Courage” is one of the most overused clichés in all of sports. When Tiger Woods won the Masters in 2001 to become the first golfer to hold all four professional Grand Slam titles at once, commentators across the sport spoke of his remarkable “courage” in staving off the competition. When John Elway led last-minute drives on his way to Super Bowl titles, the guys in the booth described in overblown rhetoric his “courageous” field leadership.
Notwithstanding the hyperbole, sports are usually not about courage. The American men and women on the battlefields of Iraq–that’s courage. The special-forces soldiers who crawl through caves in Afghanistan hunting for al Qaeda–that’s courage. The police and firemen who ran up the stairs of the Twin Towers while others were running down–that’s unspeakable courage. Sports are usually about competition, entertainment, and, for some twisted fans like me, even something approaching a religion. Any accomplishment in sports pale in comparison to the real-life heroism exhibited every day by average Americans doing their jobs, no matter how dangerous the task.
With that said, what Curt Schilling did Tuesday night at Yankee stadium could properly be described as the sort of everyday courage that no one could contest. For those of you who might be living in a cave, Schilling is remarkable pitcher who joined the Boston Red Sox at the beginning of the season with a singular purpose: to help his new team with their first World Series since 1918. He has lived up to the massive expectations, winning a major league leading 21 games in the regular season. But all season he pitched on a damaged ankle, a nagging injury that he aggravated in an early playoff game against the Anaheim Angels.
In game one of the American League Championship Series against the just plain scary New York Yankees, Schilling seemed finally to have been done in by his injured ankle, pitching ineffectively and ultimately losing the game. The bad news continued to pile on after that game. Schilling’s medical report was bleak. He had dislocated a tendon in his ankle and would require surgery at the end of the season. And since the Red Sox lost the next two games, going down 3-0 in a seven-game series, that season was likely to end soon.
But remarkably, it didn’t. Instead, the Sox won back-to-back heart-stopping extra-inning games in Boston–two of the longest in major-league-playoff history–to force the Series back to New York. Enter Schilling. Pitching on an ankle that had been surgically sutured to stabilize the tendon the day before the game, Schilling was a huge question mark. No one knew whether he could survive an inning, let alone a game. His own catcher, Jason Varitek, said that his main goal for Schilling Tuesday night was that he not hurt himself. Schilling was unable to wear a much ballyhooed hightop shoe specially designed to stabilize his ankle (Reebok’s best free advertising in decades) because it interfered with the sutures. As he took the mound, blood oozed through his sock.
What he did last night was a performance for the ages. Facing a Yankee lineup that had scored 19 runs only a couple of days earlier, Schilling utterly shut them down, giving up a lone homerun in seven innings of work, mixing an occasional 94-mph fastball with his always lethal split-fingered pitch. Supported by four two-out runs scored by the Sox early in the game, Schilling pitched Boston to a place no other team in major-league history had been. Winning game six 4-2, the Red Sox became the first team in post-season history to come back from a 3-0 deficit in a seven-game series, forcing a decisive winner-take-all game seven in the Bronx tonight.
Schilling’s performance was as masterful as it was gutsy. With the sheath around his tendon frayed away and millions of dollars remaining on his contract, he put everything on the line to win the game. Yankees hitters seemed baffled. And Boston sports fans immediately elevated him in the pantheon of their great sports heroes–Ted Williams, Larry Bird, Bobby Orr, Carl Yastrzemski–all of whom seemed to step up when the game was on the line.
None of this guarantees a win in game 7 for the Red Sox. There is a reason no team has ever come back from a three-games-to-none deficit in baseball. It’s damned hard. But what Schilling and his teammates have done was a balm to depressed Red Sox fans everywhere. Another terrific season seemed wasted away only a few short days ago. Yet the dead have risen. The Evil Empire hangs in the balance.
Tonight’s game could be, as ESPN’s Peter Gammons noted with perhaps a small amount of overstatement in the wee hours of the morning, the most important baseball game in the storied history of the sport. Whatever the result, I’m checking into a mental hospital tomorrow for some much-needed psychological rest.
–Shannen W. Coffin is a former deputy assistant attorney general for the Civil Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.