Theo Epstein spoke on his cellphone from Phoenix Sky Harbor
International Airport last Saturday, a two-hour wait still ahead
of him after an earlier flight back to Boston had been canceled.
Weary from a bizarre Thanksgiving weekend, the 29-year-old Red
Sox general manager nonetheless sounded thrilled, having
successfully negotiated over the previous three days to land
Arizona Diamondbacks righthander Curt Schilling, the biggest
acquisition of his one-year tenure. "At least," Epstein quipped,
"I'll enjoy this flight more than I did flying home from
Nicaragua last Christmas Eve."
Epstein had returned from Central America empty-handed after
losing a bidding war with the New York Yankees for Cuban
free-agent righthander Jose Contreras. This time it was New York
that lost the pitcher it coveted, and the game's bitterest
rivals, just six weeks removed from their last dustup, had
Their seesaw battle is baseball's distortion of Newton's third
law: For every action in Boston there is an unequal and
disproportionate reaction in New York. Even as the Red Sox
fashioned the game's best starting rotation--Schilling, 37, joins
righthanders Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe, who combined have won
72 games over the last two seasons--the Yankees, still smarting
from their World Series loss to the Florida Marlins, were
readying their response. At week's end New York, which had turned
down Arizona's offer of Schilling and second baseman Junior
Spivey for second baseman Alfonso Soriano and first baseman Nick
Johnson, was reportedly close on a three-year deal with
free-agent outfielder Gary Sheffield; was prepared to outbid the
Chicago White Sox with a three-or four-year offer for free-agent
righthander Bartolo Colon; and was weighing the possibility of
including Johnson (of whom owner George Steinbrenner is less
enamored than some of his subordinates are) in a package that
would bring righthander Javier Vazquez in a trade with the
Montreal Expos (box, above).
Perhaps both AL East rivals want to avoid a repetition of last
winter's name-calling. (After the Yankees signed Contreras, Red
Sox president Larry Lucchino dubbed them the Evil Empire.) "I'd
prefer to defuse the off-field stuff," Epstein says. "We
identified Curt as the right fit for us. We know the Yankees will
go out and get two or three studs in any case."
It was inevitable that both teams would go after Schilling, who
was priced out of Arizona because he's due to make $12 million in
2004 and would have become a free agent thereafter. On Nov. 24
the Red Sox agreed to trade pitchers Casey Fossum, Brandon Lyon,
Jorge de la Rosa and a minor leaguer to be named later to the
Diamondbacks for Schilling, but he wouldn't waive his no-trade
clause without a contract extension.
That prompted Epstein, Lucchino and baseball operations assistant
Jed Hoyer to fly to Schilling's home in Paradise Valley, Ariz.,
to broker a deal. Boston quickly allayed Schilling's concerns
about switching leagues and playing in Fenway Park--a troublesome
stadium for fly ball pitchers--and assured him that they had the
video and computer resources available to assist his detailed
prestart preparation. (When Schilling produced a laptop and
demonstrated the database he maintains on the hitters he's faced,
the Red Sox contingent whipped out two laptops of their own,
displaying similar information for use by their pitching staff.)
On Thanksgiving Day, Schilling invited Epstein and Hoyer to have
dinner with his family. (Lucchino dined with his family in San
Diego.) Despite amicable conversation over turkey, stuffing,
yams, green beans and cabbage cooked by Schilling's wife, Shonda,
money remained an obstacle, and both sides despaired of getting
the deal done. But in a conference call late that night, Epstein
and Lucchino convinced the franchise's principal owner, John
Henry, and chairman Tom Werner to increase the club's offer.
Schilling, meanwhile, spent several hours in a chat room on a Red
Sox fans' website, sonsofsamhorn.com, having a hot-stove
discussion with 24 Boston rooters. Impressed by the fans'
knowledge and passion, and encouraged by the news that Boston was
about to name Terry Francona, his former skipper with the
Philadelphia Phillies, as manager, Schilling agreed last Friday
night to an extension worth $25.5 million over two years, with a
$13 million option for the 2007 season that becomes guaranteed if
he reaches certain performance goals.
After winning 22 and 23 games in 2001 and '02, respectively,
Schilling was 8-9 on a middling club last year, but he missed 15
days because of an appendectomy in April and then six weeks
because of a broken right hand suffered when he was hit by a line
drive in May. Otherwise, his stats indicate that he's as sharp as
ever: The 6'5", 235-pound Schilling had a 2.95 ERA, 10.4
strikeouts per nine innings and a 6.1-to-1 strikeout-to-walk
ratio, versus career marks of 3.33, 8.9 and 4.2 to 1. "He's got
the profile of a power pitcher who will age well, a la [Roger]
Clemens," Epstein says. The strikeouts-to-walks ratio is a stat
particularly prized by the Red Sox, and Martinez (4.3 to 1) and
Schilling have the two best career ratios among active pitchers.
Schilling is also the battle-tested ace that Martinez has always
wanted for a teammate, someone to lessen the burden he shoulders
on his 5'11", 180-pound frame every fifth day." They'll likely
have the same dynamic that existed in Arizona with Curt and Randy
Johnson," Epstein says. "Pedro will go out and set the bar high,
and Curt will match it."
A quick study, Schilling showed immediately that he grasps the
essence of the New York-Boston rivalry. "I guess," Schilling said
on Friday, "I hate the Yankees now." The battle rages, and
Opening Day is still four months away.
COLOR PHOTOMONTAGE: PHOTO COMPOSITE BY SI IMAGING WITH PHOTOS BYBRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS; DAMIAN STROHMEYER; BOB ROSATO COMING ATTRACTION With a little imagination, it's not hard to seeSchilling leading Boston to the title it so craves.