Curt Schilling not hiding his scars

Curt Schilling Returns To ESPN (5:48)

Curt Schilling sits down with Karl Ravech to discuss his journey with cancer. (5:48)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Curt Schilling owned October.

When you win three World Series rings and submit an 11-2 postseason record with a 2.23 ERA, you prefer to stick with what works.

In Schilling's case, after the 2001 championship with the Arizona Diamondbacks, after his bloody sock elevated him to hallowed status in Red Sox lore in 2004, after he padded his Boston résumé with another ring in 2007, his pattern didn't waver. Shut 'em down, head for the dugout and reap his reward: a dip of smokeless tobacco.

"I never ever threw a pitch with a dip in my mouth," Schilling said. "I knew it wasn't good for you. I didn't want to be dehydrated.

"But if you go back and look, after every single game I pitched, the first thing I did when I got to the dugout was put one in.

"I didn't wait. I couldn't wait."

"I brought this on myself. For the last two years I've had to stand in front of my wife and kids and explain to them, 'I lost $50 million and my company went bankrupt and it was all my fault.' Then I had to stand in front of them and tell them, 'I have cancer because I dipped.' They are conversations I wouldn't wish on anyone."
Curt Schilling

With October in full swing, Schilling is back on the World Series stage, this time as a commentator for ESPN's "Baseball Tonight." Outwardly, the changes in the former pitcher are subtle; he's thinner, a little wan, and the tenor of his voice, while still resonating with strong analysis and opinions, doesn't quite project with the same force.

"I'm lucky on so many levels," he said. "I look pretty much the same. It could have been so much worse."

In February, Schilling was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, a direct result, he said, of his 30-year dipping habit. The cancer originated in his tonsil and spread to a lymph node in his neck.

What followed was a 5-month ordeal in which brutal radiation and chemotherapy treatments left Schilling sobbing like a child, demoralized by the excruciating pain. He lost more than 70 pounds, developed a staph infection that could have killed him, endured two bouts of pneumonia, a bacterial infection in his intestines and multiple excruciating flare-ups of oral thrush, and wrestled with depression that required hospitalization and therapy.

His scars are internal, imperceptible to the human eye, but his mouth is ravaged by 30 years of chewing tobacco. Even before his cancer was detected, Schilling had decimated his taste buds by dipping. The radiation and chemotherapy have since destroyed his salivary glands.

Schilling doesn't eat in public because he can't be certain that his windpipe will close properly. Sometimes food seeps into his lungs and leaves him prone to infection. Other times he chokes, coughs his meal back up, then starts over again. Dining requires careful, methodical chewing, reducing his food to a pasty substance, much like baby food. "I don't swallow normally anymore," Schilling explained. "I'm hoping I will someday, but not right now."

His chilling diagnosis came on the heels of the collapse of his gaming company, 38 Studios, which drained $50 million of his own money and ignited a firestorm in Rhode Island, which had invested more than $75 million in the failed venture. In an attempt to recover some of that money, the state agreed to a $4.4 million settlement with the video game company over the summer.

The man who had it all is still learning to steady himself in the wake of this stunning turn of events.

Yet Curt Schilling wants to make one thing perfectly clear: He doesn't want your sympathy because, he said, he doesn't deserve it.

"I brought this on myself," Schilling said in a lengthy interview in Kansas City earlier this week. "For the last two years I've had to stand in front of my wife and kids and explain to them, 'I lost $50 million and my company went bankrupt, and it was all my fault.'

"Then I had to stand in front of them and tell them, 'I have cancer because I dipped.'

"They are conversations I wouldn't wish on anyone."

Schilling has a long history of passionately supporting his charities, among them Curt's Pitch For ALS and the Curt and Shonda Schilling Melanoma Research Fund, which he started when his wife was diagnosed with a cancerous mole.

He does not plan to canvass the country serving as a cautionary tale of the dangers of smokeless tobacco. That, he feels, would be hypocritical.

