Schilling placed pennant over pain

Updated: October 23, 2004, 7:11 PM ET
By Steve Wilstein | Associated Press

BOSTON -- Pitchers have dipped their fingers in pickle brine to ward off blisters, gotten cortisone shots in their shoulders or elbows, had their hamstrings wrapped in yards of tape.

No one in World Series history ever has prepared for a game quite the way Curt Schilling will for the Boston Red Sox in Game 2 against the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday.

Curt Schilling
Getty ImagesThe sutures in Curt Schilling's ankle leaked during his seven-inning performance in Game 6.
No one else, of course, ever had a dislocated ankle tendon sutured temporarily into place by stitching the skin to the deep tissue below it, much less had gone ahead to do it a second time less than a week later to pitch in a game of this magnitude.

Schilling underwent that unique procedure, conceived by team medical director Dr. Bill Morgan, before holding the New York Yankees to four hits and one run in seven innings in Game 6 of the ALCS. The spot of leaking blood on his sock gave new meaning to Red Sox and elevated him to a special place in team lore.

Jim Lonborg, a large part of that lore, has an appreciation for pitching greatness and medical creativity.

The last man to throw a complete-game one hitter in the World Series -- coincidentally the last time his Red Sox played the Cardinals for the championship in 1967 -- Dr. Lonborg went to school for premed and is in his 21st year as a dentist after 15 years in the majors.

When Schilling takes the mound Sunday, Lonborg knows he will be seeing something extraordinary.

"Watching Curt in that game a few days ago, I think that was one of the gutsiest performances I've ever seen,'' Lonborg said. "I don't know as a pitcher that I would be able to stay in the kind of groove that he's been able to maintain. But he's probably been able to identify his pitching motion and the components of it to the point where he knows exactly what he has to do to make good deliveries. He's really been able to focus on that.

"It's such a feather in Dr. Morgan's cap to be able to come up with that, to have the imagination to remedy the problem with that tendon that was flopping around down there. It's just absolutely phenomenal that a few sutures could create such a wonderful feeling for Curt to be able to pitch. It's the simplest of procedures, but it's also very innovative. Dr. Morgan just got a great brainstorm and he went with it.''

One obstacle for Morgan was that he had never performed such a procedure and didn't know of anyone else who had who could be consulted. So to test his theory, he tried it out on human cadaver legs. Convinced it would work, Morgan quickly got an eager Schilling to buy into the idea, with the assurance that it shouldn't damage his ankle any further.

The sheath surrounding one of Schilling's tendons across the back of the ankle had ruptured, allowing the tendon to slip out of its groove. The tendon kept snapping against the bone when Schilling pitched, and lost, in the opener against the Yankees. To repair the sheath, Schilling will require surgery after the season. Morgan's solution was to do something that would help Schilling right now.

Although it seems extreme -- we couldn't find a case of it ever having been done before -- we thought it was almost a conservative approach in that it would be the best way for Curt to have his normal mechanics.
Theo Epstein, Red Sox GM
"We were going to do it as a last-ditch scenario,'' Boston general manager Theo Epstein said. "Although it seems extreme -- we couldn't find a case of it ever having been done before -- we thought it was almost a conservative approach in that it would be the best way for Curt to have his normal mechanics.''

The sutures Schilling had last Monday were taken out after Tuesday's game to prevent infection. New ones will be sewn in before he pitches against the Cardinals in Game 2 and, possibly, Game 6 or 7.

Schilling's performance against the Yankees was reminiscent of Kirk Gibson's pinch-hit, game-winning homer with a leg injury, and his limping, fist-pumping trot around the bases as the Los Angeles Dodgers beat Oakland in 1988. As Hollywoodesque as that moment was, it required only one swing by Gibson, not seven innings of play.

Yet moments like those, in the spotlight of the World Series, a Super Bowl, an NBA championship or an Olympics, come to define an athlete and overshadow the rest of his or her career. Willis Reed is still remembered for the way he limped onto the court to help the New York Knicks win in 1970.

Schilling, who led the majors with 21 victories this year at age 37, was well on his way to the Hall of Fame before he pitched on his bum ankle. He's among the active major league leaders in career strikeouts and complete games. He was the MVP of the 1993 NLCS for Philadelphia and was co-MVP with Arizona teammate Randy Johnson in 2001. This postseason will enhance Schilling's stature far beyond those achievements.

Schilling has long been famous for game preparation that borders on obsessiveness. He has handwritten notebooks filled with batters' tendencies that he studies in the dugout on game days. For years, he has mailed videotapes of each outing to a company that transfers them to compact discs so he can view them on his laptop computer.

He has a video library with dozens of discs that catalogue every pitch he's ever thrown. On the road, he studies them in his hotel room. He even tracks each umpire's strike zone.

Now he's taking preparation to a new level, making medical history in a bid to make baseball history by helping the Red Sox win a World Series for the first time in 86 years.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org.


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

ALSO SEE