BLUE BELL, PA, Nov. 1, 2004 — It’s easy to feel small standing next to Curt Schilling. He’s an imposing figure, and you know that at any moment he could pick you up at will, plant you in a batter’s box, and then hurl fastballs by you with enough intensity to create the world’s largest dry cleaning bill. In a word: scary.
Frankly, I’d rather face Curt Schilling than his wife, Shonda. She’s the tough one.
Both were on hand Monday night for the 11th annual Curt Schilling ALS Golf Outing at the Meadowlands Country Club in Blue Bell, PA. I expected to be star-struck by No. 38, whose legacy as a star pitcher has continued to unfold over the past few weeks in gripping battles with the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals. One lasting image of the A.L. championship series is the crimson hue of Schilling’s bloody sock after a torn sheath around an ankle tendon was stitched prior to a game against the Bronx Bombers (in fact, Schilling wore a boot-like shoe on his injured ankle on this night, and used a single crutch to support his own weight). Talk about tough. Still, it’s par for the course in the Schilling family.
“A reporter asked me about the bloody sock,” Shonda Schilling said, in addressing a room of onlookers at the ALS benefit, “I’m incredibly proud (of Curt), but now if he gets a sniffle, he’ll get no sympathy from me.” Ah, the drawbacks of raising the toughness bar. Of course, Shonda would know plenty about that. Three years ago, she was diagnosed with malignant stage two melanoma (skin cancer) on her back. At the time, the Schillings were enjoying the good life: the couple had three children (they now have four children) and Curt was flourishing with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Curt Schilling intimated that he still remembers the numbness that overtook him when he received the phone call that brought the news to light. From there, it was a matter of receiving treatment and moving on with life. Shonda’s own version of the bloody sock. Times one thousand.
Looking back, the Schillings view Shonda’s diagnosis as purposeful. But for the diagnosis, it’s unlikely that Shonda’s work with SHADE–an organization that raises awareness of skin cancer risk factors–would have materialized. In fact, they seem to have a soulful take on most things in their life. Including Curt’s decision to join the Red Sox for the 2004 season.
“We would have loved to have come back to be part of something special in Philadelphia,” Schilling told the ALS benefit crowd on Monday, many of whom were Phillies faithful. “But it was meant for us to go to Boston. And there were a lot bigger reasons than winning the World Series. It brought exposure to ALS and the ALS families. Beating the Yankees didn’t hurt, either.” No, it didn’t. One of the speakers at the ALS benefit read aloud a letter that was received from a donor, who happened to own and operate a bakery in Northern New Jersey. The donor, a self-described Mets fan and Yankees Hater, had contributed $1,000 to ALS when Schilling’s Diamondbacks beat the Yankees in the World Series in 2001. The same donor doubled the contribution to $2,000 this year, noting the Sox’s historic comeback against the Yanks in the ALCS.
Schilling raised awareness of the ALS cause by using a silver Sharpie to inscribe “K ALS” (translation: Strike Out ALS) on the upper portion of his black Reebok cleat during the Red Sox’s post-season run. Sports Illustrated–in its World Series issue–ran a two-page photo of Curt’s ankle, which showed the “K ALS” inscription just below the now-infamous patch of blood on his white sock. Like many people, I knew very little about ALS–also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease–when the 2004 baseball season started. But just a few weeks into the young season, Curt Schilling threw on one of our red and blue YankeesHater baseball caps before dashing off to a Bruins playoff hockey game with teammate Keith Foulke. Just another night at the rink for Curt. Not so for us. Our tiny venture–which was started on a lark as a way to needle some of our Yankee-loving friends–got far more attention than we ever could have imagined. A spot on ESPN SportCenter? Are you kidding?
Anyway, I began paying more attention to Curt’s baseball efforts in Boston. Then to his charitable efforts. And, finally, to Shonda’s charitable efforts. One thing lead to another, and on Monday I found myself as part of a crowd that had gathered to support the ALS Association. As a baseball fan, part of the thrill of this event was seeing this great pitcher in person. I’m now embarassed to say that my focus on the ALS cause was initially overshadowed by my interest as a fan. Call it ignorance, or whatever. But enlightenment was just around the corner.
As a friend and I sat down to dinner at a round table meant for about 10 diners, I was surrounded by people who had intimate connections with ALS. Specifically, they had family members who were lost to the disease. For the uninitiated, ALS symptoms include the progressive wasting and paralysis of the muscles. This can occur even as the mind continues to be sharp as a tack. The average life expectancy after an ALS diagnosis is 2 to 5 years. At one point in the evening, a gentleman named Rick Lord addressed the crowd. Rick is one of about 30,000 people in the U.S. who suffers from ALS. He speech was initially difficult to follow, a challenge borne from the disease. However, he later transitioned over to a remarkable piece of voice technology, which generated an easily-understandable flow of dialogue through the apparent use of vocal chord vibrations.
Lord’s words were eloquently constructed, just as they must have been at the outset. But the uninitiated needed to experience the evolution of Lord’s speech delivery to fully understand two integral points. The first point is that advancements in improving the lives of ALS patients have been–and will continue to be–made. Funding is the key. The second point is how brutally unfair the disease can be to people who otherwise retain strong mental faculties. Much more unfair than waiting 86 years for a baseball championship. And, yet, look how much energy has been expended this year in New England in pursuit of that “cause”.
By the end of the night, I finally had a chance to meet Curt Schilling after all of these months. It was a brief hand-shaking moment, as it should have been. Honestly, he’s anything but a ‘Hater, and has said on many occasions that he has immense respect for the Yankees. Which is, of course, what makes the whole cap-wearing episode somewhat nonsensical. But in what was a soulful night for many, I wondered if there was a reason why he had worn our cap that night in April. Then, I looked around the room and realized that it was not a place I would have otherwise been. Which made all the sense in the world.
TO MAKE A DONATION: Donations to ALS or SHADE can be made on-line through the respective websites:
ALS/Massachusetts Chapter: www.als-ma.org Also available on this site are the popular “Why Not Us?” t-shirts that Curt Schilling and his teammates sported during the post-season.
ALS/Philadelphia Chapter: www.alsphiladelphia.org