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Schilling hardly an open-and-shut case

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  March 24, 2009 08:37 AM

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Politically, socially, and culturally, Curt Schilling liked to test the limits. He frequently teetered on the edge, sometimes falling over it. Maybe it is only fitting that he similarly rests on the cusp of Hall of Fame enshrinement.

The truth?

This decision is simply not as easy as many New Englanders would like to believe.

An artist known for painting the outside corner and once accused of coloring a bloody sock, Schilling yesterday officially announced his retirement from baseball. With that news came the end of an era. Schilling spent five years with the Red Sox -- though he only pitched four -- and he sacrificed the final years of his career to pitch with a battened-down tendon in his right ankle.

For that, especially, New Englanders should be forever grateful to him. Schilling came to Boston to win a World Series and he ended up winning two. With a contractual clause that earned him an additional $15 million for winning a championship here, he put his money where his mouth was, a particularly notable accomplishment for someone with his, er, need to be heard.

But the Hall? With all due respect to New England baseball fans who profess to be among the most knowledgeable in the game, Schilling is not a slam dunk. Yesterday, based on internet reader feedback and the Schilling campaign/infomercial on WEEI, many would regard Schilling as a lock-stock-and-barrel(-chested) Hall of Famer. On the whole, these voices represented people forever indebted to Schilling for ending a near-century of futility or those for whom Schilling now works. You’d have a better chance of hearing Terry Francona question Schilling’s Hall of Fame credentials than you would some of the voices on Boston’s sports radio station.

No one is saying that Schilling does not belong in Cooperstown. We’re just saying that we can’t be too sure yet. Schilling had a very good career augmented by a brilliant postseason résumé, but there are still major holes that need to be examined.

  • For all of the talk about how baseball won’t produce many 300-game winners anymore, Schilling pitched during an era that will produce several. Excluding the now-tainted Roger Clemens, the accomplished Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Randy Johnson all have eclipsed (or will soon eclipse) 300 wins. Between them, Maddux (four), Glavine (two), and Johnson (five) won 11 Cy Young Awards. Toss in Clemens and the number is 18.

    As good as Schilling was during blocks of his career, he never won a Cy Young Award. (Pedro Martinez, who has a career win total similar to that of Schilling, won three.) This fortifies the argument that Schilling was never a truly dominant performer of his era, which is one of the more important criteria for induction.

  • On the high side, Schilling is comparable to future Hall of Famer John Smoltz, who has just one career Cy Young Award and a sensational postseason history to go along with roughly the same number of career wins (210) as Schilling (216). Of course, Smoltz also had three truly dominating seasons as a closer, during which he compiled 144 saves against just three wins, meaning his win total might have been a good deal higher.

    The low side? Try Andy Pettitte, who has an almost identical number of career wins (215) and as many top-5 finishes in the Cy Young balloting (four). Pettitte also excelled in a large, high-pressure market while compiling 18 career postseason victories, many of them in virtual must-win situations. No New Englander in his right mind would consider Pettitte a Hall of Famer so much as they would consider him one of the better pitchers of his era.

  • Before his 30th birthday, Schilling went just 52-52, meaning that his early years largely will be to blame if he fails to reach Cooperstown. Even Schilling has admitted that he was immature as a youngster and did not start to understand his potential until Clemens scared him straight. The final 12 years of Schilling’s career produced 164 wins -- this includes 2008, when Schilling did not pitch and was paid $8 million -- but there were still seven pitchers in the game who had more in that span, including: Johnson, Maddux, Glavine, Martinez, Mike Mussina, Pettitte, and Jamie Moyer.

    Schilling's leaving after 23 years with zero regrets
    Schilling announces retirement with "zero regrets." (AP)
    Of those seven, the first four are Hall of Famers and the last three probably are not. Schilling likely falls somewhere in between the two groups -- between Martinez and Pettitte -- making him a truly borderline case and a most difficult candidate to assess.
  • Postseason accomplishments are memorable, but they constitute a relatively small portion of a player’s career on the whole. In Schilling’s case, 19 of his 588 career appearances came in the postseason, a number that translates into roughly 3 percent. What reasonable voter would weigh 3 percent more than 97 percent when assessing any dilemma?

    Like Schilling, retired pitchers Jack Morris, Bert Blyleven, Dave Stewart, and Luis Tiant all were regarded as good big-game pitchers. None of them are in the Hall of Fame. One could just as easily make the argument that Schilling falls into this group as seamlessly as any he does in any discussion involving Maddux, Johnson, Glavine, or Martinez.

  • New Englanders are unarguably parochial, passionate and loyal to their teams, which makes this such a fascinating place to write about, talk about, and dissect sports. Unfortunately, emotion also clouds judgment. Baseball lovers in this six-state region forever will be grateful for what Schilling gave the Red Sox, but he doesn’t get bonus points because he played in front of us.

    At the end of the day, when it comes to making the drive to Cooperstown, we have to treat him just as we would anyone else we’d consider sending down the Pike.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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