Sports Nut

Waving the Bloody Sock

Curt Schilling: Great pitcher, better self-promoter.

Schill’s shrilling 

Well, this World Series business is a delightful diversion. All kinds of nice people come to your city, and there’s a great festive spirit around the superannuated old corral. Plus, the games are as easy to win as a match-up in spring training. I realize that St. Louis is a terrific baseball city with as deep a tradition in the game as Boston has and that Game 3 features another long walk into the ongoing mystery that is Pedro Martinez. I also realize that nobody knows better than Red Sox fans how dangerous it is to tempt fate. But, having watched the first two games of the Series this weekend, the question must be asked:

How in God’s name did this St. Louis team win 105 games?

The Cardinals have a good lineup, granted. But the pitching is thin and weak, the defense unremarkable, and even its vaunted offense seems wildly overrated once you get past the power numbers. On Sunday night, facing a gimpy Curt Schilling, St. Louis didn’t even attempt to bunt or even to steal a base.

The Cardinals arrived in Boston flat and ill-prepared—their manager Tony La Russa once again seemed more interested in being the smartest person in the room than in winning baseball games. How else to explain his preposterous use of Jason Marquis? The scheduled starter in what is now a pivotal Game 4 has, already in this Series, been used for one inning of relief and as a pinch runner. In that latter capacity, Marquis fell flat on his face while trying to run from first to second, then was lucky not to break an ankle in a home-plate collision with Boston catcher Jason Varitek. Don’t be surprised if La Russa trots out Marquis to sing the National Anthem Tuesday night.

The ease with which the Red Sox dismantled the Cardinals twice confounded a number of old baseball clichés, validated several others, and split the most important of them right down the middle. For years, we have been told that pitching and defense were the inviolable twin keys to success. In both games, though, the Red Sox managed to separate them beyond easy recall. The deep Boston pitching staff managed to hold the powerful heart of the Cardinals lineup largely in check: Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Jim Edmonds, St. Louis’ three, four, and five hitters, left town a combined 4 for 23 with one RBI. Moreover, the Red Sox pitchers managed to do this despite the fact that the team took the field under the apparent instruction of Doctors Howard, Fine, and Howard.

If the Red Sox do win, some of what went on with the team in the field will be good for some laughs at the breakup dinner. On Saturday night, Manny Ramirez misplayed two balls in left field. He played the second one like a seal in a zoo, nearly vaporizing a knee in the process. Then, in Game 2, reliable third-baseman Bill Mueller made three errors himself, although, to be fair, two of them were on rockets surrendered by Schilling that made Mueller look like the hapless goalie on some lost NHL expansion franchise. Still, the Red Sox survived the defensive foibles, winning both games despite making four errors in each. Maybe pitching-and-defense surrenders to that oldest of all baseball clichés—Nobody Knows Anything, Anyway.

Curt Schilling seems to know it all, though, and he’s capable of putting a close observer in the uncomfortable place of admiring his gritty determination as much as his splitter, but also of coming to the conclusion that the man is as full of crap as the Christmas goose. He is a Serious Fellow, and he’s most Serious about being seen as a Serious Fellow.

Remember, it was good old Schill who took it upon himself to write a “Letter to America” in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks, assuring us that baseball would be there to help us through our grief. (Who exactly it was that asked the question, “Gee, I wonder what aging right-handed stoppers think about all of this?” is apparently lost to history.) Schilling has a long history as a spotlight grabber. Newsday’s Jon Heyman reported that former Phillies manager Jim Fregosi called him “Red Light Curt” because of his fondness for the TV cameras and that Phillies GM Ed Wade said that Schilling is a horse every fourth day, and a horse’s ass the other three. But such attacks stand no chance against deftly channeled self-promotion. Schilling calls up radio talk shows, and he warns fans on various Internet fanzines not to trust what they read in their newspapers about the ball club. If Karl Rove were to design a baseball player, he’d come up with Curt Schilling.

Withal, his story these last two weeks is a remarkable one. Pitching with an embroidered tendon in his right ankle, with blood leaking through his sock, Schilling has stood both the Yankees and Cardinals on their ears. He’s now 8-2 lifetime in the postseason, which puts him in the company of Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Sandy Koufax, and almost nobody else. Afterward, of course, we were treated to a press conference that owed less to ThePride of the Yankees than TheSong of Bernadette. The deity even made a cameo appearance, as he has regularly during Schilling’s recent days as America’s most beloved stigmatic.

“I just wish everybody on this planet could experience the day that I just experienced,” he proclaimed. “I will never use the words ‘unbelievable’ and ‘the Lord’ again in the same sentence.”

I feel the same way about “Manny Ramirez” and “left field,” but never mind.