By Jon Lane
Curt Schilling officially retired today after 20 seasons in baseball. He leaves with a rap sheet of conflicts with players and media a mile long, but I’m not talking about that here. Rather, I recall the night when his grit and guts transformed him to one of the greatest impact players in the game’s history.
I begin with the afternoon of Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS. I’m standing on the field at Fenway Park figuring out my next move when Kevin Millar comes out of the dugout and heads towards the outfield for a workout. The Red Sox were down 3-0 to the Yankees and their dubious history was about to strangle them for the 87th consecutive year. The tension around the team and the city was palpable … or so it seemed.
In response to an inquiry, Millar turned to me and a few of us hanging out behind the first base line. Wearing that infectious — and in this case a devious — smile, Millar said, and I paraphrase, “These guys [the Yankees] had better win tonight. Or else we have Pedro [Martinez] in Game 5 and Schill in Game 6. Once it’s 3-3 anything can happen!” Of course, this eventually became part of Boston lore, but me and this small group of writers were the first to hear it.
The Red Sox won the next two games beginning with a Game 4 rally that started when Mariano Rivera walked Millar to lead off the bottom of the ninth ahead by a run. We’re back in New York for Game 6 and a showdown between Schilling and Jon Leiber, the Yankees’ best postseason starter that October. The Yankees smashed Schilling for six runs in three innings in Game 1. As it turned out, Schilling pitched with a loose tendon in his right ankle and his status for the rest of the series was in doubt. The next few days, Red Sox manager Terry Francona was peppered with inquires as rumors persisted Schilling would give it a go if the series were to extend to six games. When the pieces were put together, a surgical procedure done by the team doctor sutured the loose tendon and Schilling was on the mound for another of one of the Red Sox’s infinite do-or-die games.
Blood seeping through his sock during the game, all Schilling did was pitch seven innings of one-run ball to carry Boston to a 4-2 win, one that wasn’t secured until closer Keith Foulke struck out Tony Clark with two runners on in the bottom of the ninth. Like many of his teammates, Schilling talked tough, standing up to the Yankees’ mystique and aura tag-team, and backed up every word.
Schilling finishes 216-146 with a 3.46 ERA and 3,116 strikeouts, 14th on baseball’s all-time list. Much more important are his postseason numbers: 11-2 (the finest of any pitcher with at least 10 decisions) and 2.23 ERA in 19 career starts. The sock lives in the Hall of Fame. Sock, blood and right foot will reunite in five years. You can love, loathe or not give a damn about Curt Schilling, but you cannot deny his courage and grace under pressure.