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 dusrup, had renewed hostilities.
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 Yan kees 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 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-l 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.