The hobgoblin of an unoccupied mind

I‘ve told this story before: In October of 2001, I was covering the World Series as columnist for The Kansas City Star. Curt Schilling pitched Game 1 of that series for Arizona against the three-time defending champion New York Yankees, and he pitched a breathtaking game. He gave up a run-scoring double to Bernie Williams in the first … and he never came close to allowing another run. He retired 10 of the last 11 batters he faced, with only a walk breaking things up.

Schilling was so overpowering, Yankees manager Joe Torre conceded after the game that, when the score was 5-1, he knew it was over. Scoring four runs off Curt Schilling that night was beyond imagination.

That night, I wrote a column about the empty seat at what was then called Bank One Ballpark. That empty seat was for Cliff Schilling, Curt’s father. Cliff Schilling had a seat at every one of his son’s 436 starts. Cliff died in 1988, when Curt was 21 years old and was still in the minor leagues. He never got the chance to attend any of Curt’s Major League games. But Curt always believed: Cliff saw every last one of them.

When I woke up at 6 or 7 the next morning, I groggily wandered across the hotel room to my computer, turned it on and opened up my email. The first email I got — remember, this was 6 in the morning — was from Curt Schilling. He thanked me for that column. It was a very nice thing for him to do.

I do not bring this up to name drop — I’m pretty sure nobody’s too excited about name-dropping Curt Schilling these days anyway — but to make a point. This was 2001. This was before Twitter, before Facebook, before smartphones or moderately bright phones, before even Google News was launched. To that point, I had never met Schilling. He wouldn’t have known me if I was wearing a name tag. I’m not entirely sure how he even could have found that column at The Kansas City Star.

But, more, much more, how could he have found that column on the NIGHT HE PITCHED IN THE WORLD SERIES? Did he go home after pitching one of the great World Series games of recent times, go right to his computer and search far and wide for stories about himself? Did he have friends in various places who were forwarding him the best stories about the game, and he wanted to read them before the glow of the evening got away from him? Did he happen to stumble upon my column by some fluke and, thinking of his father, feel that he needed to reach out at that exact moment?

It was strange. I never asked Schilling about it, not even after we connected on other occasions. I guess it doesn’t matter. He’s a strange case, that Curt Schilling. A friend of mine, who was around the Diamondbacks a lot in those days, used to compare Schilling with his more famous teammate Randy Johnson. It seemed that everybody on the team despised Johnson on the days he pitched because he was so intense, but they loved the Big Unit the rest of the time. And, my friend said, it was the opposite with Schilling. They loved Schilling on the days he pitched because he was so good. The rest of the time, for the most part, they could do without him.

That might be harsh — I’m sure Schilling has friends in and around the game — but it has never been hard to find people annoyed or infuriated by Schilling. Well, he’s a loudmouth. That’s something he readily admits. He says insensitive, uninformed stuff all the time, and it splits people — many are offended, others race to his defense. Sometimes he apologizes. Sometimes he doesn’t. This time — after posting clueless and nasty anti-transgender stuff on his Facebook page — he’s not apologizing. That led to him getting fired at ESPN. Maybe he saw that coming. Maybe he didn’t.

Either way, he was defiant on his blog as he explained himself: “If you get offended by ANYTHING in this post, that’s your fault, all yours.”

Defiant … and, yes, thoroughly disingenuous. I mean, even in that one sentence, he sounds terribly offended by anyone that would be offended.

Why does he insist on saying these things that he has to know will hurt and offend a lot of people and, inevitably, will bring a wicked backlash back at him? I mean — he knows the drill. He’s been through it enough times. Why does he keep going there? And the obvious answer is: I don’t know. I never studied psychoanalysis. He explains it like this: “I’m loud. I talk too much. I think I know more than I do … but I’m OK with my flaws, they’re what make me, me.”

There’s more, but I’m going to stop right here because that is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever read. It isn’t our flaws that define us. He can’t possibly believe that. Don’t our best attributes define us? Isn’t it how how we deal with our flaws, how we try to overcome them or at least improve them, that defines us? Would we ever tell our children: “OK, listen, you have these flaws, you’re selfish and mean, you’re insensitive and jealous, you have a bad temper and you like to take shortcuts, embrace those, they are what make you, you?”

Anyway, it’s again disingenuous. Did Curt Schilling, no matter what he believes, really think he was doing some grand public service by re-posting a vile anti-transgender meme on Facebook and leaving himself only the extremely weak defense of “I didn’t post that ugly looking picture?” You can decide that for yourself.

Curt Schilling was a fantastic pitcher. He belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame. It bothers me that he has received so little support (this year, for the first time, his vote total finally jumped 50 percent), and I suspect much of that has to do with his Svengali-like talent for offending people. That’s not right. He was remarkable on the mound. He has the greatest strikeout-to-walk ratio in baseball history. He pitched some of the most memorable postseason games in baseball history. He is one of the best pitchers of all time and belongs in Cooperstown.

As for the rest, well, it has been rough professionally for Schilling after baseball. There has been bankruptcy. Financial fights. Public embarrassment. Now he has been fired. I think pretty often about that email he sent me in the middle of the night after his greatest baseball triumph. Why did he send it? My best guess is that, just a few moments of the natural high that came with pitching brilliant baseball against the New York Yankees, he was just bored. I can’t help but wonder if boredom explains a whole lot of it.

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