PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Three-time World Series champion Curt Schilling was always more than a big-league pitcher.
He blogged, called into talk radio to sound off on sports or politics, campaigned for Republican candidates, immersed himself in World War II history, raised millions for Lou Gehrig’s disease — and passionately played video games.
It was a hobby that became a second career as the 45-year-old Schilling entered a long-shot business every bit as competitive as major league baseball. And now the venture is in danger of failing.
His video game company, 38 Studios, laid off its entire staff in Rhode Island and Maryland last month, including 300 people who worked in Providence. If it folds, Rhode Island taxpayers may have to pick up the tab on a $75 million loan guarantee that lured 38 Studios from Massachusetts.
Some of those who know the former pitcher say he brought to the business the same single-minded focus — and the same big ego — that he showed during his playing days.
“He became a sports superstar and was there through one of the great moments in New England sports history. However, at the end of the day, he was still the same guy who thought he knew more than anybody else,” said Bob Lobel, a former sportscaster at WBZ-TV in Boston. “To me, he wasn’t smart enough to know what he didn’t know. You got to know what you don’t know.”
The company’s misfortunes have opened Schilling to allegations of hypocrisy, given his conservative politics and his recent plea for millions of dollars more from the state to save the business. Schilling called for smaller government when he campaigned for Republicans such as George W. Bush, John McCain and Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown.
“Smaller government? Call me crazy, but I’m betting that wasn’t exactly what Schilling was extolling when he sat behind closed doors … pleading with the members of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corp. to put more public money behind his fantasy video game venture,” wrote Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory.
“Apparently smaller government, in Schilling’s world, applies to other people, maybe city kids stuck in underperforming schools or disabled adults looking for help back and forth to medical appointments.”
Schilling is considered one of baseball’s all-time great postseason pitchers, having won World Series games with three teams.
He secured his place in Red Sox legend when he pitched with an injured ankle that stained his sock with blood in Game 6 of the 2004 American League Championship Series. The Red Sox ultimately beat the New York Yankees and went on to win their first World Series in 86 years. Schilling’s bloody sock came to represent resilience in the face of overwhelming odds. Over his two-decade career, he also pitched for Baltimore, Houston, Philadelphia and Arizona.
Schilling’s heroics on the field were accompanied by a one-man show off the mound that Lobel said led to an oft-repeated observation.
“On the day that he pitched, people would say that he was a horse, meaning that he was strong and durable and you could ride him into the winner’s circle. On the other four days, the between days, he was a horse’s ass,” Lobel said.
Schilling used to talk about how he wanted to make video games when he left baseball, and he was still playing for the Red Sox when he established 38 Studios in 2006, naming it for his uniform number. He assembled a team that included fantasy author R.A. Salvatore, comic book artist Todd McFarlane and video game designer Ken Rolston.
The opinionated and outspoken Schilling brought to the business a reputation for pursuing his interests with everything he’s got.
“There is a determination factor in everything he does,” said former Boston Red Sox teammate Mike Timlin. “To get to the level we played at you have to have a certain determination. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t give up easily.”
In 2009, 38 Studios acquired Maryland-based Big Huge Games, which worked on the game “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.” The game was released in February to good reviews. Schilling said it has sold 1.2 million copies.
In Providence, where the company moved after getting the loan guarantee in 2010, 38 Studios worked on a huge multiplayer online game codenamed Copernicus.
Former 38 Studios audio director Aubrey Hodges said Schilling listened when it came to the video game industry.
“He’s fiercely intelligent, but in this environment he knew to rely on people with expertise,” he said. “He’d come into your office and watch what you were working on and say, ‘Wow, this is really cool.’ He was like a kid.”
The financial problems at 38 Studios became public last month after the company missed a $1.1 million payment to the state and couldn’t make payroll. The state returned a check from the company because 38 Studios did not have the money to cover it. The money was later paid.
Schilling told The Providence Journal that he has invested $50 million in the business and faces possible financial ruin if it collapses. 38 Studios asked for millions more in tax incentives from Rhode Island as it struggled to stay afloat, a request that led to accusations that the company was looking for a bailout.
“I have done whatever I can do to create jobs and create a successful business, with my own income,” he told the newspaper. “I’ve never taken a penny and I’ve done nothing but create jobs and create economy. And so how does that translate into welfare baby? I’ve tried to do right by people.”
Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent, opposed the loan guarantee for 38 Studios as a candidate for governor. As for the extra tax credits, Chafee said Schilling’s company may be entitled to them, but he is against further investment of public money.
“I give him all his credit as a baseball player,” the governor said. But “I’m like anybody doing business. I’m looking out for my interests, in this case the taxpayers. That’s what business is all about.”
Schilling has not responded to requests for comment from The Associated Press.
“He is taking a huge hit personally, politically, financially and publicly,” said his friend Scott Johnson, a cartoonist and illustrator.
The situation has saddened people who know Schilling from his charitable efforts, particularly in the world of Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS.
Ellyn Phillips, president of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the ALS Association, recalled meeting Schilling in 1992 when he was playing for the Phillies. Phillips said it was Schilling and his wife, Shonda, who came up with the idea of raising money by getting people to donate for every strikeout he racked up. Phillips was thrilled.
“I was just like, ‘Wow. They’re really involved. They’re the real thing,'” Phillips said.
Schilling’s friends said Rhode Island shouldn’t give up on 38 Studios yet.
“He’s shown true grit, talent and a willingness to take it to the end,” Johnson said. “We haven’t seen the end yet with 38 Studios. He’s not the kind of guy to just roll over. The ankle is bleeding. So now what?”