SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- It changes in two weeks, when Curt Schilling leaves the desert behind, takes the mound in a Red Sox uniform for the first time, and even though the games will still be practice, he will feel the muscles in his body clenching so tight, you couldn't, in his words, "pull a pin out [of me] with a tractor."
This was still Curt Schilling unplugged, taking a break from the ALS meetings, the Little League games (at Curt Schilling Field!), the grueling workouts with Nomar, the Tang Soo Do training with the black-belt sansei/obstetrician, and the late-night Internet sessions with bedazzled Sox fanatics back in New England who would probably elect Schilling over Kerry, Dean, Edwards, or Bush if he were on the ballot.
This Schilling still had time to sit back in his den, between shepherding his four kids out of the room as they took turns imploring Dad to not dally too long, and willingly wander wherever a visitor asked him to go. From telling tales about how it all began as a Sox minor leaguer (he found out he'd been traded by the Sox watching TV in a clubhouse in New Britain, Conn.) to playing with the Wild Thing and the Big Unit, to fighting with Deion Sanders and punching out a TV camera, to what it will be like to be reunited with Terry Francona as manager and introduced to Pedro Martinez as his new running mate.
Oh, he'll never be shy with a story. Teammates in Arizona used to call him "Red Light," for the way he turned on for the TV cameras. Except on the days he pitches, when he shuts himself into an interior world that has darkness at a core where there usually is light.
"Before I pitch any game, from spring training to Game 7 of the World Series, I'm scared to death," says a man who has made it his passion to offer the hope of longer life to those fighting a disease named after Lou Gehrig, whose name he and his wife, Shonda, have given to one of their sons.
"But that's the drive," he said. "That's where I get it. That's the motivation.
"The feeling after I lose a game, I can't describe how miserable, and the elation I feel after I pitch good is so much less than the bad is bad."
But the start of spring training is still calendar pages away, and that fear that closes in once every five days for the next eight months remains in hibernation. There is plenty of time for stories, and laughter, and free-ranging opinions that will never stop emanating from whatever corner of any clubhouse he may occupy. Opinions that may delight, inform, enrage, but never bore.
"I care what people think," he says, "but that doesn't change what I say. I am who I am."
So pull up a chair, forget about glancing at your watch, and listen. If you're lucky, by the time he's done, Curt Schilling will feel anything but like a stranger.
With the deal that sent him back to Boston, the team that originally drafted him on the second round in 1986, Curt Schilling has now been traded five times in 17 years, by the Sox, Orioles, Astros, Phillies, and Diamondbacks. And yes, Sox CEO Larry Lucchino was barely inside the Schilling house just before last Thanksgiving before he was muttering regrets about having traded Schilling over a dozen years earlier, when Lucchino was CEO of the Orioles and Schilling still a work very much in progress.
He was just 21 years old and only halfway through his third season in the Sox organization when he was preparing to pitch the second game of a doubleheader in New Britain.
"I never had a pitching coach," Schilling said. "Just a rover, Lee Stange. The Stinger. I must have thrown 100 bullpens in three years and only 10 were supervised. Mind-boggling. I always felt that organization was about survival of the fittest. You get to Double A, you come out of the muck. If you don't, you fall away with the rest of them and they get somebody else. Mind-boggling."
It was in July, and Schilling and a couple of his minor league mates were talking about reports of the trade the parent Sox were about to make for Mike Boddicker, the veteran Orioles pitcher. They knew Baltimore was getting Brady Anderson, the outfielder, plus a minor leaguer. It never occurred to Schilling it might be him until he looked up at the clubhouse TV and heard his name.
"I couldn't believe it," Schilling said. "I went out to the screen behind the on-deck circle and Todd Pratt was on deck, getting ready to hit.
"I said, `Dude, I just got traded.' He said, `What?' He said, `Hang on, I'll go hit a home run for you.' He goes out and hits a bomb, the longest home run I'd ever seen him hit. It was hilarious."
The beauty of pitching on the same team with Randy Johnson, Schilling said, is that it pushed him to new levels of excellence, and a deeper understanding of the game. Best friends? C'mon, that's comic-book stuff. But don't doubt the mutual respect.
"I would not have accomplished what I did here, if it was not for him," Schilling said of the Big Unit. "The maturity, insight I gained in the game, the knowledge I gained, a lot of it came from talking to him and watching him. I cherished that. I relished that. I wanted to pitch better than RJ not because he pitched bad but because he pitched good and I wanted to pitch better. That's a yardstick not too many people want, but I didn't have a problem with it."
Schilling says he hopes a similar relationship evolves with Martinez.
"I don't see anything screwing that up as long as we're both healthy," he said.
Despite a fractured hand and an appendectomy that ate up big chunks of last season, Schilling, even at age 37, offers a level of durability lacking in Martinez. Given Schilling's close relationship with Francona, for whom he played four seasons in Philadelphia and was his sole impetus -- by his own admission -- for asking Arizona to trade him to Boston, was it possible Martinez might wonder where he stands with Francona?
