POLITICS MARCH 25, 2009
When Curt Schilling announced his baseball retirement Monday by grandly proclaiming on his blog, “This party has officially ended,” I couldn’t help thinking of the greatest movie of all time, Anchorman, and the party scene at Ron Burgundy’s house in which Ron (Will Ferrell) turns to Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) and announces: “We’ve been coming to the same party for twelve years now, and in no way is that depressing.”
Why? Because Curt Schilling was baseball’s Ron Burgundy. Like Ron in his native San Di-ah-go, Schilling was a locally beloved institution--a hero in Boston, Philly, and Arizona--with a comically inflated sense of self-importance. He was a very, very good pitcher, especially in the postseason, but not an all-time great (most sportswriters think he’s a bubble candidate for the Hall of Fame). Still, when Schilling dramatically wrote in his retirement post, “Four Wosrld Series, three World Championships … there are men with plaques in Cooperstown who never experienced one,” all that was missing was that famous Ron-ism, ‘”I’m kind of a big deal.”
Over his 23-season career, Schilling often displayed raffish, Burgundy-style charms. His Yankee-taunting quote during the 2001 World Series--“When you use the words ‘mystique’ and ‘aura,’ those are dancers in a nightclub”--could have been written by Ferrell or Anchorman co-writer Adam McKay. He had enigmatic personal habits: He was a Jedi-level computer geek, with a blog and his own video gaming company; and a 2001 interview he did about his obsession with the game EverQuest may be the most awesomely nerdy sports Q&A ever (“My first foray into Lower Guk was a lot of fun. … Completing the Robe of the Lost Circle quest was a blast. … One night I log in, and there's a 55 level monk there.”)
But Schilling mostly resembled Burgundy in that he was a first-rate blowhard, thrilled to hold forth with presumed authority on nearly any subject, as if earth was desperate for his wisdom. He’d shamelessly careen from sports to religion to politics; from his conservative heroes (John McCain, George W. Bush) to The New York Times (“A ‘left wing’ mouthpiece that has never had issues reporting ‘facts’ that aren’t, as facts.”) to Obama’s campaign trail economic plan (“There is nothing he’s proposed that is going to help me hire new employees or maintain the best health care coverage”). In baseball, he had zero compunction about criticizing others in the game. He called Alex Rodriguez “bush league.” He chastised Barry Bonds for “cheating on his wife, cheating on his taxes, and cheating on the game.” He even called out his own ex-teammates, like the flopsy outfielder Manny Ramirez. When Roger Clemens--Schilling’s version of Burgundy nemesis Wes Mantooth--was implicated for steroid use, Schilling howled that if Clemens was proven guilty, he should return his Cy Young Awards.
As gifted a player as Schilling was, his bloviating didn’t always endear him to his teammates. You can imagine, just like on the Channel 4 news team, some laughing behind his back. Schilling picked up the nickname “Red Light Curt” for his tendency to seek out media attention, and his former GM in Philadelphia, Ed Wade, once quipped that Schilling was a “horse” every fifth day, and a “horse’s ass” the other four. (That could have been a line in Anchorman, too.) GQ reported that after Schilling wrote an open letter to America after 9/11, his teammates serenaded him with a chorus of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
Schilling’s Burgundy streak only became more pronounced once he took to the blogosphere. In addition to its wonky baseball observations (which were honestly pretty good) and earnest tributes (“Outside of the Lord, my wife and my father there was no person who impacted my life more than [Phillies pitching coach] Johnny Podres”) Schilling’s 38 Pitches could be an uproarious barrage of authoritative non-sequiturs: A post about the 2008 World Series began with the observation, “Spinnakers in San Francisco has the best Crab Alfredo in existence.” He wrote randomly of upbreat traveling experiences (“We rented an Enterprise Rent-A-Car and it was as smooth and quick and easy a customer experience as I’ve had in awhile”), and posted hilariously geeked-out gamer raves (“Check out a game called Fieldrunners!!!! The funnest tower defense game I’ve ever played”). He even offered trenchant insights about Kobe Bryant’s lack of leadership skills after sitting near the Lakers bench in the 2008 Finals against the Boston Celtics (“He spent the better part of 3.5 quarters pissed off and ranting at the non-execution or lack of, of his team”).
The sports world can be brutal on its polymaths, of course. We like to stick our athletes in narrow boxes--play the game, win the game, talk about nothing else besides the game. But Schilling couldn’t help himself, and more importantly, he didn’t care. He’s one athlete who never felt constrained by the old-school rules or stereotypes, and for all the boorishness, you had to admire his refusal to play the dumb jock. He deserves to make the Hall of Fame, not only because he indeed was kind of a big deal (he was easily best postseason pitcher of his generation), but also because we all want to hear that three-hour speech in Cooperstown. It’ll be even better than Ron Burgundy’s at the local news Emmys. You stay classy, Curt Schilling.
Jason Gay is a writer in Brooklyn.