The blood, a bright crimson upon pure white, seeped into the sanitary sock of Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling around his right ankle, like stigmata for true believers in the fanatical church of Boston baseball. His wounds were real, as real as those of New England baseball fans over the past 86 unfulfilled years; Schilling's ankle was so badly mangled that he would have been undergoing surgery and a three-month rehabilitation if not for the little matter of pitching Game 2 of the World Series. He felt their pain, and they his. In Schilling they found the ultimate Red Sock. ¬∂ Only by way of modern medicine and prayer, and over someone's dead body--no, not the Bambino's (for those of you who are metaphysically inclined)--did Schilling make it to the mound on Sunday night against the St. Louis Cardinals. And even then he did so after telling his wife that morning that he was in too much pain to pitch, and after pitching coach Dave Wallace told righthander Derek Lowe that afternoon to prepare to take Schilling's turn. Schilling not only made his start, but he also made history, placing himself among a hamstrung Kirk Gibson in 1988, an overworked Sandy Koufax in 1965 and a hung-over Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1926 as the most gallant competitors in World Series lore. ¬∂ The first two games of the 100th World Series were a jumble of baserunning and fielding gaffes that crossed into the comedic. But Schilling, despite pitching on one good leg and injuring his right hip, gave the Series ballast with six innings in which he allowed only an unearned run. The other three starting pitchers in the first two games were gone by the fifth, as they allowed a combined 16 runs in 10 1/3 innings.
"What he did puts him with Gibson, Koufax and those guys," Wallace said of Schilling. "Those guys are in a different class from all the others. You saw it. He's right with them."
Eleven months ago, when the Red Sox arranged a conditional trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks for Schilling, the righthander told Boston G.M. Theo Epstein that he wanted a two-year contract extension worth $28 million to approve the trade. Epstein offered $25.5 million. Schilling came up with a proposal to bridge most of the gap: The Red Sox would pay him $2 million if they won the World Series while he was on the active roster. Epstein agreed, though team-based incentive bonuses are not permitted in baseball.
Epstein submitted the contract for approval to the commissioner's office with the bonus written as an escalator clause; the $2 million would be added to Schilling's salary the next season if the Sox won it all. Baseball officials approved the contract but realized the next day that it included that forbidden incentive. By then it was too late to undo the deal.
The Red Sox, quite infamously, have not won the World Series since 1918, when Babe Ruth was in their rotation. After Boston won the highest-scoring Game 1 ever last Saturday, 11--9, Schilling willed the Sox to within two wins of that elusive championship with a 6--2 victory in Game 2. Only one other pitcher had given Boston a two-games-to-none World Series lead at home: Ruth in 1916. Of curse.
"It's at the top of the list among all the games I've pitched," Schilling said after Game 2. "Just because of all that happened, who it was against and what it meant."
Five days earlier, when the stigmata first appeared, Schilling, 37, allowed New York one run over seven innings at Yankee Stadium to win Game 6 of the American League Championship Series 4--2. "To me," Red Sox first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said that night, "that's got to go down as the guttiest pitching performance in the history of the game." The next day Boston finished the first comeback in baseball history from a three-games-to-none deficit.
"That," Schilling said of Game 6, "doesn't even compare to this."
Schilling was in worse shape against the Cards. He had pitched much of the year with ankle soreness but suffered a more serious injury on Sept. 26. A tendon, the peroneus brevis, that runs around the back of the ankle to the bottom of the foot was displaced because the sheath that holds it had torn. Even walking made the tendon snap back and forth, like a guitar string, over the ankle. Pained and distracted by the popping sensation, Schilling was rocked for six runs in three innings in Game 1 of the ALCS and vowed not to pitch again in that condition.
Team doctor Bill Morgan tried several splints and braces to secure the tendon. A shoe company custom-built a high-topped spike. Nothing worked. Then Morgan had an idea: What if he used sutures to keep the tendon from moving, stitching the skin to some tendon tissue, creating a kind of a wall that would keep the misbehaving tendon in the displaced position in front of the ankle?
"Nothing like it had been tried before," Morgan says. "You don't see this kind of injury in baseball to begin with. You see it in volleyball and gymnastics. And the remedy is to [immediately] immobilize it and subsequently [to perform] surgery. That wasn't an option with Curt."
Morgan needed to try out this procedure he'd invented on the fly, so he used a cadaver, confirming that the Sox's pursuit of a world championship had once again become a matter of life and death. Given Boston's pathological obsession with the team--Game 7 of the ALCS was viewed on 87% of the TVs turned on in the city that night--perhaps the devotion of one Sox fan extended beyond his last breath. After testing the procedure Morgan was convinced that it could work, though he wasn't sure how it would hold up under the stress of pitching.
On the eve of ALCS Game 6, Morgan used a new polyblend material, FiberWire 2.0, for three sutures in Schilling's ankle. Though one stitch broke and blood oozed from the wound and from the spot where Schilling was given a shot of anesthetic, the sutures worked as Morgan intended. He removed them after the game to reduce the risk of infection.
"It was an out-of-body experience," says Schilling. "I feed off the crowd's energy, even on the road, and that night I wasn't even aware of the crowd. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before."
