Schilling Recalls First Stint With Red Sox
by Alan Schwarz
FORT MYERS, Fla. – "Ah," Curt Schilling says wistfully. "My first public brawl."
It was June 1988, and Schilling, then a 21-year-old minor leaguer, carried on sacred New Britain Red Sox tradition by spending most of his late nights closing Elmer's, a pizza-and-beer joint off East Street. A tradition, that is, until Schilling and running mate Todd Pratt got into a wicked and equally inebriated melee with some locals.
"Curt walks in the next morning to pick up his meal money, and he pops in the door with a cut lip and a shiner," the New Britain general manager back then, Gerry Berthiaume, recalls with a laugh. "I asked him what had happened. He goes, 'Home-improvement accident.' Ever since, Elmer's was forever off-limits to New Britain baseball players."
Sure enough, the Curt Schilling that New England knew in his first Red Sox incarnation-–which ended a few weeks later with his trade to Baltimore–-is little like the one it is welcoming back this season. Today's accomplished ace was then an unknown prospect. Today's DVD-studying family man was then a roistering post-pubescent with a little too much time on his hands.
No one gets to know minor league players quite like the ballpark employees assigned to keep them in check. Those who knew Curt Schilling the last time he wore a Sox uniform can be forgiven their bemusement at how 15 years later, he's wearing one again.
Those Were The Days
Schilling was so mature when he signed with Boston back in 1986 that he cashed his first check, put the 20s on his bed and rolled around in them. "He always kept us on our toes," says his first manager at short-season Elmira, Bill Limoncelli. One night Schilling, for whom three six-packs was no stretch, got rather loud at The Old Pioneer, an Elmira bar.
"Hear you had a good time last night," Limoncelli told his young pitcher.
Uh-oh. Caught. "How'd you know?"
"You can't do anything in this town without me knowing, Curt," Limoncelli said.
Away from his Phoenix home for the first time, Schilling loved minor league life. The girls. The beer. The Big Macs. He was a back-of-the-bus type of firebrand, the kind who might shoot spitballs at sleeping teammates. He had a good arm. He had a good time.
After a fine debut at Elmira, Schilling moved up to Class A Greensboro, where he led the Sally League with 189 strikeouts--and 15 losses. From there it was spring training 1988, when Schilling was asked to throw major league batting practice and was so nervous, he promptly plunked Wade Boggs and was asked to leave.
Then came New Britain, where curfew was but a rumor.
"Curt had this redneck little haircut--faded stone-washed jean jacket, a little overweight, cowboy boots, Copenhagen in his back pocket," says Steve Kirschner, the team's clubhouse attendant. "He and Todd Pratt were just running around trying to figure out which place stayed open latest. When Roger Clemens was there, you knew he'd be a major league star. Curt, you didn't get that."
On His Way
For each of the four nights he goofed off, Schilling was serious for one–-the one he pitched. He gained enough velocity and command to go 8-5, 2.97 for Double-A New Britain, impressing the Orioles. They acquired him and fellow prospect Brady Anderson for pitcher Mike Boddicker on July 29, 1988.
Richard Kluczyk, New Britain's assistant GM, got the call from Boston during the first game of a doubleheader, with Schilling scheduled to pitch the nightcap, and was told to tell manager Dave Holt immediately. ("Don't let him slip in the shower!" were his exact instructions.) As Kluczyk went to the clubhouse, out popped none other than Curt Schilling, on his way to the bullpen.
"Stop, Curt. Dave's got to talk to you."
"Am I getting called up?"
"Hell with it then. I got to warm up."
"Stop. You can't pitch today."
"Why?" Schilling said, getting angrier. "I'm getting sent down?"
Sensing he was about to get pummeled, the 5-foot-10 Kluczyk spilled the beans. "You've been traded to the Orioles, Curt," Kluczyk pleaded. "Don't shave. Don't do anything!"
Schilling packed his bags. It wasn't the last time–-he got traded twice more, to Houston and Philadelphia, before blossoming into the all-star righthander we know today. In Arizona, he won more than 20 games twice, a World Series MVP, a Roberto Clemente award and the appreciation of laptop makers everywhere for keeping their industry alive.
And now, after yet another trade, Schilling is back with the Sox, slipping back on the skin of a uniform he shed so long ago. Perhaps he'll get nostalgic and drive down to New Britain and visit the places he used to know. Maybe even stop in at a certain bar and take in one last whiff of his youth.
"The bartenders would appreciate it," the co-owner of Elmer's, Diane Corner, says with a chuckle. "They're all Sox fans. And we could use the business, to tell you the truth."
You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to email@example.com.