KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Curt Schilling sits calmly in Champions Stadium as the lightning flashes and the thunder rumbles around him. The Mass Drifters, the Massachusetts state champion girls’ under-16 fast-pitch softball team that he coaches, are facing elimination in a USSSA World Series II tournament game when the rains came. But that’s the least of his problems.
His wife, Shonda, still worries about the stress caused by the failure of his 38 Studios venture.
“I don’t know how somebody would not kill himself, honestly, over what he has had to endure,” she says.
The Schillings say they have lost almost everything. Even the bloody sock the former Red Sox pitcher wore in the 2004 postseason has been sold.
It’s not worth having a heart attack over, a visitor tells him.
“Uh, I already did, actually,” says Schilling. “Yeah, I did, a couple of years ago. Nobody knows that, actually.”
A mild one?
“It was a decent one,” he says. “It’s not something . . .”
His voice trails off and his eyes dart around Champions Stadium.
“I had one, and it was dealt with.”
Schilling’s father died of a massive stroke right in front of him when he was just 21.
“Outside of, like, personal family — losing my dad — it was the most devastating thing I’ve ever gone through,” he says, “and it’s still something I’m trying to bounce back from.
“It was so hard, because I had pushed and pushed and pushed. I had 300 families [of company employees] I had to take care of, including my own, and it failed.
“And I’ve lost a lot in my life but I’ve never failed at anything. I was going to [win] but I couldn’t get it done.”
Schilling, 46, later said that he wishes he hadn’t mentioned the heart attack. He knows this will be news, and he is reluctant to go into details about it.
“I was in New York with my wife, who was running the New York Marathon,” he said by cellphone while traveling. “I was watching it and I had chest pains.’’
Shonda ran a 4:58:50 in the New York City Marathon on Nov. 6, 2011. Schilling says he waited for her to finish, despite the discomfort he was in.
“I didn’t think it was anything serious,” he says.
They flew back to Boston and went straight from Logan Airport to a Boston hospital, where doctors were waiting for him. No ambulance.
“Ya, as stupid as that was,” Schilling wrote in a text message. “My doctor made it clear that I was very, very, lucky.”
Surgery was performed the next day to insert a stent. The health scare, he says, changed his lifestyle.
“Oh yeah, in every way possible, it had to,” he says, without going into detail.
He wouldn’t totally blame the heart attack on stress related to 38 Studios — the video game company went bankrupt seven months later — but, he says, “I’m sure that was part of it.”
Though Curt says, “It was an event and we dealt with it; I’m good,” Shonda says there are still lingering issues.
“I still worry because he has to let the guilt go,” she says. “You cannot be hit with that many things and not have it affect you, I don’t care who it is.”
Bitter feelings remain
In 2010, Rhode Island issued $75 million in bonds so that 38 Studios could relocate to Providence, create jobs, and produce state-of-the-art fantasy games. But the company declared bankruptcy in June 2012. Schilling lost nearly $50 million of his own money, 300 employees lost their jobs, and Rhode Island taxpayers lost an estimated $100 million.
“It was probably the first time he ever failed at anything,” says Shonda. “I never saw him so beaten.”
Shonda was never in favor of launching the company, either.
“I fought it, fought it, fought it, and then this happened,” she says. “So he thinks I’m going to say, ‘I told you so.’
“Had I not seen him the way he was, then I would’ve. To see somebody down that low, you can’t kick him.”
She says coaching softball has been his savior.
“This is a great distraction for him,” she says. “It has given him purpose.”
But even as Schilling sits in the stands and watches the rumbling skies, sadness seeps into his voice when the subject of 38 Studios is broached.
“It’s still raw for me,” he says. “It’s a tough thing to talk about. There was so much it could’ve been.
“I wanted to open up the Shonda Schilling ALS Research Clinic, the Grant Schilling Autism Camp, things that take tens of millions of dollars to do. That was my shot at doing that, and it didn’t work out.
“But ultimately, it’s on me. I was the guy. At the end of the day, it failed because I failed to raise outside capital.”
According to Schilling, Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee did “absolutely nothing” to prevent 38 Studios from closing.
“We had a local investor who was going to pony up the money — he wanted us to do some things — and Chafee just waited us out,” says Schilling.
Chafee has said that he did not want to put good money after bad. But Schilling says the state, as the second-largest investor after himself, had a responsibility to help the venture succeed.
“Name one thing he actually did,” he says. “Ask him that.”
Faye Zuckerman, Chafee’s deputy press secretary, said in a telephone interview, “Due to the pending litigation, Governor Chafee is unable to provide comment.”
Schilling knows that people don’t want to hear him whine.
“The last thing a citizen of Rhode Island wants to hear is a [expletive] millionaire ballplayer blaming the state,” he says.
Schilling, who is now an analyst for ESPN, and who has raised millions for ALS research, is not trying to resurrect his image, either.
“The people that hate me, there’s nothing I can say or do to get them to like me,” he says. “I’ve never stolen. I’ve never hit my wife. I’ve never driven drunk. I’ve never taken steroids. I’ve never done cocaine. I’ve never beat my wife, beat my kids.
“I’ve never done any of the stuff that a lot of people are all about getting second chances for.
