See you in Cooperstown

Curt Schilling’s famous bloody sock is in Hall of Fame. There should be no doubt that the pitcher who wore the most discussed piece of hosiery in baseball history — the ultimate Red Sock — belongs as well.

With Schilling announcing his retirement this morning on his blog — tell me you didn’t see that one coming — his Cooperstown credentials immediately became the sports debate of the day. There should be no debate at all. If he doesn’t have his Hall of Fame speech ready by now, he might want to start penning a draft. The man belongs in Cooperstown. Schilling won’t be a first-ballot selection — his 216 victories put him in a tie for 80th all time, even with Wilbur Cooper and Charlie Hough and two more than Pedro Martinez — but any one voter who does his due diligence on Schilling’s career should come to no other logical conclusion: The Hall of Fame would be incomplete without him.

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Why? This: His postseason record stacks up with that of any pitcher in the history of the game. He won 11 of 19 playoff starts while losing just two. His ERA was 2.23, and his WHIP a ree-diculous 0.97. He whiffed 120 batters in 133.1 innings, permitting just 104 hits. And as always, his trademark command was sublime: he walked just 25. When you faced Schilling a crucial game, you went into it with a pretty good idea that you weren’t going to defeat him, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to defeat himself.

If you don’t put arguably the most accomplished postseason pitcher of any era in Cooperstown, then what’s the point of even having the place? To taunt Pete Rose? And it’s not like Schilling was Wes Gardner during the regular season. While he may not have the counting stats of someone like Bert Blyleven, he was 70 games over .500, finished with a 3.46 ERA, and rates 14th all-time with 3,116 strikeouts. His adjusted ERA of 127 is good for 43d on the career list, tied with such legends and luminaries as Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, and John Smoltz.


In the interest of full disclosure, Sparky Lyle and Kevin Brown also concluded their careers with a 127 ERA+, and they aren’t getting near Cooperstown unless they’re appearing at a card show. And the names on Schilling’s similarity scores list don’t offer a full endorsement of his credentials — while Hall of Famers Don Drysdale and Catfish Hunter are among his 10 comps, both rate among the more dubious pitching electees. The majority of the list is made of goods-but-not-greats: Brown (again), Orel Hershiser, Bob Welch, Jim Perry. Then there’s Smoltz, whose accomplishments as both a starter and reliever — not to mention his lengthy list of postseason Greatest Hits — have made him a sure bet for the Hall. Funny how he’s filling the role with the Sox that Schilling was supposed to fill last year.
There are two main reasons why Schilling didn’t accumulate monstrous numbers, and the second should be seen as a point in his favor.
First, he found success relatively late, in part due to injury, but as those “SportsCentury”-type shows tell us, also because of a somewhat reckless youth. He’s often said the pivotal moment in his career came when Roger Clemens read him the riot act during a chance meeting at the Astrodome in the early ’90s. (Makes you wonder what performance-enhancing advice Clemens might have had for him had they met up a half-dozen years later.)
The stat of the day comes from ESPN.com’s Rob Neyer, who noted that the day Schilling turned 30, he had a 52-52 career record. His most similar pitchers from ages 27-29 were Ken Forsch (114 career wins), Ron Robinson (48), and Marty Pattin (114). The suggestion is clear: He was mediocre, and on the road to nowhere.
Whether it was Clemens’s one-syllable words of wisdom or simply that he grew up and figured out how to pitch — I’m guessing the latter, though the Rocket’s red glare story makes for a better anecdote — Schilling got his act together and first revealed his knack for delivering in big moments when he pitched exceptionally well (1.62 ERA In the NLCS, 3.52 in the World Series) in four postseason starts for the 1993 Phillies.
Fifteen seasons, three World Championships (don’t forget the 2001 D-Backs) and two bloody socks later (don’t forget Game 2 of the World Series against the Cardinals), and you have a pitcher who’d be in the starting rotation of your All-Time Big Game 25-man roster.
While he spent just five of his 20 big-league seasons in Boston — four if you exclude last year’s $8-million fee for exactly zero innings of labor — his legacy was secured here.
Which takes us to the second reason his victory total should not be held against him: Common sense suggests he cost himself at least one season of his career, and perhaps more, by pitching through his gruesome injury during the 2004 postseason. I’ll resist reliving his “Bloody Sock” heroics here — that’s what your well-worn copy of “Faith Rewarded” is for — but let’s leave it at this:
The Red Sox would not have won the 2004 World Series and ended our 86 years of disappointment, heartbreak, and FoxSports-endorsed aggravation without contributions from everyone on the roster, right down to supporting players Dave Roberts and Curtis Leskanic. And while Boston fans have been blessed to witness countless gutsy performances through the past few decades by the likes of Larry Bird, Pedro Martinez, Tom Brady, and Cam Neely, the sacrifices Schilling (and to a lesser degree, Keith Foulke) made during the life-altering ’04 postseason simply cannot be exaggerated. During that transcendent October, they put winning above everything else, and for that we should be forever grateful.
I realize Schilling’s not always the easiest guy to appreciate. His inability to resist sharing his opinion on every topic under the sun was sometimes an appealing trait (“I can think of any scenario more enjoyable than making 55,000 people from New York shut up”) and other times made you roll your eyes and reach for the mute button. We have not heard the last of him, certainly from a media standpoint and possibly not even from a baseball standpoint — I suspect Favreian whispers of a midseason comeback with the Cubs or Rays are just a few months a way. He might not be able to resist.
But when it comes purely to baseball, his adulation has been earned. I think of his uncommon knack for hitting the bull’s-eye pitch after well-placed pitch, the special skill that made his straight 95 m.p.h. fastball and nose-diving splitter such a deadly duo. I think of how last season might have ended in a more satisfying manner had his shoulder remained intact. I think about the big stage, the bright lights, and his uncanny talent for being at his best when the stakes were highest.
Curt Schilling’s last performance in the major leagues came during Game 2 of the 2007 World Series.
He was the winning pitcher for the eventual champions.
If that’s not an appropriate final scene for a Hall of Famer, go ahead and tell me what is.

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