As he spoke, seated in front of his locker at Fenway Park, Schilling pulled a compression wrap around his ankle and then strapped on an orthotic boot brace. It was 8 p.m. last Friday, and he had just finished a two-hour meeting with Red Sox scouts and team officials to break down the Cardinals. At his side were three large, worn spiral notebooks, each with dog-eared pages and a year written on the cover. Schilling writes a specific game plan for every hitter in every one of his starts. After the game he notes any changes or observations. He had pored over the notebooks to review his past starts against St. Louis.
That night at his Medfield, Mass., home, Schilling culled from his computerized video database "every at bat every Cardinal has ever had against me." He also watched a tape of how Houston Astros ace Roger Clemens had pitched against St. Louis in Game 7 of the NLCS two days earlier.
"I've been leaning on Roger all season long, watching tapes [of him]," Schilling said.
Clemens, the former Red Sox ace, already had contributed unwittingly to Boston's championship effort by getting waxed for six runs in one inning at the All-Star Game, a loss that gave the AL home field advantage for the World Series. Now, as Schilling's pitching doppelg√§nger--they both rely on high fastballs and biting splitters--Clemens was abetting his former team once again.
Last Saturday, Schilling began to formulate a game plan in his notebook. That afternoon, in a trainer's room adjacent to the clubhouse, Morgan sewed Schilling's ankle in preparation for his start. This time he used a fourth suture for more stability.
The Red Sox and the Cardinals then proceeded to show why the traditional October emphasis on pitching and defense often does not apply in this power era. They combined for a whopping 42 runners and made five errors, including one by Boston leftfielder Manny Ramirez when he stumbled awkwardly on an unnecessary attempt at a diving catch, allowing St. Louis to tie the game at nine in the eighth. When he returned to the dugout, Ramirez deadpanned to teammate Dave Roberts, "Snipers got me."
St. Louis shortstop Edgar Renteria botched a play of his own, a grounder to his backhand, in the bottom of that inning. After 317 outs this postseason, it was the first time the Cardinals had allowed a runner to reach base on an error. The next batter, Mark Bellhorn, ripped the game-winning homer off the screen attached to the rightfield foul pole. It was his third straight postseason game with a homer, the first such streak by a second baseman.
The 11--9 opener marked only the fifth time in 585 World Series games that a team scored nine runs or more and lost. All four previous teams lost the Series. It was also the eighth Series game ever with at least 20 runs. (Only two of those came in the first 507 games, and six in the last 78, since 1989.)
Schilling went to bed at 2:30 a.m. but was awakened just 4 1/2 hours later with pain throughout his lower right leg. He could not walk without a pronounced limp. "Honey," he told his wife, Shonda, "I can't pitch like this today. They'll have to use someone else."
He alerted the team's trainers that he was ailing before he jumped into his black Navigator at about 1 p.m. and drove to the ballpark. "I left thinking I wasn't going to be able to pitch," he said. "As I was driving to the ballpark I passed all these signs: we're behind you curt. good luck curt. A firehouse had one of them. I didn't want to let them down."
After Schilling hobbled into the clubhouse at Fenway, Wallace told Lowe, scheduled to be the Game 4 starter, "You're on standby. Hang loose."
Catcher Jason Varitek did not know until after the game that Schilling was nearly unable to start. "Really?" he said. "All I can say is, Wow."
Morgan examined Schilling and quickly found the problem: One of the sutures had hit a nerve. When the doctor removed it, Schilling felt almost immediate relief.
"When I went out to warm up," he said, "I guarantee you my wife was the most surprised person in the ballpark."
The game was played under eerie conditions, with a windblown mist enveloping the ancient ballpark. It was baseball noir, and the Cardinals were the worse for it. Their pitchers, starting with Matt Morris on three days' rest, walked six batters and hit two others--among the 16 Sox to reach base in the two games without need of a hit--and allowed all six runs on two-out hits.
Schilling began the game popping his fastball as hard as 94 mph, but in the second inning he strained his right hip. Unable to get a full extension or follow-through on his pitches, he resorted to a stream of cutters, splitters and curves interrupted only occasionally by weak fastballs. St. Louis scored off Schilling only after third baseman Bill Mueller made the second of his record-tying three errors, in the fourth inning.
"He's a great pitcher," Cardinals third baseman Scott Rolen said. "The fourth or fifth he really started struggling, but he got through that with good pitches and good location."
After six innings he was in too much pain from the hip to continue. That was enough, though, to make him the first pitcher to win World Series starts with three teams. (He had previously done so for the Philadelphia Phillies, in 1993, and Arizona, in 2001.) He improved his postseason record to 8--2 with a 2.06 ERA.
Afterward, his right ankle would not support him, and he had to use his left arm to brace himself against a locker in order to get his left leg into his pants. A motorized cart carried him to his postgame news conference, where he described it all as "Just the most amazing day of my life."
He hobbled out of the room when he was done and then--gingerly, grasping the railing and moving as slowly and stiffly as an elderly man might--descended a flight of stairs. Before he hopped back into the motorized cart, he said, "What happened out there was a blessing--like it was supposed to happen."
And how did he feel now that it was over? "Like I've been beat to s---," he said, and stiffly folded himself into the seat.
Three hundred years ago, long before Fenway or the curse or this cult called Red Sox Nation, the English poet John Philips, in a poem called Splendid Shilling, wrote, "Happy the man who void of cares and strife/in silken, or in leathern purse retains/a splendid shilling...."
Two wins from the first world championship in all but the longest of lifetimes, the Nation was happy. Schilling was splendid.
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