BOSTON -- Curt Schilling is many things, some of which seem contradictory, but aren't. He is brave, tough, competitive, but also theatrical and perfectly willing to dramatize his own athletic courage. He's a glory hog who loves the big-game limelight and every curtain call, interview or "Schilling for President" sign that goes with it. Yet he is also universally valued as an almost ideal teammate who would do anything, including risk his pitching future, for the sake of helping his Red Sox win their first World Series since 1918.
In other words, at the very moment when the Red Sox desperately need someone slightly larger than life to rally around, to use as an example and touchstone, if they are going to overcome, ignore and reverse their interminably long history of frustration on the greatest stages, they suddenly have the man for the job: Thrilling Schilling.
That job of team leader and big-game winner is exactly what Schilling signed up for last Thanksgiving. However, it hasn't worked out exactly as he and the Red Sox' brass planned. They thought he would simply win postseason games as he has since 1993 and do it with the same overpowering 97-mph fastball and drop-a-foot splitter that gave him a 21-6 record this year as well as the second-best ERA and third-best strikeout total in the American League. They thought they bought a hoss.
Instead, Boston got a gritty, gimpy six-or-seven-inning pitcher with a bloody ankle and fresh stitches holding tendons to skin. They got a man who woke up at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning, scheduled to pitch Game 2 of the World Series and "couldn't walk, couldn't move. I knew there was a big problem with my ankle." Schilling told his wife, Shonda, "No way am I going to be able to pitch tonight."
Yet he did. "I guarantee you the most surprised person in the ballpark when I went out to warm up was my wife," said Schilling after he had allowed just one unearned run on four hits in six innings to pitch the Red Sox to a 6-2 victory and a two-games-to-none lead in this 100th World Series.
Now it appears that Schilling has, by accident and by ferocious determination, given the Red Sox something they may have needed even more than another superstar. After all, Boston has been loaded with stars since Ted Williams arrived to join Jimmie Foxx in the late 1930s. Little good it has ever done them. The Red Sox have specialized in non-inspirational, or even anti-inspirational stars such as icy, isolated Carl Yastrzemski, surly Jim Rice, superstition-obsessed Wade Boggs and eccentric Manny Ramirez.
For once, the Red Sox have acquired a central figure who provides inspiration and an example. A nasty injury, gruesome enough to make for good melodrama, but medically insignificant enough to allow him to throw a baseball 92 mph to an area the size of his catcher's mitt, has allowed him to bring an extra dimension that Boston has never had. A central player, a lead dog, who has managed to cast himself as the personification of a winner.
Instead of living down to the franchise's past, Schilling is now challenging every teammate to live up to him. "I'm doing what any guy on this team would do," said Schilling. "The environment in our locker room creates an entirely different atmosphere" of closeness. Almost every championship team in every sport cooks up such internal team mythology. But so what? It often works.
If Schilling is hamming it up a bit, and he's smart enough to know the value to the Red Sox of doing just that, if he's constantly "glorifying" his Lord along the way, implying that bonus forces may be in the Red Sox' corner this time around, then it's working very well so far. So why stop now?
If Schilling is milking his story, then he's doing it for a good cause, at least as Red Sox fans see it. "It's a long drive in [to Fenway Park] from where I live," said Schilling. "Every where I look, on fire houses and street corners, there were signs wishing me luck. I got here to the ballpark, got out of the car and went into the training room.
"The staff [decided] that they would put in an extra stitch this time [on Saturday], but it had caught a nerve in my leg. At that point, I honestly didn't think I could possible take the ball," said Schilling, who has had sutures in his ankle for his last two starts so that a tendon will not erratically "snap" over his ankle bone -- many times a game. He'll need surgery after the season. "They took out the extra stitch [in the early afternoon] and it started getting better right away. . . . It changed drastically. I went from hobbling to walking. Then they numbed it up a little. . . . They made it work."
Yankees Manager Joe Torre made it clear that he thought Schilling, consummate tough professional that he is, was not doing significantly more by pitching through the inconvenience of an ankle injury than many other players have done in postseason baseball, where countless players take the field held together by tape and a high pain threshold.
St. Louis Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa says the mandatory complimentary statements about Schilling, but doesn't go overboard. When you've got enough stuff and command to strike out three-time batting champion Larry Walker twice and Jim Edmonds once, and when you can also hang an 0 for 3 on Scott Rolen, you're not a viable candidate for a handicapped parking space.
Schilling, however, is now actually using his injury to inspire his teammates to end this World Series during the three games in St. Louis so that he won't have to pitch again in Game 6. Because he doesn't know if he can. If it's strategy, it's brilliant. If it's just the truth, it's a huge motivational edge to the Red Sox. Even though they are ahead by two games, they can convince themselves that they must win in St. Louis.
"I don't know. I haven't thought about" Game 6, said Schilling, who was hit hard in the first two innings and escaped when a pair of laser line drives went straight to third baseman Kevin Millar to end innings and Cardinals rallies. "I'm a little beat up. For the first time in my life, I feel my age ."
Now, with Schilling perhaps on the shelf, the burden of leadership suddenly falls to Pedro Martinez, who has felt a bit slighted by Schilling's large, sometimes self-serving persona. Martinez now pitches Game 3 on Tuesday, which could give the Red Sox a three-game lead that no team in history has ever overcome -- except one last week. Also, Pedro would be lined up for a Game 7 at home.
At the beginning of this month, it would have been hard for the Red Sox to imagine anything better than Schilling beating the Angels, Yankees and Cardinals in crucial games in separate postseason series. Now, however, he has given them more, even though his statistics are not as special as his norm. Schilling has given the Red Sox a bloody red sock and a saga.
When you haven't won it all since 1918, you need something extra, a rallying point, a symbol. The team that always had an Achilles' heel now has a Schilling ankle. After 86 years, you use whatever works.