“I’ve made a ton of mistakes — a ton of mistakes — but none of them have ever been malicious, mean-spirited, or angry in an effort to ruin somebody.
“That doesn’t mean I’m perfect. Far from it. I’ve got a big mouth and I don’t know when to shut up and I’ll give you my opinion on anything. But I know I’m not a bad dude.”
Earlier this month, Schilling was inducted into the Philadelphia Phillies’ Wall of Fame, honored by a team he won 101 games for and helped lead to the 1993 World Series. But he says he would rather have been with his girls, coaching softball.
“’Cause I love this,” he says. “I have a huge advantage. I’ve already been famous. These girls, no matter what they win, will never make me famous. I want these girls to go to college, to get an education paid for, and they can. And I can make them better doing that.”
The other coaches, the girls, and the parents love Coach Curt.
“He is a great guy who has really taught our daughters a lot on the field,” writes Kelly Johnson, a parent, in an e-mail. “But also, more importantly, a lot about life lessons off of the field, which at the end of the day is definitely really what matters most.”
Schilling has had to retool his tough guy image, because there is crying in girls’ softball.
“The challenge for me is that they are a lot more emotional,” he says.
But there are pluses as well.
“Girls are easier to coach,” he says. “They do exactly what you ask them to do.”
But right now at Walt Disney World, there is trouble brewing. The Mass Drifters are in the losers’ bracket of the World Series — lose and they go home.
Coach Curt has seen worse jams. In 2004, he beat the Yankees and then the Cardinals with blood oozing from his surgically repaired ankle to help end an 86-year-old Boston curse. He was a hero, paraded around the Magic Kingdom in a shiny red convertible with Mickey Mouse.
This time is different. Here, there are no crowds, only devoted parents watching their girls play.
At first glance, Schilling is just another soft-bellied coach, lugging a camouflage backpack and equipment bags on the steamy back fields behind the baseball stadium.
In the previous day’s loss, the team was listless. Schilling, in his second year coaching, says they looked like 11 players who wanted to be in 11 different dugouts.
“They played like dog [expletive],” he says. “And they knew it.”
So he called a team meeting. This would be the polar opposite of the famous “why not us?” mantra he preached during the Red Sox’ 2004 championship season.
“I said, ‘Here’s what’s going to happen. I will forfeit tomorrow’s game and you will go home. You’re not going to put this uniform on and go out there with what I saw today.’ And it had nothing to do with making errors. It was the attitude and the effort. So they sat down there for a good hour and talked amongst themselves.”
His daughter, Gabriella Schilling, plays first base. Last year, she threw her arm out of its socket while pitching, requiring reconstructive shoulder surgery. Stubborn as her father and wearing his No. 38, she fought with him to get back into the lineup.
Before the rains, the Drifters rallied to go ahead in their last at-bat on a double by Georgia Lapierre, a rail-thin freshman catcher from Attleborough, Mass. In the bottom half of the inning, Gabby Schilling made a bullet throw home to end the game in a cloud of dust.
“I was unbelievably proud,’’ says her father. “This kicks the [expletive] out of anything I did playing baseball.’’
Better than the bloody sock game?
“Well, it’s different,” says Schilling. “This is harder, way harder, because I don’t have any control over this.”
Making him proud
It bothered Schilling to auction off the bloody sock, which fetched $92,612.50 in February.
“All that stuff bothered me,” he says. “I sold all that stuff to pay the banks back for the note, instead of filing bankruptcy and keeping it all, I sold it all. It sucks.’’
But none of that matters now. When the Drifters switch fields and promptly make six errors in the first inning to fall behind, 5-0, Coach Curt does not scream at them, he chirps encouragement. Schilling tells the girls there are zero players in Cooperstown who never made an error.
“Grind it out,” he orders.
The Drifters battle back and tie the score. At one point, Schilling sees something and moves his left fielder back eight steps — perfect position to catch the ensuing line drive.
“Almost looks like he knows what he’s doing,” says assistant coach Dan Zucco, laughing. “He has one of those every game or two.”
Another time, Schilling predicts a two-run home run by sweet-swinging Maddy Barone of Taunton, Mass. Then came the thunder, the lightning, and the rain.
After a one-hour delay, the Drifters move to another field that has lights and resume play. Schilling takes a pinch of Skoal and asks for somebody to “be a hero.”
The Drifters score three times for an 8-5 victory. After the last out, Schilling shuts his ever-present notebook and fist-bumps all the girls.
He addresses the troops.
“As mad and as angry and disappointed as I was yesterday, I am equal parts incredibly proud of what I just watched,” he says. “We went from being some team looking at going home to this.
“You guys dug yourself out. I’m not going to lie, I didn’t know that you’d be able to dig your way out of it. Un-be-lievably proud of every one of you.
“You played a phenomenal game after the first inning. A phenomenal game, and you earned every ounce of that win. Incredibly proud of you guys! We got our path for us tomorrow, 8 a.m. game. What do you guys want to wear? Whites? OK, get ’em washed. Be here at 7, OK? Get your rest.’’
Then he wraps his big right arm around his daughter’s head, gives her a soft kiss on the forehead, and heads toward the Magic Kingdom, head high, a hero again. At least for a day.
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.