Curt Schilling was never a slam dunk to make the Hall of Fame. Supporters point to his dazzling strikeout-to-walk ratio and his postseason brilliance. Detractors cite his middling 216-win total and the absence of a Cy Young Award on his résumé.
But few Hall watchers could have ever imagined things becoming this contentious. Four years after Schilling's first appearance on the ballot, his candidacy has veered down a side road where wins above replacement and bloody sock heroics are afterthoughts. As hard as this is to believe, Schilling might have surpassed both Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens among polarizing figures in the Cooperstown debate.
Schilling's candidacy has also given rise to a new and wholly unforeseen question: Is it possible to tweet your way out of Cooperstown?
After making a substantial leap from 39.2 to 52.3 percent of the vote a year ago, Schilling is leaking oil in his quest to reach the 75 percent barrier. Ryan Thibodaux, who runs a popular Hall of Fame tracker that tallies writer votes, has counted 80 writers who have made their ballots public in advance of the Dec. 31 deadline. Among that group, Schilling has picked up four votes from last year while losing 14, for a net difference of minus-10. Jeff Kent and Fred McGriff, at minus-1, are the only other players on the ballot who have lost ground from a year ago.
With about 18 percent of the electorate accounted for, Schilling is trending in the wrong direction.
"A major step back at this point could be a real candidacy killer," Thibodaux said in an email. "He finally hurdled 50 percent last year and still has six years left (including this year) to make up the rest of the difference. That's certainly possible. But a drop back into the low 40s (or worse) makes it that much harder to reach 75 percent within five years."
Schilling hasn't thrown a pitch since 2007, but he remains in the public eye through social media and his Breitbart radio show, in which he's happy to share his conservative views on climate change, the Second Amendment, quarterback Colin Kaepernick's decision to kneel for the national anthem, Canada's health care system and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's emails, among other hot-button topics.
While Schilling's right-wing orientation risks offending the sensibilities of any left-leaning journalists, ESPN.com surveyed more than 50 writers who cast ballots this year, and only one (who chose to remain anonymous) said he gave the slightest thought to Schilling's political orientation in casting his vote. Instead, evidence suggests a singular act six weeks ago might lie at the heart of Schilling's dropoff in support.
The flashpoint came on Nov. 7 -- amid the heat of the presidential election -- when Schilling posted a tweet in response to a man wearing a T-shirt with the words, "Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required." Schilling expressed his approval, calling the shirt "awesome," before the comment disappeared from his timeline.
Amid an angry outcry on Twitter, Schilling responded that the tweet was "100 percent sarcasm." In an email to ESPN.com, he reiterated that he was joking.
"Every single person that read it KNEW I was mocking," Schilling said. "Do I have some sort of hidden passion for lynching in my past?"
Nevertheless, several Hall of Fame voters surveyed judged the tweet irresponsible, reckless or even dangerous enough to withhold their support for Schilling -- at least for this year. Longtime Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy was first to come forward and say he plans to put Schilling in timeout for 2017.
"I am not voting for Curt Schilling this year, and it has nothing to do with his politics,'' Shaughnessy told ESPN.com. "Schill was comfortable retweeting a despicable tweet promoting lynching of journalists. That is not a political issue. I'm sure he wasn't serious, but it's dangerous to promote that kind of rhetoric in today's America. So I'm taking a year off from Schill -- thank you very much.
"Any of us would have been fired for a similar offense. If I had retweeted a tweet about how awesome it was to have 'Tree, rope and professional ballplayers,' I would have expected to be fired.''
Shaughnessy isn't the only one to say the tweet played a role in his vote.
"To me, this falls under Rule 5 of the [Baseball Writers Association of America] rules for election, specifically the reference to integrity and character,'' said Kirby Arnold, a Seattle-based voter who retired in 2011 after a 42-year newspaper career. "I was prepared to vote for Curt again this year but changed my mind after his Twitter comment. Whether or not he meant it as sarcasm didn't matter to me. I was disgusted by the fact someone would either endorse the act of lynching or make light of it, and it didn't matter to me if it was journalists or any living being.''
