CD's Connect The Dots...A FOREshadowing Event

It has the appearance of just another charity golf tournament. For Curt Schilling, it has been a very successful annual event and raised many thousands of dollars for his wonderful causes. But next weekend's tournament may take on a different tone to become a precursor to perhaps the most important winter move in baseball circles. In many ways it has the look of a... FOREshadowing event.

Few hurlers in recent Phillie history have created such a firestorm of controversy and debate as has Curt Schilling, who was with the club from 1992 through mid-2000. During that period, he established himself as a major leaguer hurler, helped lead the club to its only World Series berth in the past 20 years, and regularly led the team in victories, strikeouts and outrageous public statements. This alone should have been enough to pencil his name amongst the names of Robin Roberts, Jim Bunning, Curt Simmons, Chris Short and Steve Carlton as the greatest Phillie hurlers of the post World War II era.

Phillie phans will never forget Schilling's chilling performance against the favored Atlanta Braves in Games One and Five of the 1993 playoff series. He set the tone for a Phillie victory by starting off the league championship series with five consecutive strikeouts against Otis Nixon, Jeff Blauser and the Brave's slugging trio of Ron Gant, Fred McGriff and Dave Justice. Schilling was voted the MVP of the playoff series and was even more impressive in a must win 2-0 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays in Game Five of the '93 World Series.

In a game the Phightins' had to win, and with a bullpen bereft of rested arms that night, Schilling performed one of the most courageous and sterling performances in the history of Phillie baseball. His complete game shutout, with over 130 pitches thrown, was one of the more memorable moments in a very memorable series. Not so coincidentally he performed these heroics against the Toronto Blue Jays. Pat Gillick's Toronto Blue Jays. Yes, the same man whose task it is to now lead the Phillies out of the wilderness and into the playoffs once again.

Yet, it is what Schilling has done since he left Philadelphia in the summer of 2000 that has made him such a household name in modern baseball lore. Not only did he combine with Randy Johnson to help lead the Arizona Diamondbacks to their only World Series triumph over the favored New York Yankees in 2001 but then was the central figure in Boston's first World Series victory in 86 seasons back in 2004. His bloody sock story is the kind of legendary tale that will be told in Red Sox history lessons for as long as storytellers live on.

If winning is the measuring stick of success in sport, then Curt Schilling has been a most successful pitcher. Simply put, he has won with every team he has pitched for since he established himself in Philadelphia in 1992. Three teams. Three World Series berths. Two World Series championships. 207 career victories, only 138 losses. Over 3000 career strikeouts. Numbers that will at least create reasonable debate someday as to his possible place in the Baseball Hall of Fame. A place that Schilling would dearly love to end up.

Which leads us to next weekend and a golf tournament that may or may not answer the most compelling question for the Philadelphia Phillies this off-season. The question concerns which players GM Pat Gillick will bring in to help this talented young Phillie team get over the hump and into the 2007 playoffs and possibly the World Series. A series that Schilling can help this team reach merely by the presence of his powerful right arm and equally powerful personality. Moreover, don't for a minute think that Curt Schilling is not eminently aware of this as he prepares to return to Philadelphia, ostensibly to host his golf tournament.

Curt Schilling is a very complicated man with a diversity of passions and interests, history being at the forefront of those passions and interests. He can retell stories of Patton's genius during World War II with the knowledge of a college history professor and will regale at stories of Lou Gehrig's baseball legend as if he himself was witness to Gehrig's 2,138 consecutive game baseball streak. Not so coincidentally, he named one of his sons Gehrig after the Yankee Iron Horse and baseball Hall of Famer whose plaque is enshrined in Cooperstown, New York.

Cooperstown. Home of baseball's Hall of Fame. It would not be a stretch to guess that Schilling can individually name almost every member of that hallowed list of players. He certainly knows the names of Grover Cleveland Alexander, Robin Roberts, Jim Bunning and Steve Carlton. Hall of Famer pitchers all. Philadelphia Phillie Hall of Famer pitchers all. Curt Schilling would love to someday place his name alongside that list. And it is because of this very passion, this very desire to have his name joined with this other greats that next week could take on such added interest.

