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Assessing Curt Schilling: great pitcher, consummate competitor, brilliant blowhard

In all likelihood, the pitching career of Curtis Montague "Curt" Schilling came to an end this week, and even though his time in an Orioles uniform (1988-90) was completely forgettable, Schilling's career with the Phillies, Diamondbacks and Red Sox will certainly be remembered as anything but. Schilling, 41, elected to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery because he's been unable to throw without pain for quite some time, and though he is reluctant to call it a career, Schilling admitted on his blog yesterday that a comeback at his age will be, at best, a long shot.

Whether you loved him or whether you wanted to stuff a rosin bag in his mouth (and over the years, I experienced both emotions), you can't deny that Schilling will easily go down as one of the most interesting and compelling athletes of his time.

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Few superstars have ever had their id and their superego in such constant conflict as Curt Schilling did throughout his career. Schilling was a warrior on the mound, a competitive and ruthless fighter who could paint the corners of the strike zone and fire a fastball at your chin if the need arose. His desire to whip your butt was almost primal. He wanted the ball in big moments, and he also wanted the credit when he pitched well. He suffered on the mound, famously pitching through the pain of ankle surgery in Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS, and he wanted you to know just how much he was suffering. At the same time, his superego was constantly trying to hold those desires in check, and the result made him come across -- as Holden Caufield might say -- as a total phony at times.

Every great athlete (just like every great writer) yearns to be praised for his or her gifts. It is their egos, often, that make them such intense competitors who refuse to accept failure. But Schilling never quite figured out to genuinely mask his primal desire (a desire we all feel) to be loved and praised with baseball's expectations and its unwritten code that he remain the humble teammate who was just one part of a larger machine. Curt Schilling was the rare athlete who could be both arrogant and needy, a person who loved the spotlight, yet desperately wanted to seem the humble everyman. None of that made Schilling a bad person; in fact, in my eyes, it made him so much more human.

These conflicting desires experienced their greatest tug-of-war thanks to that famous bloody sock in 2004 at Yankee Stadium, when Schilling pitched one of the most memorable games in postseason history. I have absolutely zero doubt in my mind that Schilling was hurting that night, that he summoned something deep within himself as he gritted his teeth through six innings of bloody work. But he also wanted you to know just how heroic his performance was (while at the same time downplaying it) which caused a few media types (including one from this paper, former columnist Laura Vecsey) to suggest that maybe it wasn't blood after all. Maybe Schilling took a marker and drew a little "blood" on his sock. 

Those theories always struck me as idiotic and irresponsible, both then and now. But the fact that they survived -- and were revived by Orioles broadcaster Gary Thorne as late as last year -- says something about how plenty of people view Schilling, fairly or unfairly. Were he and Randy Johnson really the best of pals in Arizona, or was it all just a good story that was manufactured by both Schilling and the media? Did his former manager really give him the nickname "Red Light Curt" for the way he posed for cameras at the top of the dugout during games? And wasn't it a little bit tacky the way he shamelessly put a towel over his head every time Mitch Williams was pitching in the 1993 World Series, as if to say "Even I can't watch this guy screw up again!"

The reality of Curt Schilling was constantly fighting with the man Curt Schilling wanted us to see him as. This was never more true than when he testified in front of Congress on the steroids issue. On talk radio, Schilling was more than happy to present himself as the lone maverick who was willing to stand up and speak out against steroid use in baseball. In front of Congress, though, faced with the reality and repercussions that result when one makes such bold claims (without facts) turned him into a church mouse.

But really, when you think about it, did any of that even matter? He raised an incredible amount of money for Lou Gehrig's Disease, and if a cure is ever found, it will save thousands of lives. And whatever you thought about him as a person, there is no denying that he is one of the best postseason pitchers of all time. Isn't that how he should ultimately be remembered?

Was fascinates me the most is what, in many respects, Schilling represents in terms of how the modern athlete is going to deal with the media. He's the future.

A good writer who wasn't shy about technology, Schilling figured out a long time ago that the best way to get his message across wasn't to give interviews and hope that writers played up his strengths and ignored his flaws. It was to take his message straight to the people through his blog, 38Pitches.com. He not only broke news there (albeit through his own filter) he took on the role of media critic, shooting down reports of division in the Red Sox clubhouse and calling out specific writers for what he viewed as shoddy journalism (and in truth, he often made accurate points with his analysis). He might very well read this post and call me a jerk, as is his absolute right.

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"If you haven't figured it out by now, working in the media is a pretty nice gig," Schilling once wrote. "Barring outright plagiarism or committing a crime, you don't have to be accountable if you don't want to."

Some of that is probably true, although Schilling might not be the best messenger. The reality, though, is that working in the media has become increasingly difficult. Athletes no longer see members of the press -- even the good ones -- as an extension of the fans, instead choosing to view them as adversaries. I often tell people the best way to understand the definition of humility is to watch me beg a 19-year-old millionaire for two minutes of his time so I can scribble down his monotone mumbling and try to offer it up as some kind of insight for my readers. Like politicians, the athletes aren't really interested that the reader gets to see a true picture of them, just their spin on the truth.

I'm going to miss Schilling though. It's a shame he didn't figure out how to pitch while he was still an Oriole. He was never dull, and he was often insightful. He kept the media on its toes.

He was such a Freudian character; conflicted, like all of us, in what he wanted. It didn't matter to me whether the blood on his sock was real or fake because I knew he bled, just like I did. I could see just how beautifully gifted, flawed, and human, he really was in everything he did.

PHOTO: AP 

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