Schilling is such a lightning rod for controversy that the debate surrounding his candidacy strays into new uncharted territory almost daily. Just this week, Boston-based writer Mike Shalin said he was withdrawing his support because Schilling -- a military history buff -- once collected Nazi memorabilia. And former ESPN reporter Wallace Matthews, in a column for New York Sports Day, pronounced himself so enraged by Schilling's overall behavior that he challenged the pitcher to a boxing match.
Never one to back down from confrontation, Schilling took aim at Shaughnessy, Matthews and Fan Rag's Jon Heyman, three writers who are at odds with him now or have clashed with him in the past.
"The Hall of Fame vote, to people like Dan and Wallace Matthews and Jon Heyman, is power to them,'' Schilling told ESPN.com. "That's how it works when you give weak people power. They want to 'hold it over me' or something like that? Please. An arbitrary process done by some of the most vindictive and spiteful humans I've ever known? One I stopped having control over nine years ago?
"I sleep fine. My three World Series rings, trophies and 20-some years of amazing memories are all mine, and always will be.''
Passing the "character'' test
It would be challenging enough to assess Schilling's candidacy based strictly on the numbers. But ancillary factors muck up the debate.
• The Hall of Fame rules allow writers to vote for 10 candidates per ballot. With the recent elections of Bud Selig and Tony La Russa -- a former commissioner and former manager who were in positions of power during the height of the PED era -- some voters have indicated they'll take a less stringent approach to players who were steroid offenders. If more voters shift toward Bonds, Clemens and other players with steroid baggage, the simple math says they'll have less room for Schilling and other candidates they perceive as borderline.
"This year, I felt there were more deserving candidates than I had space for on the ballot," said Houston-based voter Jim Molony, one of the 12 who flipped on Schilling. "Since we're allowed 10 or fewer, it came down to numbers. I did not feel Schilling was one of the 10 best on this ballot.''
• Many Schilling supporters will accuse writers of punishing him because of personal grudges or animus. But as Shaughnessy points out, Eddie Murray and Steve Carlton had notoriously adversarial relationships with the media and sailed into Cooperstown on the first try. Shaughnessy voted for Schilling until this year and was a consistent supporter of Jim Rice despite a frequently contentious relationship.
• Schilling proponents routinely contend that it's unfair to punish him for exercising his freedom of speech. But Schilling's freedom-of-speech privileges provided no recourse when ESPN fired him in April for violation of the company's social media policy, and freedom of speech offers no protection when writers cast their Hall of Fame ballots.
• As the letter from the Hall of Fame clearly states, "Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.''
Dejan Kovacevic, a Pittsburgh-based voter and writer, subtracted Schilling this year because he thought the pitcher's behavior, "especially in recent years, represents the antithesis of the character clause that the Hall and BBWAA continue to instruct voters to honor.''
"None of this would ever come into play, even PEDs, if the Hall and/or Major League Baseball simply dropped the character clause,'' Kovacevic told ESPN.com. "The Pro Football Hall of Fame doesn't have one, and even O.J. Simpson is still enshrined in Canton. If that's what's decided, that's the guideline I'll follow without complaint.''
Still, as Kovacevic and others concede, it's hard for writers to know where to draw the line. Tim Raines, a good bet to make the Hall of Fame in his final appearance on the ballot, admitted during the Pittsburgh drug trials in the early 1980s that he used cocaine while playing for the Montreal Expos. Paul Molitor also used cocaine early in his big league career with the Milwaukee Brewers. If those players are excused for transgressions that took place while they were in uniform, why should Schilling be penalized for expressing controversial opinions long after his retirement as a player?