"Pedro is the ace of the staff," Schilling said firmly, repeating a refrain that has been constant from the day he shook hands with general manager Theo Epstein on a deal. "He'll be the ace of the staff three years from now, when we're still together. Terry will do what he has to do to make sure Pedro gets his way.
"The guy is a multiple Cy Young Award winner, the best pitcher in the American League. Not to slight anybody else, but guys like that you take care of. To me, that's such a nonfactor because I know what kind of person Terry is."
Deion Sanders? This was before he became a talking suit and was still playing for the Cincinnati Reds, who were having their way with Schilling, running up a seven-run lead in the third inning. That's when Sanders stole third base, which in Schilling's world view was more Bush League than Prime Time. They exchanged words, and the next time they met, in Philadelphia, Schilling threw a pitch that would have hit Sanders, except he'd squared around to bunt and threw his bat at the ball, fouling it off. The benches emptied, but Sanders never made a move toward Schilling, who'd come down off the mound.
"After the game, they're asking me about Deion, and I say if he didn't tackle with pads on, he sure isn't going to tackle in baseball -- he's nothing more than a glorified flag football player."
Later, Schilling is walking with his wife and kids out of the stadium tunnel when a reporter breathlessly approaches, stammering that an incensed Sanders wants to meet him between clubhouses.
"Tell Deion I'll meet him on the playground after recess," Schilling said.
After Schilling signed a long-term deal with the Phillies in the spring of 1997, it seemed as if he was about to be traded in each of the next four years, speculation Schilling admits he helped fuel himself.
With the Phillies in a downward spiral and unlikely to sign Schilling to a long-term deal, he was open to a trade, though he insists he never begged out. Finally, in July 2001, in the midst of a contentious relationship with Phillies GM Ed Wade, Schilling received a call from Wade, informing him he was about to be traded to the Indians.
Now, Schilling had put the Indians on a short list of teams to which he'd be willing to be traded, but when the moment arrived, he called his agent in a panic, begging him to stop the deal. Five minutes later, Wade called back.
"He was livid," Schilling said, "and rightfully so. I couldn't apologize more profusely. Eddie hangs up the phone and says they're not going to trade me to Cleveland. He called me back and said, `Look, you tell me right now a list of teams, and when you're done, I'm going to take that list and trade you.
"The next day, the Arizona deal was like done."
Four or five nights a week, Schilling practices Tang Soo Do, a form of martial arts to which he was introduced by the doctor who delivered the couple's fourth child. It began 2,000 years ago as an underground movement, he said, practiced by commoners as a way to protect themselves against samurai.
Mornings, he can be found at the Athletic Performance Institute run by trainer Mark Verstegen, where Nomar Garciaparra is the star pupil.
Hey, Schilling is like many Red Sox fans. He thought the trade for Alex Rodriguez would come to pass. "But I've still got a Hall of Fame shortstop playing behind me," he said. "I'm good with that."
He says he talks with Garciaparra on a regular basis, and says he isn't worried about Garciaparra bearing any grudges toward the Sox because of their pursuit of Rodriguez.
"No, no, no," he said, "somebody who is that good doesn't have a problem being where they need to be to perform. Guys like Nomar are going to take care of themselves.
"He knows what he has to do. Nomar is a guy you wind up in April and let him run. He stops running in October."
Darren Daulton? He was a catcher with the Phillies for more than a decade, the greatest clubhouse presence Schilling says he's ever been around. Daulton resided on Macho Row in the Philadelphia clubhouse, whose other occupants were guys such as John Kruk and Mitch Williams and Lenny Dykstra, guys who played and lived hard. Schilling, who prides himself on going home every night, was cut from a different cloth, but always felt he had Macho Row's respect for how he went about his business.
Until the night Daulton called him out after a poor outing in St. Louis.
"I'd gotten my butt kicked," Schilling said, "and Darren called me out in the paper. He said we had a lot of young guys doing stupid stuff. He was basically letting everyone know I was an idiot."
The reporters couldn't wait to see how Schilling would react.
"I told them, `I'd love to say some nasty stuff, but he's right. I was stupid. I'm absolutely embarrassed by everything that happened.' We were on a plane that night, we always played cards on every flight, and Darren turned around and said to me, `I want to kick your butt right now.' I said, `You know what, I deserve it.'
"He was a tremendous leader. He knew what he needed from me. He knew how to push my buttons."
Schilling's first choice last fall was to go back to Philadelphia, where he and Shonda still have a home. He changed his mind when he learned that Francona was the front-runner for the Sox job.
"If I didn't think Terry was going to get the job," he said, "I wouldn't have told the Diamondbacks I would be interested in going to the Red Sox. I would never have mentioned it."
Even before he was officially back with the Sox, Schilling had reached out to their fans, popping up on the Sons of Sam Horn chat board, a practice he has continued in the wee hours of occasional mornings. "It's like a way I can give something to the fans that is almost tangible," he said. "It's not as big a deal as they think it is, but I love it, and I'm glad they feel the way they do."
But his plan is to give back even more, which will require silence, once every five days.
"I'm convinced that the group of people running this ball club will put a World Series team on the field every year I'm with the Red Sox," he said. "As a player, that's all you can ask for."