Right now, for all of his past accomplishments, and despite all of his individual and team successes, Curt Schilling is merely on the cusp of consideration for a Hall of Fame berth. Oh, make no mistake, he will certainly warrant consideration and a case can always be made for his inclusion. But right now, at this very moment, a very large question mark must be placed next to his name and his place with the Ruths, Mantles, Aarons and Gehrigs of the baseball world. What Curt Schilling needs is an exclamation mark to replace that question mark, a stamp to end his career that marks him as one of baseball's greatest winners, a pitcher who could almost individually lift a good team to great heights and unforgettable post season glory.

He did it with the Phillies of '93, the D'backs of '01 and the Red Sox of '04. And he could do it again in Philadelphia in 2007 should he return the city he calls home and where he first established himself as a truly great starting pitcher. It seems almost unimaginable that Curt Schilling would not be aware of this. And given his penchant for truth speaking, regardless of the political incorrectness of his cause, it behooves Phillie phans everywhere to listen to what Schilling has to say next week as he makes his way around Philadelphia's media circus. After all, this is a group that will be more than willing to give Schilling the very audience he has always used when promoting his causes and it will be shocking if the discussion doesn't somehow turn to his thoughts about ending his career in the City of Brotherly Love.

Curt Schilling is many things; opinionated, contrary and often self-serving. But Curt Schilling is also the ultimate warrior and has to know that if he is to end his career with an exclamation mark instead of a question mark it will probably have to be in Philadelphia, with a team that appears one solid top of the rotation starting pitcher away from greatness. The kind of pitcher that Schilling always has been, and still is today.

His current team, the Boston Red Sox, are solid enough and always a threat to make the American League playoffs. But there are rumblings in Boston of player salary cut backs and familiar names like Manny Ramirez and Trot Nixon are rumored to be headed for other cities. Schilling has no doubt heard these rumblings and can't be thrilled about the prospect of pitching his final year with a team in full retreat.

Yes, the Red Sox are good, but the Yankees are better. So are the Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox, Anaheim Angels and probably the Minnesota Twins. Simple math tells Schilling, and his current team, that the '07 season is likely to be a rebuilding and reloading year with hopes of competing for a title again by the end of the decade. But Schilling is a man in a hurry and will not be part of the possible glory days of 2010. He will be retired and probably making his post baseball home in Philadelphia by then. It does not take a rocket scientist to see the possible alignment of the stars which could make a "Schill is a Phil" story a realistic one despite the obvious complications involved.

Make no mistake, the naysayers will deny this story with equal parts authority and conviction. They will remind one and all that Curt Schilling will be 40 years old on November 14 and is unworthy of the 13 million dollar salary he will earn in 2007, be it Boston or Philadelphia. Certainly Boston GM Theo Epstein is a wise and tough negotiator and would never let a talent like Schilling slip out of town without a large return on his investment. Finally, the Phillies would never allow Schilling to return to Philadelphia as an active member of the team since he supposedly burned more than a few bridges when he departed in July of 2000. This is what they will say.

And the answers to these declarations are perhaps, perhaps and perhaps. But more than likely it will be Schilling and not all these outside forces who will ultimately make the decision as to where he will end his career, be it Boston or Philadelphia. In fact, Schilling was already beginning his preparatory battle plan after his final start in late September when he commented to the Boston press that he might just retire rather than come back for another year with the Red Sox.

Of course, he quickly rescinded this statement a few days later by stating that he would "honor his contract" for 2007 and then probably call it quits. But unspoken were the wishes of just where he wanted to pitch and whose contract he would be honoring. Long time Phillie phans are more than aware of this stance as it is a tactic Schilling has used before, a tactic that got him traded from the Phils to the Diamondbacks in 2000 and from the D'backs to the Red Sox in the winter of 2003. It seemed clear, even by implication, that Schilling was already hedging his bet as to where he wished to pitch in the upcoming season.

