Pitching Through Pain

updated 11/05/2001 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/05/2001 AT 01:00 AM EST

When Curt Schilling takes the mound against the New York Yankees in the World Series, rest assured he won't be rattled by the media glare or angst over his place in baseball history. The Arizona Diamondbacks' ace right-hander has confronted far greater challenges: His father, Cliff, his biggest booster, died in 1988, missing by just a few months his son's big-league debut. For two decades Schilling, 34, has also battled his unforgiving addiction to chewing tobacco. But in February he faced his toughest trial of all: His wife, Shonda, 33, was diagnosed with a potentially lethal melanoma. "I never gave myself the option to think about it at the ballpark," he says. "I wouldn't have been able to do half of what I'd done if I did."

Schilling has done plenty, on and off the field. In an era ruled by offense, he has been one of baseball's most dominant hurlers. This season he compiled a brilliant 22-6 record with 293 strikeouts, second in the majors, and then won all three starts in the National League play-offs. But don't think this stoic success amid adversity suggests that Schilling is just another self-absorbed athlete. It's simply the way he and his wife operate. "They are not soft with each other," says Shonda's mother, Patsy Brewer, 54. "They are not 'Let's go lay down and cry.' They are more 'Get in there and fight.'"

The Schillings have applied that spirit to their favorite charity: the war on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig's disease for the storied Yankee slugger who died from the degenerative muscle ailment. Involved in the cause since 1992 (it was the team charity of the Philadelphia Phillies, then Schilling's club), they have held fund-raisers, befriended ALS patients and testified before Congress to boost research. Says Shonda: "You never understand the impact of something like that until you see people beg for a drug to prolong their life for two months." The couple even named their first child, born in 1995, Gehrig. "We wanted people to associate the name with the innocence and life of children," Curt says. (Their other kids are Gabriella, 4, and Grant, 2.)

For Schilling, who grew up one of three children in Phoenix, no figure looms larger than his father. Married to Mary Jo, now 61, Cliff was an Army master sergeant and later a county sheriff who taught his son baseball. Schilling starred for his community college team in Prescott, Ariz., and signed with the Boston Red Sox in 1986. The next year Cliff was stricken with brain cancer; at 52, in January 1988, he suffered an aortic aneurysm and was placed on life support. With no hope, doctors pulled the plug. By then with the Baltimore Orioles, Schilling made his first big-league start that September and reserved an empty seat for his-dad, a tradition he'll continue in the Series. "For 13 years I've never taken the ball to the mound without my father having a seat," he says. "When I pitch, he's there."

After being traded to Philadelphia, Schilling would earn four All-Star nods and be named MVP of the 1993 NL Championship Series. But his success was not just professional. In November 1992 he wed Shonda, with whom he shares homes in Phoenix and Philadelphia. They'd often seen each other—she was an associate TV producer for a Baltimore sports station—but didn't speak until he found her moonlighting at a mall. "She was in a referee's uniform. She worked at Foot Locker," says Schilling. "I couldn't get her out of my mind."

That still holds true, though now his thoughts are often ones of concern. Last winter Shonda began gaining weight, losing hair and occasionally becoming disoriented. The cause was hypothyroidism, since controlled with medication. But in February came far graver news: a mole on her back proved cancerous. Four surgeries removed 24 more malignant lesions and Shonda is now cancer-free. "It only takes one cell to go to your lymph nodes," she says. "But you can't think of it every day."

Relieved as he is, Schilling is less sanguine about his struggle with chewing tobacco, a practice taken up on a high school dare. "It's the most horrific, disgusting habit on the face of the earth," he says, "and if I don't quit, it's going to kill me." As always, he and Shonda will face the foe together. "We might be dealing with some obstacles, but we're going to be all right," she says. Adds her husband: "I'm optimistic about everything. There's no reason not to be."

Richard Jerome
Kristin Harmel in Atlanta and Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Los Angeles

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