed so much less than I probably deserve to be booed here, which I don’t think too many people leaving Philly can say.”

Putting him alongside Randy Johnson gave the Diamondbacks a 1-2 punch which was immediately recognized as potentially among the greatest of all time. GM Joe Garagiola drew this comparison: ‘’Koufax and Drysdale come to mind,’’ then added, ‘’I’ll take these two guys.’’ Schilling left Philadelphia with a bit of a reputation: “considered by some to be a disruptive force in the clubhouse for his outspoken views”, GM Ed Wade called him. “a horse once every five days and a horse’s ass the other four.” But the Big Unit himself was enthusiastic (by his standards, at least) about his new partner. “With the addition of Curt, it’ll make things a lot easier for everybody. Maybe we can push one another, too.”

Initially, the pair of aces didn’t work out as hoped, in part because Schilling’s shoulder still wasn’t back to full strength after surgery in December 1999 to repair a stretched muscle. [It had previously required an operation in 1995, and would need further work in 2008] Despite a solid ERA+ of 130, Schilling went 5-6 in 13 starts, as Arizona faded down the stretch, going 12-18 after the end of August 2000. Having led the division at the break by 312 games, they missed out on a playoff spot, finishing third in the West. Johnson recalled: “The thing I respected about him was that [Schilling] felt like he’d let the team down. Not himself. The team.”

The two had first met at the 1999 All-Star Game, where Schilling, an inveterate collector of memorabilia, asked Johnson for one of his jerseys. But, oddly and despite the sharp contrast in personalities, it was perhaps their mutual love of golf which helped them bond. According to Curt’s wife, Shonda, “With Curt, Randy didn’t have to carry the burden by himself. And I think Randy helped Curt with his intensity. Randy takes things very seriously and is very professional. He taught Curt he could be that outgoing, fun guy and still be very professional about his job.” It’s worth hearing Johnson explain a bit more about the “burden”

“What helped most with Curt was that he’s one of the few pitchers who knows the expectations put upon that ace in a rotation of five pitchers. So I can share with him experiences and feelings I couldn’t share with anybody. That’s why teammates saw a side of me this year they didn’t see before, like putting [golf balls] in the clubhouse before I pitched playoff games. I didn’t have the burden I’d been carrying for years. I didn’t have to come to the ballpark knowing I’d have to win this game. I felt like if we were pitching back-to-back games, if I didn’t win, he would. And if he didn’t, I would.”

2001, with Curt back to 100% health, was a different beast. He and Randy went 43-12 and unquestionably carried the Diamondbacks to the NL West title (everyone else on the pitching staff went a thoroughly mediocre 49-58) and beyond, going 9-1 in the post-season. Schilling actually picked up one more regular season victory than Johnson, despite leading the league in home-runs allowed, with 37, and had a strikeout to walk ratio of better than 7.50. Schilling and Johnson combined for a staggering 665 strikeouts, a record for team-mates that will likely never be broken, considering no-one since them has reached even 310 K’s.

It’s all the more remarkable by Curt, considering the worry and disruption caused by his wife being diagnosed with melanoma during spring training 2001. Curt simply got on with business, having learned to remain stoic in times of trouble from his father: “He never panicked and I used to wonder, `Doesn’t he care?’ But he understood that someone needed to be the overseer and make sure everybody was in the right place... It’s my job to take care of my family. What kind of message would that send to her or my kids if I was an emotional wreck?” [Shonda was eventually declared cancer-free]

Performing at the highest level despite such stress is remarkable. And there’s no doubt Schilling delivered. Indeed, there’s a case to be made that v.2001 Curt and Randy were the most productive 1-2 punch in pitching since the demise of the four-man rotation, or perhaps since the mound was lowered. And that doesn’t even include their incredible post-season . As Sports Illustrated noted, “It takes 297 outs to win a world championship through three rounds of playoffs. Schilling and Johnson produced 224 of them, or 75% of Arizona’s total. They were especially estimable in the World Series, getting 95 of their team’s 108 outs in its victories.”

There is a question over Schilling’s exit from Game 4, which saw him lifted after seven in favor of Byung-Hyun Kim. According to Joe Buck’s book, Lucky Bastard, “Schilling had told catcher Damian Miller, ‘Whatever happens, this is my last inning. Don’t let [Brenly] put me back out there again.’ But Schilling could see the microphone on Brenly’s uniform. He knew he would look better if he begged to keep pitching on national television. So he asked Brenly to keep him the game… They both knew he was coming out.” Schilling has categorically denied this version of events, Tweeting, “Joe Buck is a liar, 100% through and through. Damian Miller, Bob Brenly would say so as well.” [Brenly declined comment]

There’s no doubt Schilling and Johnson utterly deserved to be named co-MVPs of the World Series. They were little if any less dominant the following year, going 47-12 - the rest of the D-backs’ pitching staff once more had a losing record - and finished 1-2 in Cy Young voting again. Both that year and the preceding one, each pitcher had more than 20 wins: no team since has had a pair match that feat. Schilling fanned 316 and walked only 33, the second-best ratio by a qualifying pitcher in NL history (Bret Saberhagen was 143:13 in 1994] But there would be no repeat post-season success, Arizona getting swept out of the NLDS by St. Louis, despite Curt throwing seven innings of one-run ball in Game 2.

2003 was his final season with the D-backs, and had its ups and downs. He had a sub-three ERA, but missed six weeks with a fractured hand, and his W-L record was wrecked by a lack of run support. Schilling went 8-9: over those nine defeats, Arizona scored just fifteen runs. After one particularly annoying loss against San Diego in May, Curt smashed a camera belonging to QuesTec [the predecessor of Pitch f/x] near the dugout at BOB. He explained, “The QuesTec system in this ballpark is a joke. The umpires have admitted it. They hate it. In the last three starts I’ve made here, multiple times umpires have said to the catcher, ‘It’s a pitch I want to call a strike but the machine won’t let me.’’’

The D-backs were looking to cut salary after 2003, and Schilling was scheduled to earn $12 million in the last year of his contract. He would have been happy to finish out his career in Arizona, but that wasn’t going to happen. He had a no-trade cause, part of his deal when he signed a three-year, $32 million extension after the 2000 campaign. Initially, he said he would only go to the Phillies or Yankees, rejecting Boston: “I’m a right-handed fly-ball pitcher. In Fenway Park, that’s not a tremendous mix.” But the arrival of Terry Francona, his old manager in Philadelphia, and a Thanksgiving dinner with Red Sox GM Theo Epstein and Assistant GM Jed Hoyer changed Schilling’s mind.

The return from Boston for a year of Schilling seemed pretty light, considering by bWAR, he had been the best pitcher in baseball over the previous three years (yes, even better than Johnson). We got back Mike Goss, Casey Fossum, Brandon Lyon and Jorge De La Rosa. [The last was then still a prospect and was dealt in another blockbuster three days later, leaving for Milwaukee as part of the Richie Sexson trade]. It might have been different if the Yankees had accepted Arizona’s offer, and given us Alfonso Soriano and Nick Johnson for Curt and Junior Spivey... Schilling, meanwhile, would play a huge part in ending the Curse of the Bambino, the Red Sox winning the World Series in 2004.