Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

Curt Schilling will be focused on the Red Sox and Yankees Sunday night as part of his job as an ESPN analyst, but that is not all he will be thinking about in the TV booth at Yankee Stadium.

It will mark the first anniversary of the end of radiation and chemotherapy treatment for the mouth cancer that was diagnosed in February 2014 and delayed his joining the "Sunday Night Baseball" crew.

"It feels like it's been 15 years," the six-time All-Star pitcher and three-time World Series champion said Thursday.

Schilling isn't quite as good as new, with lingering problems that include his ability to taste food normally, "but it's nothing I can't handle.''

Doctors feel good about his progress and prognosis and he is optimistic, as always. But Schilling knows there are no promises.

"They really don't diagnose cures until you're about five years out," he said.

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In the meantime, there is work to do, starting with the Sunday night gig, ESPN's highest-profile baseball assignment.

This week it brings him to the scene of one of his finest moments, when he helped the Red Sox defeat the Yankees in Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS despite an injured, bleeding ankle that caused him to ruin a previously clean white sock.

Schilling arrives having already stirred things up with Yankees-related thoughts, in particular Masahiro Tanaka, whom he has publicly urged to undergo Tommy John surgery to repair his throwing elbow.

"If he truly has the small [ligament] tear, I've never really seen more than 1 or 2 percent of the people actually heal from it without surgery," he said.

The key, Schilling said, is whether Tanaka spends his time between starts preparing strategically for his next outing or merely preparing physically to withstand another game.


"What I did as a pitcher, what they do as pitchers, is so destructive on your shoulder and elbow that the challenge is going to be, and this is a big one for me: What's he doing between starts?" Schilling said.

"Is he getting ready for his next start or trying to make himself feel good so he can pitch again? Because those are two completely different lives. I've done both.

"When you're healthy and getting ready for that next start, your focus is on pitch selection and yada, yada, yada. When you're not, you're not throwing a bullpen or throwing a light bullpen and you're in the training room trying to make sure physically you can take the ball again, that's such a different life.

"It's a high-wire act, and generally most people fall off that high wire when they do it."

It frustrates Schilling that many people assume he is rooting against a player such as Tanaka when he says such things.

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"I'm a baseball fan," he said. "What he did last year, I want to see more of. I love watching great pitchers pitch and he's in that category, so I want him to be healthy. That's why I wanted him to have surgery so badly right away."

Speaking of high-priced Yankees stars, Schilling said that during spring training, he met briefly with Alex Rodriguez and apologized to him for the harsh criticism he has aimed at him in the past.

"I'm happy that he's healthy," Schilling said. "I want him to do well. I want him to walk away with his head up. I don't wish how he feels on anybody.

"I think there are a lot of things I've said over the years that have not made it easy on him, things I shouldn't have said. Things that were personal. I disliked the player, but that's nothing new. You dislike a lot of guys you play against. But I think I made it out to be far more than I ever should have."

Schilling said he could relate to Rodriguez having to explain himself to his children because he recalled having to discuss with his family the spectacularly costly failure in 2012 of his gaming company, 38 Studios.

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"That's a very hard conversation," he said, "but I think it's also one you have to have, because you want your kids to be accountable and you have to be accountable yourself."

Schilling said he loved the open letter Rodriguez wrote upon his return to eligibility over the winter.

"Basically, there's nothing else he could have said that would have been any better. It was, 'Hey, I did it, I'm sorry, I know you're not going to believe me, and you shouldn't.' It was simple. I didn't feel like it was staged."

In baseball terms, Schilling said A-Rod "looks fine" and in any case is "the least of the Yankees' worries. I don't know that you can touch that roster or point to a player and not say 'if,' except for [Jacoby] Ellsbury and maybe [Brett] Gardner."

"It seems like every single player on that roster is well, this guy could be, 'if' and this guy could be 'if.' [Mark] Teixeira, [CC] Sabathia, [Dellin] Betances, all of them. [Carlos] Beltran.