• A recent Hall of Fame rule change might not affect the result for Schilling this year, but it will make voters more accountable for their decisions. Two weeks ago, the BBWAA voted to make all ballots public for the first time next year.
The change is particularly relevant to Schilling. According to Thibodaux, Schilling polled at 58.7 percent among voters who made their ballots public last year and only 36.9 percent among writers who kept their ballots private. That 21.8 percent gap was the largest for any player on the ballot a year ago.
One reasonable assumption: It's easier to vote no on Schilling for non-baseball reasons if that decision isn't subject to public scrutiny. Voters who say no to Schilling in the years to come will no longer have that luxury.
Passionate or angry?
During Schilling's 20-year playing career, it was hard to imagine him having trouble passing muster on the "character'' clause. Schilling won the Roberto Clemente Award, Branch Rickey Award, Hutch Award, Sporting News Good Guy of the Year award, Lou Gehrig Award, Babe Ruth Award, Worth Magazine's Young Benefactor of the Year award and the designation of "Most Caring Athlete'' from USA Today. He was also a tireless advocate for veterans' causes and a champion in the fight against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's Disease. In describing Schilling's work ethic, Pedro Martinez once called him "the most prepared pitcher I ever played with."
Yet the media's perception of Schilling has changed drastically since his playing career ended.
"I have voted for Schilling and will continue to vote for him, no matter how many dumb or offensive things he says,'' said Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports. "I will add this, though: I've known him since he debuted with the Orioles in 1988 and always have had a good relationship with him -- better than most writers, I guess. Some of his comments have been extremely disappointing to me. I would like to shake him and ask, 'What the hell are you thinking?'"
"I am opinionated. I am passionate. Do I say things before I think? Absolutely, always have. But I've never in my life uttered a racist comment in ANY way shape or form. I've never TRIED to make someone feel bad about themselves, except bullies."
On his Twitter account, Schilling makes liberal use of the words "scumbag" and "idiot" to describe people with dissenting points of view. That combativeness is puzzling to Hall of Fame voter Richard Justice, who also covered Schilling in Baltimore in the late 1980s.
"I've voted for him every year and did so again this time," Justice said. "[But I'm] more hesitant in the wake of his tweet in which he seemed to advocate murdering journalists. That was so over the top I couldn't take it seriously. I've known the guy a long time and barely recognize the angry man he has become."
Schilling, in his defense, said he will push hard in expressing his views.
"The writers who commented on my 'angry' post-career life? They don't listen to my show," he said. "I am not angry, not even a little bit. I hate bullies, and I hate people who make other people feel bad on purpose. Clemens? Bonds? They ruined people's lives to keep their legacies, which they eventually lost. I've never in my life done, nor will do, anything remotely close to something like that.
"I know who I am, and this has been an amazing teaching opportunity for my children, and especially my three sons. They know me, so when they read about 'racism' and the other bulls--- people spew, it affords us a ton of opportunity to talk about how the real world works."
Amid an emotionally charged debate that routinely drifts off course, writers with more moderate views can find it difficult to step back and assess the big picture. Susan Slusser, longtime San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer, has voted for Schilling in the past, but she is still deciding on her course of action this year.
"I understand he says he was 'joking,' but lynching doesn't really meet even my very, very low bar for humor standards," Slusser said by email. "Combined with his other faux pas, I might skip him this year at the very least, especially with a crowded ballot. He hasn't done himself many favors from the character-clause standpoint.
"I can see leaving him off a year or two and returning to vote for him at some date. He's done some pretty iffy things, but I also loved the way he stuck up for his daughter when she was harassed [on Twitter]. Like us all, he's got more layers to him than just the one that keeps landing him in trouble. But he doesn't make it easy.''
In an atmosphere more conducive to knee-jerk assumptions than peeling back layers, Schilling is easy to label but difficult to judge. He has a 10-year window to reach the Hall of Fame. Notwithstanding his fondness for getting in the last word, the voters will have the final say.