PHILADELPHIA >> Curt Schilling was surrounded by plenty of personal history Sunday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park.
Both dugouts were manned by men he’d once called teammates. The video board showed clips of teammates and coaches from the 1993 Phillies, those that weren’t standing with him on the third-base line and those that couldn’t be.
And there was a symbolism in it that Schilling expressed to the media, the kind that often presents itself for a club like the Phillies so willing to honor its past.
“I don’t think I have a career in the big leagues if I don’t come here and meet Johnny Podres,” was the way that Schilling summed it up, honoring one of the late coaches from that 1993 pennant-winning club. All that followed — 216 wins, three World Series, six All-Star nods, even the polarizing post-playing punditry — traces its roots back to Philadelphia. And as one of the club’s most beloved squads followed its roots back to town for a silver anniversary celebration, Schilling in particular stood out in his link to Phillies present and future.
The lessons that Schilling picked up from Podres are too vast to even try to condense beyond the notion that Podres, “made me go from being a guy traded for Jason Grimsley to the guy that I eventually became in 20 minutes in a bullpen.” From there, he went on to Arizona to win 20 games twice and a world title alongside Brewers boss Craig Counsell. Then he landed in Boston for some hosiery-related hijinks, alongside reserve outfielder Gabe Kapler.
But so much of that journey traces back to his time in Philadelphia, where he went from a middling reliever that bounced from Baltimore to Houston, to winning 30 games in two seasons from 1992-93.
“A lot of the things that maybe I might have been known for as a player, their roots were here, from a postseason perspective and from a player and a person perspective,” Schilling said. “I lost my father in ’88 and was desperately seeking some male role models, and John Vukovich and Johnny Podres were those guys. To this day, they’ve had an influence on me. That year was … it was all real.”
The history of loss hung heavy at the park Sunday, from the coaching staff of Podres, Vukovich and manager Jim Fregosi to Darren Daulton, so central to the identity of that ragtag 1993 bunch. Dutch’s wife and daughter joined Fregosi’s wife and daughter in throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. Also looming large was the absence of Mitch Williams and Lenny Dykstra, both mired in their share of post-playing legal and personal issues.
“It’s tough not to have everybody here,” Schilling said. “It’s tough not to have Dutch and the coaches. Life moves at a very unique pace when you look back on it, and unfortunately for Lenny. I’ve actually been in contact with him quite a bit in the past couple of months and years. He’s still struggling. He’s battling and he’s had issues, and he’d probably tell you he’s the first to take accountability for those things.”
Schilling is also tied into the Phillies’ future. He talks often with Kapler, and he’s not surprised that Kapler — or Counsell, or Dodgers manager and former Boston teammate Dave Roberts — is excelling as a manager. Given the influences that Kapler had and the way in which he embraced new ideas as a player, Schilling sees managerial life extending naturally from the teammate he knew.
“He was a great teammate, a phenomenal teammate. And a consummate teammate, a workaholic,” Schilling said. “I’ve been texting him all year, just been in his ear a little bit to find out from my side what it’s like, what he’s going through and stuff like that. The thing I told people, the Opening Day thing, I was laughing because I’m a pitcher so I was offended when he went out there, when he’s taking his pitcher out after five or six innings.
“He’s not going to make the same mistakes twice and I think that’s a huge thing. He’s accountable. There’s some (Terry) Francona in him from a managing perspective. Terry used to say, ‘you’re fired the day you’re hired; they just don’t put that date on the contract.’ So if you know that going in, you do the things your way, which I think Kap is doing — he’s a sponge. He’s always looking for something different and something new.”
The relationship between the two, which included a two-hour powwow in the manager’s office this week, isn’t just the stuff of analytics for which Kapler is wrongly derided as being a blind follower of. Schilling presents a different perspective from Kapler’s — insight, he’s careful to call it, not advice. One is the pitcher’s view, contrasted to the hitter’s. So Kapler, ever that sponge, doesn’t look askance at broadening his baseball horizons.
Case in point: Bullpens, like the one where Podres once changed Schilling’s career trajectory, are something that the Phillies Wall of Famer harps on. So Kapler approached a session Sunday with a refreshed mind.
“I’ve always learned a lot from Schill about how to prepare as a pitcher and how to practice as a pitcher,” Kapler said. “He talks a lot about how valuable bullpen sessions are and he thinks that’s the most important 30 minutes of a pitcher’s week, including the start. He’s like, that’s where all the magic happens. So today, based on some of his feedback, I went down to the bullpen and stood in against both (Nick) Pivetta and (Vince) Velasquez and my goodness, these bullpens were really incredible.”
Schilling expressed a desire to get back into coaching, and working with pitchers on a staff like Kapler’s would be an ideal chance. Until that chapter is penned, Schilling is sure that the team he holds so dear is in good hands.
“There are certain things that I think as a manager, if you process them, you don’t want your players ever guessing what you’re doing or ever trying to figure you out as a manager,” he said. “You want to be consistent and you want to be accountable. … He’s doing good. He’s an incredibly good guy and like I said he won’t make the same mistake twice.”
To contact Matthew De George, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sportsdoctormd.