"If all the cards fall right they'll be all right, but every one of those dominoes has to fall in the right direction, and that's why I think it's going to be a challenge for them this year."

Schilling spoke Thursday as Matt Harvey was putting the finishing touches on six scoreless innings in his first regular-season start since 2013. No "ifs" there.

"I saw him in spring training, and holy [expletive]," Schilling said. "I'm telling you, people think I'm an idiot, but if I was recruiting a team and I started a rotation, that would be my number one."

A big part of why Schilling feels that way is Harvey's makeup. "Think about all the true number ones you know, or knew," he said. "They are all different, right? [Roger] Clemens, Pedro Martinez, number ones are different mentally and physically. Way more mentally than physically, though."

That is particularly important in New York and Boston.

"It does one of two things: It either separates the men from the boys or cuts your legs out from under you," Schilling said. "There are a lot of guys who can't handle, first off, the expectations, but then you put them in New York or Boston and there are expectations on top of expectations, and they can't deal with it."

Before turning his attention to baseball during the offseason, Schilling made headlines for taking a stand that for him was a rarity: Pretty much everyone agreed with him.

"I think every blind squirrel finds a nut," he said.

The occasion was an all-out assault on Twitter trolls who posted vulgar and graphic comments about his daughter, Gabby, after he congratulated her for choosing a college softball program. Among those he outed was a part-time Yankees ticket-taker whom the team fired.

"There is no possible way to look at what happened as a parent of a child in any way other than being sick and disgusted," Schilling said. "I was surprised at how many people came out and said this has been happening to me and I'm glad you finally did something about it."

The fact that on this occasion Schilling was widely hailed for his stand merely was incidental.

"Obviously, I'm a very opinionated guy," he said. "I think people mistake that a lot of times for that I think I'm [always] right. My opinion is my opinion. It doesn't make me right. It just makes me me.

"A lot of adults were like, 'Oh, I just ignore Facebook and I don't go on Twitter,' which is fine, but your kids are and they will, and that's where they're going to grow up. You can deny its existence and not be a part of it, which is a lot of people's choice, and that's fine, but it's where your kids are growing up, whether you like it or not."

Schilling remains active on Twitter himself.

"I refuse to allow people I don't know to dictate things in my life," he said. "No one should do that, ever. I gave every one of these kids that I actually went after a second chance, every one of them, and they didn't let up, so I pushed that outside the envelope. But I'm not going to let these people dictate.

"If I feel like being on Twitter, I will. If I don't feel like being on Twitter, I won't. I've always believed in everything in my life I've got to be who I'm going to be and try to enjoy what I'm doing or be the best at what I can do regardless of what people I don't know think about me."

He knows there is no shortage of mean-spiritedness aimed at him on social media, even if, he insisted, most of the things written and said "aren't true. But I don't wish bad on people. It doesn't mean I haven't made mistakes. It doesn't mean I haven't said stupid stuff. It doesn't mean I'm not going to say stupid stuff, because I probably am, because I have an opinion on everything.

"But if you don't want my opinion, don't ask."

Schilling said working the big stage on Sunday nights does not feel different to him than any other TV assignment. Just as when he pitched, he treated every outing the same.

"I just like to talk about pitching," he said. "I know it sounds arrogant and I don't mean it that way, but I feel like there's nobody on the planet who knows more about pitching than I do. I lived and breathed pitching 24/7/365 for 20 years. It was everything I thought about."

Schilling says cancer has not changed his outlook on life. Working to support sufferers of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) for 20 years already had given him more than enough insight into the harsh realities of life-threatening illness.

"Somebody said to me early on, 'Wow, doesn't this put things into perspective for you?' I said, 'No, I already had perspective. I didn't need to get cancer, and no one should need to get cancer, to get perspective.'

"I'm human. I have flaws. There are things I wish I could do better. Things I wish I had done better. But I've done everything I can to be as good as I can be when I had a chance to do it."