Commentary

Schilling lives for spotlight with season on the line

Originally Published: October 20, 2007
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- The flash points for tonight's Game 6 of the American League Championship Series are plentiful. Cleveland manager Eric Wedge is angry with his team's offensive approach in Game 5's 7-1 loss to Josh Beckett and the Red Sox. Fausto Carmona, the Indians' 19-game winner who couldn't find the strike zone or the way out of the fifth inning in Game 2 at Fenway Park, is perhaps most intriguing of all, and his rise to the challenge of becoming a true October pitcher would do much to end the suspense of this series once and for all.

ALCS

Indians-Red Sox
series page
But leave it to Curt Schilling, who will start Saturday night for the Red Sox at Fenway Park with Boston facing elimination for a second consecutive game, to distill his place at the center down to its essence.

"It's very simple now. I go out and do my job and we win, or I don't and we lose," Schilling said Friday. "I don't think that's too much pressure or too little. It's just reality.

"We put ourselves in this position and I helped put us in this position, for better or worse. I've got the ball tomorrow, and if I can do what I know I'm capable of doing and can execute, we can win. And if I don't, then it's going to be very, very tough."

Schilling is one of the last great gunslingers left, a player with an outsized sense of legacy thanks both to his previous October exploits and his rare desire to increase the importance of his moments in a sporting world where players and coaches and managers instinctively attempt to downplay even the most important games. Schilling, instead, craves the stage and the result is a thrilling sense of theater, highlighted by his 2004 Game 6 performance at Yankee Stadium, the infamous Bloody Sock game.

Schilling in October does not merely perform, but he becomes part of the lore. In this sense, he is no different from Reggie Jackson in his gift and lust for the stage. The acceptance of -- no, the desire for -- star power is a quality sorely lacking in today's game. It is, after all, a game of characters. While Beckett was brilliant Thursday, striking out 11 in eight innings, he accepted the results of his dominance but rejected the accompanying bombast. He was too grim, too serious to relish the arena, preferring a sour standoffishness that made his incandescence more difficult to enjoy.

Schilling is the opposite. Following his no-decision in Game 2, where he gave up nine hits and five earned runs in 4 2/3 innings, he adopted an all-or-nothing position that enhanced tonight's intrigue.

Curt Schilling
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesCurt Schilling is 9-2 with a 2.23 ERA in 17 career postseason starts.
"There's no one who should feel bad in the clubhouse but me. Everything about this one falls on me," Schilling said following the Indians' 13-6 win. "The way he [Carmona] was early in the game and the way we were hitting and our at-bats, you knew we were going to grind it out on him and run him out of the game early. We put together a great inning, take a lead and get up to the [Jhonny] Peralta at-bat and I let it get away.This was all about me coming up small in a big game."

He owns the highest winning percentage in postseason history, but at 40 years old, Schilling is also these days that wonderful Hollywood archetype: the aging cowboy hungering for that one last kill. He is memory and legend, the enemies are younger and faster and stronger while he is past his prime but still ever-dangerous. In Game 2, he was given a lead and lost it. It was during his watch that the young Indians gave the Red Sox a first taste of their own considerable power. Peralta broke Schilling and took the lead from him with a three-run bomb.

If Beckett is rising into his role, it is Schilling who is teased and tempted enough by past glory to believe he can still get that final score. He is, after all, still Curt Schilling, he of the 9-2 postseason record, 2.23 ERA and owner of two World Series titles, both of which were earned by stomping the Yankees and standing tall. The audience, unsure if he will emerge the hero or playing a harp, remains transfixed, unsure if he has it in him. And sometimes, so is Schilling.

"There's always fear. I mean, I'm scared to death to go out and fail tomorrow. I'm terrified of letting my teammates down and the fan base down and this organization down because they're counting on me to survive, and get past another day," he said. "I'm scared to death to not do well, but I'm also very cognizant of the fact that fear is something that has always driven me, always pushed me."

He talked on Friday about the moment in midseason when he came face-to-face with his own personal demon, the realization that he could no longer devastate hitters with his power, the necessity to concede certain elements of his muscle to age.

'"If I had to look back at one thing that pretty much sealed the deal, it was pretty much my acceptance that I am what I am, going from being what I felt like was a guy who had somewhat similar stuff to Josh's at my beck and call to someone who doesn't have that stuff and has to manufacture outs differently," he said.

"Once I said to myself, 'Listen, this is what it's going to be. You're not going to reach back and get 96 anymore.' And until I could accept that, it was me fighting hitters, me fighting a game plan and me fighting myself."

I'm scared to death to not do well [in Game 6], but I'm also very cognizant of the fact that fear is something that has always driven me, always pushed me.

--Curt Schilling

Schilling knows this, for it speaks to his sense of competition, his sense of theater. He is vulnerable and allows that wound of age to sting him as a way of keeping him sharp. He watched Beckett's dominance on Thursday and felt the pangs of a certain wrenching type of jealousy, for Beckett is driving down a road that once belonged to Schilling.

"My god, there were some tugs on the inner me here watching that thinking that I was almost a little sick about the fact that I don't think I really enjoyed it when I was doing it," Schilling said. Youth is, as they say, wasted on the young.

Not lost on Schilling either is the future, never a small consideration to a 40-year-old. As if keeping his team from the postseason guillotine is not enough, Schilling is at the end of his contract, and this start could be the last game he pitches for the Red Sox.

"No matter how badly I want to come back here and how badly I want to be a part of this, it takes two to tango," he said. "And if it's not in the cards on their end, it's not going to happen. It really is kind of easy in that sense. I want to be here. I hope they want me here. If not, then I could be making one of my last two starts of my career here."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.

ALSO SEE