Commentary

Selfish players just don't get it

For most, there comes a day when you realize what baseball -- and life -- is all about

Updated: September 14, 2010, 3:39 PM ET
By Curt Schilling | Special to ESPNBoston.com

If you never have this day, you never truly get it.

I'm sitting at our kitchen counter reading the latest ESPN The Magazine and I come across an article on Aubrey Huff, and it takes me back 17 years in a flash. He talks about his "epiphany," the day he understood what the big leagues were all about.

I had talked to Aubrey a little when we played Tampa; I got to know him, but not that well. He was always a respectful kid and super nice guy (in addition to being a very good -- and underrated -- hitter). As was my custom, I asked around about him (I always tried to find out about good hitters -- what kind of people they were, work ethic, habits, etc.) and was told by more than one person that Aubrey was about Aubrey when it came to the game.

Hear me out, though. That sounds horrible, but for the most part, it really isn't. What people meant was that Aubrey's day had everything to do with how his at-bats went and very little to do with the outcome of the game. If both went well, great. If he got his hits and the team lost? Oh well, no biggie. If his team lost and he went 4-for-4? Great day.

[+] EnlargeKevin Youkilis
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesKevin Youkilis is one of those players who takes each at-bat to heart, and it shows -- sometimes too much.

There's a saying for guys like that: "Two-For-Four, What's The Score?" That's the response you feel you get when you ask an everyday player, "How did the game go?" and their four at-bats are the first thing they think about.

Baseball is a very strange sport. It's a team sport, sure, but at its heart, it's as individual a competition as wrestling.

It's also very different for pitchers and hitters. As a hitter, I can go 0-for-4 and still win a game for my team. As a pitcher? Not so much. If I suck, we suck, and we usually lose. So you obviously play with many, many hitters from rookie ball to the big leagues and you run across all types. Some guys are all about winning, period. Dave Hollins was that guy. Some guys are so consumed by their at-bats that the world around them doesn't exist. Gregg Jefferies was that guy. I still argue it's the exact reason he was so good, and the exact reason his career ended far sooner than anyone ever expected.

You hit 600 to 700 times a season. Statistically you know you are going to make outs. Yet there are hitters who act as if every single out is pretty much the end of the world. Here's where that becomes selfish, and potentially a problem.

I strike out. I am ticked off. I come back to the bench, slam my helmet, slam my bat, walk down the tunnel, F-bombs everywhere. If it ends there, fine. For some guys, though, it doesn't. They're seething the entire half inning, regardless of what's happening on the field. Seething as they take their position, seething as they throw the ball around in warm-ups.

I've been on the mound during an inning and heard a player in the infield between pitches dropping an F-bomb or eight about the out they made 15 minutes ago. This sport won't let you succeed with that mindset. There are too many outs, too many games for you to carry that through.

Kevin Youkilis is a great example, but in my opinion a very, very rare bird. Youk is a guy who, when I left the game, I often wondered how it was going to play out. The one thing I loved, and knew, was that Kevin Youkilis was never, ever going to give away an at-bat. That's different from the guy who gets ticked off after every out. Youk hangs on to outs too long in my opinion, but he can manage it.

One thing I would scream to him at this point, but I know he won't listen -- because I heard it and didn't listen either -- is to sit back and enjoy what you are doing. For guys who are great, I think it's next to impossible.

Gabe Kapler was a teammate of mine who I felt, and still do feel, enjoyed life when he was playing. I know this might sound strange, but that was impossible for me to do when I played, and apparently for Aubrey Huff as well, until I had that same epiphany. Youk is a grinder, far more talented than anyone has given him credit for, and in my opinion one of the five or 10 best all-around offensive players in the game (not to mention he's a Gold Glover because he can catch; he didn't get his Gold Glove because he raked).

Here's where the problem lies. When I am snapping after a bad inning, or a hitter is snapping after a bad at-bat, the game is still going on. My teammates are still hitting, pitching, trying to win. It's the easiest example of selfishness and the one most often seen, but not realized by the offending party.

Many players think it shows they care more. That's crap. Because you scream and yell and snap and break stuff you want to win more? No, that to me means you just haven't grown up, or you just don't give a crap about anyone but yourself.

In the Magazine, Huff talked about his epiphany, and it immediately brought me back to mine. It was during the middle of the 1993 season in Philadelphia. We were contending with an awesomely talented OBP machine of an offense. It was a veteran-laden team that had as many selfish guys on it as any team I ever played on, but those same guys always tried to give the opposite appearance whenever possible.

It never really mattered to me because I learned so much by watching, and also had guys on that team that loved to talk about the game. You had a closer who would fire his glove across the locker room because he didn't get called in for the save after a game we won!

