FORT MYERS, Fla. -- As Boston native Bob Kirk stood watching the Red Sox celebrate last October after winning the World Series for the first time in 86 years, he talked about his father who died of cancer the previous December. Mr. Kirk said, "His last words to me were, 'have they signed Schilling?'"
Schilling is Curt Schilling, and yes, the Sox in signing him to a contract obtained not only one of baseball's top hurlers but a man who showed physical and spiritual courage during 2004 while tens of millions watched. He pitched two crucial playoff and World Series games with his own blood-from an experimental suture of a torn ankle tendon-leaving a stain on his sock, and he announced to the world that he recognizes the power of Christ's blood.
Over a meatballs lunch in the Red Sox spring-training facility in Fort Myers, Fla., the 6-foot-5-inch, 235-pound Schilling described how he became a Christian eight years ago: "I had gone to church, like a lot of fringe Christians, when I needed help with something or felt bad about something, but never just to go to listen to the Word." His wife Shonda had faith and they had recently had their first child-they now have four-but he thought of God as the cosmic bellhop.
In 1997, though, after five generally successful seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies, he asked for one big thing. "I was driving home from the ballpark and thinking about how tired I was of waking up every morning with no real aim in my life. We had our first kid and I also wanted a foundation for my family. . . . While I was driving I said the Lord's Prayer. I waited for thunder and lightning"-he smiled-"and that never came, but my outlook on the world changed."
Asked about indications of change, the pitcher recounted, "I no longer have the desire to hate anybody" and "I'm not sinning as much. . . . I realize the lessons in everything, even losing, and can take away something about better preparation or the need for humility. . . . It becomes a lot easier to live with yourself. The losses are no less painful-I have a miserable four days after a bad game-but I know now the difference between failure and non-success. . . . A pitcher who has 35 starts and wins half of them is a very good pitcher. . . . You work as hard as you can with what God gives you. You fail only if you quit."
He described one specific alteration in habit: "I had dipped [tobacco] for a long time and tried to quit, but never came close. I seriously prayed hard for assistance to stop. One night I said a prayer before going to bed, and the next day, at 4 in the afternoon, I realized I hadn't dipped all day. You need to understand that on all the other days, first thing in the morning, I'd have a dip. . . . It was as common as putting on my pants. So at 4 p.m., when I realized I had prayed and hadn't dipped all day, I had chills."
Mr. Schilling scraped up his mixed vegetables and noted that players, especially on the road, need to pay particular attention to the "Lead us not into temptation" verse of the Lord's Prayer: "We talk a lot about accountability at Baseball Chapel," which has Sunday services and Bible studies during the week. The pitcher praised his church at home in Arizona, Phoenix Bible Church, and conversations he has with its pastor and with Bob Riconda of Hope Church in Pine Hill, N.J., who e-mails him Bible lessons "and then we talk it out over the phone."
Pastor Riconda, from his home in New Jersey, said that he and the pitcher had been doing that for about five years. He first sent a "survival kit for young Christians-how to read the Bible, how to be accountable." He recently sent sermon notes concerning a study of marriage. But the biggest Schilling lesson came last fall. He was known in baseball as a charitable fellow who contributed big bucks to combat Lou Gehrig's disease and other terrible ailments-The Sporting News made him its "#1 Good Guy of the Year" for 2004-yet he did not talk publicly about his faith in Christ.
Then came the first game of the American League championship series, with the Red Sox up against their Moby Dick, the dreaded New York Yankees. The pitcher had torn an ankle tendon in his previous start, but he thought he could gut it out. He was wrong, and his loss of that game sent the Red Sox careening to a 3-0 deficit in a series to be won by the first team to win four games.
No baseball team had ever come from so far behind to win, but the Red Sox pulled out dramatic extra-inning victories in the fourth and fifth games, and an experimental medical procedure that stitched a tendon to his skin gave Mr. Schilling the possibility of pitching again. But the procedure had been tried before only on cadavers, and no one knew whether he would be able to put pressure on his ankle, let alone throw balls by hitters primed to score runs in a New York minute.
Several hours before the evening game he talked with Pastor Riconda and others about how to pray in this situation and what to pray for. As both men recall, he resolved not to pray to win (although he desired that) but for the strength to go out and compete, for the understanding that whatever he did would be because of God's strength and not his own, and for the willingness if there was success to give credit where credit was due.
He strode to the mound in Yankee Stadium and kept going for not just one excellent inning but seven, giving up only four hits and leaving the field with a bleeding suture but a 4-1 lead. The Red Sox held on to win, and afterward he told interviewers, "I've got to say, I became a Christian seven years ago, and I've never in my life been touched by God as I was tonight. . . . I tried to go out and do it myself in Game 1, and you saw what happened. Tonight was God's work on the mound. . . . God did something amazing."
When pitcher and pastor spoke the next day, Mr. Riconda says Mr. Schilling "was still ecstatic about feeling God's presence." Five days later it was time to try again, in the second game of the World Series. That morning the pitcher woke up unable to walk. When he arrived at Fenway Park, the Red Sox medical staff examined his ankle and found that one suture had nicked a nerve. They fixed it so the patient could now walk-but could he pitch? "I went to the Lord for help, because I knew, again, I wasn't going to be able to do this myself."
Minutes before the game he still didn't know what he could do, but "God got me out there." Again he pitched well, again with blood on his sock, again the Red Sox won-and went on to win the World Series for the first time in 86 years. Afterward he told reporters, "If you haven't checked it out, read Philippians 4:13. ['I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.'] I can't do anything these days without having that reverberate in my head."
Four months later, eating dessert and thinking about going so public with his belief, Mr. Schilling said, "I've learned that you should never hide your faith. I had wasted seven years. People didn't know." And yet, in God's providence, maybe the timing was right. Had the new Christian gone public earlier, he might have been besieged by unhelpful clerical hangers-on, or made the dumb comments that many immature Christians make. He wouldn't have had the credibility that at least a few years of perseverance bring-and the drama of his astounding performance in crucial games gave his fresh testimony wider dissemination than it would have had at any other time.
Now, he reflects about going public: "The response was overwhelming, and all of it was positive." What, no negative letters? "Of course, but the negative responses reinforce what the Bible teaches, that there is hatred of Christ. So even that is positive."