The guess here is that Schilling would dearly love to finish up where he started out, back home in Philadelphia, and with the Phillies. He is intelligent enough to see that this team is a very solid one, with a dynamic duo of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard that makes it the envy of teams from San Francisco to Toronto. He knows that the rotation is led by two young hurlers in Cole Hamels and Brett Myers, with two backend veterans in Jamie Moyer and Jon Lieber. He understands that the Phillies play in a league where a team, the St. Louis Cardinals, can win 83 games, qualify for the playoffs, and be declared baseball's World Champions by saving their best for last. His window of opportunity is a very small one.

Phillie GM Pat Gillick is also a very intelligent man. He also knows that his window of opportunity is a small one. He is signed for two more years and probably does not have as his primary goal the rebuilding of the franchise so his successor can reap the rewards. Gillick has an ego similar to Schilling's and also wants his plaque in baseball's Hall of Fame. Unlike Schilling, Gillick is a virtual shoo in, but in every other way their cases are strangely similar. They both carry the badge of creating winners wherever they go, Gillick in Toronto, Baltimore and Seattle and Schilling with the aforementioned Philadelphia, Arizona and Boston.

Synchronicity almost demands that a Gillick/Schilling combo should deliver the Phillies to the promised land, allowing both to retire with the greatest of baseball accolades, true athletic winners! Yet much will depend on what Schilling wants to do and this is why it is imperative that Phillie phans listen closely to what he says next weekend while parading from place to place, once again in the Philadelphia limelight.

It is quite possible that Curt Schilling is tired of the moving, content with his surroundings and prepared to enter his probable final season as a member of the Boston Red Sox. If this is the case, then Schilling will make that clear next week. He will state unequivocally that he plans to retire in Boston, and is determined to help make the Sox what they once were, a near dominant team in the American League.

Should this happen, then the "Schill to the Phils" story will die quickly, because a happy Schilling is a productive Schilling. Boston GM Theo Epstein will then turn his attention to the more pressing need of finding a taker for Manny Ramirez or acquiring some more pitching to take some of the pressure off of Schilling. Of course, this is a possibility and then it will become a non-story as quickly as it became one.

But, should Schilling come out and yearn for a return to Philadelphia, as he did in the winter of 2003, then the non-story could quickly become an all encompassing one. Make no mistake, if this is his wish, he will make it known, and if he is to make it known, it will be during the weekend when all eyes are firmly placed on him. Naturally, even he recognizes that just because he wants something, that does not guarantee that it will take place.

Epstein could prove a difficult negotiator, or Gillick could choose to look in another direction. Even should negotiations take place, there would be no guarantee of success because the Boston GM could request a Cole Hamels or Brett Myers in return, thus squashing the deal. However, if Schilling does wish to finish his career in Philadelphia as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, he can make a powerful case in this direction.

For one thing, contractually, he is signed with the Red Sox for only the '07 season and then is a free agent and can go anywhere he wishes. Although he has hinted at retirement after this campaign, many players have hinted the very same thing and then changed their minds when it came time to turn their backs on ten-plus million dollars a year. Schilling will no doubt remind the astute Red Sox GM that it makes more sense to get something of value in return for him that to passively wave good-bye at the end of the year when all bets are off and the star righty walks quietly into the sunset...or back to Philadelphia.

In the case of Gillick, he has long stated his desire to bring in a top of the rotation starting pitcher and has looked longingly in the past at such potential aces in Barry Zito, Mark Prior and Jose Contreras. All were either unavailable or too pricey for his tastes but in Schilling, he might just revisit his initial beliefs. For one thing, Schilling seems just the very pitcher to help the Phils win the NL pennant, and not necessarily as a wild-card contestant.

If the 2006 playoffs revealed anything at all it revealed that the National League has a very flawed group of teams at the top and the Phils, with one fell swoop of Schilling, could easily elevate themselves to the top of the NL chart quickly. Congratulations are certainly in order for the St. Louis Cardinals, who might be remembered as the weakest World Series champion in recent memory, but are champions nevertheless.