You had guys screaming at young players for reading the locker room stat sheets, calling them stat hounds and selfish, while those same guys scurried off to the bathroom with those same stat sheets and read every line of them in the bathroom stall. But there were lessons to be learned, and I had my epiphany and learned a lesson in the same day.

I was starting a game against Colorado, back in the early days of the "Blake Street Bombers." I had a miserable game -- 5 innings, 5 runs, 8 hits. We won 11-7 and I was the pitcher of record.

After the game I was sullen, ticked off and talking about a lack of confidence. (Before that start, I was 6-1 in 11 starts with a 2.79 ERA and an opponents' batting average of .214; in the seven starts after that game, I went 1-5, 8.07, .359 opponents' BA.)

My postgame interview, I was told, came off horrible. Not only was it pointless to act like that, because we won, but the game's hard enough as it is -- there's no need to beat on yourself. Having a bad day and winning was rare enough as a starting pitcher. Those are the days you should say, "Whew, got away with one today!"

I thought my attitude was the right one, though, because it made me come across as a perfectionist, or more driven in my mind. That's pretty much the opposite of the truth.

I sulked and moped for four days (which was my "between a loss and my next start" mentality), then went into an epic never-again-repeated funk that culminated in one of the worst starts of my career and a public tongue-lashing that was 100 percent deserved.

A few guys -- John Kruk was one of them -- came to me and were like, "What the hell, dude? We won the game, move on. You look like an ass pouting after a win. Get over it."

I didn't, and proceeded to pitch myself from Cy Young conversation to no chance of making the All-Star team in a matter of seven horrific starts.

The epiphany came after my last start of this dreadful run, in St. Louis. I gave up what felt like 405 earned runs. (Actually it was nine I think, as I left with the bases loaded and the first pitch from the reliever was hit for a grand slam.)

After the game, Darren Daulton ripped me and another young pitcher on the staff for basically sucking, and sucking at a time when we absolutely couldn't. I can remember the Philadelphia media rushing over to my locker in anticipation of a verbal volley back in Darren's direction. My reply? "He's right. Everything he said is right. There is no excuse and no reason for what I just did, and I am embarrassed beyond words."

I went home that night and realized what had happened, and more importantly to me, quickly realized that if I didn't make some mental adjustments, I would never get out of that mindset, and likely never get better. It took time, but I eventually did get out of it, and the game did change for me.

I hated losing -- who doesn't? -- but there's a right way and a wrong way to handle losing, and to me losing became something I feared and hated so much that I needed to make sure I did everything I could to never lose again. I know how that sounds, but that's the mindset I got to. To me, if I lost, it had to be because of some unnatural act in my mind. It couldn't be because I wasn't prepared, or because the other guy was better. It had to be some strange force of nature.

That's also when I realized something else. Every spring, the media asks you about goals. Starting pitchers usually trot out 20 wins or something. I came to realize that was a trick question. I mean, I am going to make 35 starts a year, so I am admitting in spring training that I am going to get beat 15 times? No way. My goals changed. As a starting pitcher my goals became innings, period. Innings took care of everything else. If I pitched 245 innings, the wins, K's, complete games would all come.

My epiphany made me understand things that made the game change in huge ways, on and off the field. The first and most important was this: On the day I have the ball in my hand, if my team wins all is good. Yes, I want no-hitters, shutouts, K's and all those sexy things, but the game is hard, real hard.

So if "my day" was a win, then I took stock, assessed the work, spent four days prepping for the next game and fixing and tweaking what I needed to fix. There was no more dwelling, good or bad, on what had happened. If we won, it was all good; if we lost, then I did something that needed fixing over the next four days.

The downside to this was that winning, and the euphoria that comes with it, was something I got immense satisfaction from. But that lasted mere minutes compared with the sleepless nights that followed a loss. There's a saying that goes: "Why does the hurt after a loss feel so much worse than the happy stuff feels good after a win?" For many great players, I would think that's the case.

If you, as a player, don't get this, you should. Hopefully you will, because it changes everything about the life you live -- and the game you play.

Curt Schilling, who pitched for the Red Sox from 2004-08, is a three-time World Series champion, six-time MLB All-Star and founded 38 Studios. Curt and his wife, Shonda, have raised money to fight ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) through Curt's Pitch for ALS, and have encouraged awareness for sun protection through the SHADE Foundation. They recently announced their support for the Asperger's Association of New England after their third child was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome.

Curt Schilling, a three-time World Series champion, pitched for the Red Sox from 2004-08. Curt and his wife Shonda have raised money to fight ALS (www.curtspitch.com), encouraged awareness for sun protection (www.shadefoundation.org) and announced their support for the Asperger's Association of New England (www.aane.org) after their third child was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome.

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