Tang Soo Do is a 2,000-year-old Korean martial art that was originally intended as a way for the common people to protect themselves against the sword of the samurai. Its early practitioners could not have foreseen that one day a burly 36-year-old American pitcher would take up the discipline to protect himself against a different threat—the ravages of athletic old age.
But one of the newest students of Tang Soo Do, righthander Curt Schilling, could be found this spring at Tucson Electric Park, practicing his front kicks and hammer fists along with his sliders and split-fingered fastballs. The Diamondbacks, whose postseason hopes rest, as usual, on the pitching arms of Schilling and his fellow aging ace, 39-year-old lefthander Randy Johnson, have to be heartened by the knowledge that both pitchers are being creative in their efforts to make sure that this isn't the year that they finally begin to slip.
In addition to his new interest in the martial arts, during the off-season Schilling took up Pilates and adopted a healthier diet—including more fruit and less red meat—which is why the bit of belly that used to hang over his belt is gone. He reported to camp weighing 227 pounds, about 15 pounds lighter than last season, prompting some of his teammates to joke that he's preparing for a second career as a male model. But Schilling is less concerned with his body's form than with its function. "It's something I guess I've gotten by with, being in less than tremendous physical condition in the past, and I didn't want to push it," he says. "I wanted to change some of my habits to keep my body from breaking down, instead of waiting until after the fact."
Schilling's conditioning role model is the remarkable Johnson, who has averaged 20 wins and 354 strikeouts in his four Cy Young Award-winning seasons with the Diamondbacks. (He also won the award in 1995, when he was with the Mariners.) "The way I see it, I'm heading into the portion of my career that Randy just finished," Schilling says. "He just got done with a four-year run that would compare with anybody's, ever. Why not imitate the best? I'm trying to pick his brain on a lot of different topics."
Johnson, meanwhile, is trying to stay ahead of the curve himself. He plans to have thermal testing done on his shoulder during the season to help determine the optimum time to throw between starts, and he has hired a chiropractor to help him maintain his shoulder strength throughout the season. "You have to always strive to do things that some people might say are kind of risky, to do things that other people aren't doing," Johnson says. "As I get older, I want to maintain what I've had in the past, if not get better. I still don't think I've had my best year."
Arizona would settle for a repeat of last season from Johnson, who had a 24-5 record with a league-leading 2.32 ERA, and Schilling (23-7, 3.23). In the club's annual quest to put together a back of the rotation that can take some of the burden off their pair of aces, the Diamondbacks acquired righthander Elmer Dessens, whose 3.03 ERA with the Reds was the sixth best in the National League last season. The biggest concern about Dessens is his stamina; he averaged fewer than six innings a start in 2002. Righthander Byung-Hyun Kim, the team's closer for the past two seasons, may earn a spot in the rotation as well, as long as Matt Mantei, nearly two years removed from elbow surgery, can reclaim his spot in the bullpen.
At the plate Arizona may be a bit short on power, especially if Craig Counsell beats out Matt Williams for the third base job. For that reason the team is counting on a return to health for two of its biggest run producers, outfielders Luis Gonzalez and Danny Bautista, both of whom had their 2002 seasons cut short by shoulder injuries. They may be joined in the batting order by highly regarded first baseman Lyle Overbay, a gap hitter who batted .343, .342, .352 and .343 in four minor league seasons. He may force 15-year veteran Mark Grace to the bench.
As usual, the Diamondbacks have a strong enough supporting cast to win the division as long as Johnson and Schilling are still good for 40 to 50 wins combined. And thanks largely to their diligence in conditioning, there's every reason to think that they are. Anyone who thinks otherwise had better not tell Schilling. The man knows Tang Soo Do.