Yet, which Phillie player doesn't think that they are quite capable of dethroning the champion Cardinals with a Curt Schilling at the top of the rotation, buttressed by the efforts of Hamels, Myers, Moyer and Lieber? Equally interesting is the sudden realization that the New York Mets appear a team that could quickly lose their luster as many of their best players are reaching the age where injuries become the problem and decline the norm.

The two West Coast playoff combatants, the San Diego Padres and the Los Angeles Dodgers both have issues to contend with and could quickly fall by the wayside should those issues not be resolved. Only the Philadelphia Phillies, and possibly the Florida Marlins, seem primed to make a major leap forward in 2007 and with Schilling in tow that leap could be quantum.

This is the quandary Gillick would face should Schilling step forward next weekend and declare his desire to retire in a Phillie uniform. The businessman in Gillick might say no, but the competitor in him would find it hard not to at least place a phone call Boston's way in hopes of striking a deal that both sides could live with. Should this happen, just what might that deal look like and how likely would it be in occurring?

No doubt, Epstein would start high, demanding top talent in return, top young talent to boot. Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, or maybe a Ryan Madson would likely be some of the early names mentioned. Of course, Gillick would never agree to this and both GMs understand this. But names like Zack Segovia, Gavin Floyd, Michael Bourn or Carlos Ruiz might interest the Boston GM and the Phils might even be inclined to toss in Jon Lieber should the Sox demand a starting pitcher in return.

One thing seems certain. Should Epstein and Gillick enter into serious negotiations, this deal will happen. Both are determined and respected general managers and will not enter into these waters without full knowledge and understanding of the consequences of failure. Epstein will not want an unhappy ace on his staff, and Schilling knows full well the power he carries with this potential "ace" up his sleeve. Gillick will not want to hear an angry Philadelphia press remind him that he had the opportunity to possibly insure a playoff berth for his team and let it slip away over a few million dollars or a level A- prospect.

The advantages of a Schilling in Phillie pinstripes are almost unimaginable. After all, this is a pitcher who is still at the top of his game, a 15 tilt winner in 2006 in only 31 starts. This is a hurler who regularly averages 7 innings an outing and can be counted on to inspire Brett Myers among others to become the "ace-in-waiting" that Schilling is now.

Even more important, this is a big game hurler, the kind that will take the ball with the stakes the highest and usually perform at the highest level possible. Quite clearly, this is a player the Phillies have not had since the days of...Curt Schilling. And before anyone blanches at the thought of paying him 13 million dollars, remember that his salary is almost exactly what the Phils paid Randy Wolf and Arthur Rhodes in '06 and both are currently off the books for 2007.

One final thought about this matter. Yes, Schilling will be 40 years old come mid-November and the thought of having three starting pitchers at or nearly at 40 years of age might seem disconcerting. However, if the Phils have one undeniable strength in their system, one large rack to hang their hats on, it is young and very talented minor league hurlers. Names like Gio Gonzalez, Carlos Carrasco, Edgar Garcia, Fabio Castro, Scott Mathieson, Kyle Kendrick and the aforementioned Segovia and Floyd should dominate a strong Phils' staff for years to come.

Thus, it seems a small price to pay in having a Schilling-Moyer-Lieber troika for a year or two and should be well worth the opportunity to bring youngsters like Hamels, Myers, Utley, Howard, Shane Victorino and Jimmy Rollins some playoff glory and gratification. Ticket sales alone will skyrocket should Schilling return, more than returning the cost of doing business with Mr. Schilling.

Philadelphia, the prodigal son is about to return, if only for a weekend. Celebrities will be everywhere, the cause is a wonderful and worthy one, and even if there is nothing more than golf balls flying through the air, the atmosphere will be festive. But beyond all the pomp and circumstance, the birdies and bogies, listen to the words of the tournament's host and most famous guest, Curt Schilling. What he has to say could well determine the fate of the 2007 Philadelphia Phillies, which makes it in any case not just another golf tournament but instead a...FOREshadowing event.

Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to allenariza@earthlink.net and I will attempt to respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast


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