"I still want the stuff," Schilling said. "Right now. But the beautiful thing for me is my salivary glands have been destroyed by the radiation, so I can't. I've wanted to dip a couple of times, but I literally can't."

Dipping, he acknowledges, remains a big problem in baseball. It seemingly played a role recently in claiming the life of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who said his salivary gland cancer was the result of smokeless tobacco even as the scientific community debates whether that was the case. While steps have been taken to limit the use of dipping -- players are no longer allowed to carry cans in their uniform pockets, and its use is banned in the minors -- Major League Baseball is still a ways from eradicating the insidious habit from the game.

Banning it in the majors would need to be negotiated with the players' association. MLB unsuccessfully tried to add a smokeless tobacco ban to the last collective bargaining agreement, and it is expected to come up again the next time the sides negotiate. (The current deal will expire in 2016).

"The way to get it out of baseball is to ban it in stadiums," Schilling said. "Make it a $50,000 fine if a player uses it, and make sure you enforce it. It will mean catching three or four people and putting the hammer down, and then maybe guys will stop messing around with it."

Schilling is conflicted about the dipping debate. Although he suspects his oldest son, who is now a college freshman, has dabbled in it, he can't bring himself to rail against it.

"It's a challenge for me," he admitted. "I'm not going to sit here and tell you not to do it, but I am going to tell you what will happen to you if you do.

"It's not an 'if', it's a 'when.' You don't see people who are 75 years old dip. That's because they die well before 75. There's a penalty to pay, and you will pay it."

Schilling said throughout his tenure in baseball, team physicians would check players in spring training for signs of damage.

"Early in my career my mouth was a mess," Schilling said. "I had receding gums. I knew I should stop.

"The doctors knew, too. But they were almost intimidated by us, the athletes. They told me, 'If you aren't going to stop, at least move [the dip] around a little bit.'"

Schilling experienced his first cancer scare in 1995, when he discovered a lesion inside his mouth. He was told it was not cancerous, but the incident jarred him into giving up dipping for over a year.

Then one sunny afternoon on the golf course, his friend offered his can of Copenhagen. Schilling hesitated, then took a pinch and lodged it into his cheek. Just like that, he resumed his can-and-a-half-a-day habit.

Former major leaguer Bill Tuttle, who became horribly disfigured from mouth surgeries due to oral cancer, traveled to each major league park to share the horrific tale of how tobacco destroyed his life. Schilling listened intently and was moved but was dipping again by the following morning. Tuttle later died at age 69.

"I had a cancer test, I had a man [Tuttle] with half a face, and I had Joe Garagiola telling me my whole career to stop," Schilling said. "And none of it was enough."

He discovered the lump in his neck in February after shaving and knew right away what it was. He couldn't say that he was surprised.

"I knew because of what I've been doing for the past 30 years," Schilling said. "I've been checking."

The diagnosis was confirmed after a biopsy, and within days he had been assigned a team of doctors led by Robert Haddad at the renowned Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Meet your oncologist, your surgeon, the radiation guy, the chemotherapy specialist and your speech therapist.

"Speech therapist?" Schilling said. "That one scared me. Why did I need a speech therapist?"

Because, his team explained, the treatment he was about to undergo was unspeakably taxing. For seven weeks he was bombarded with radiation that burned his throat so thoroughly he could smell it, taste it. The chemotherapy rendered him miserable, nauseous, lifeless.

There was also the possibility he might not speak with any clarity again.

When doctors put in a port beneath his skin for his medication, Schilling quickly developed a dangerous staph infection. When the chemotherapy started, he vomited so violently they inserted a feeding tube. His mouth was so horribly swollen he couldn't swallow anyway.

They fitted him for a radiation mask that started at his mid-chest and covered his face. It was skintight with holes in it. They used it five days a week during treatment.

"They take the mask and bolt you down to the table under it," Schilling said. "At first, I was like, 'Ah, it's all right.' But by the second week, I couldn't stand that mask. The radiation treatments were anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes, but after a while, it felt like an eternity. It was terrifying. I'm not claustrophobic, but I started to panic. I'd start shouting, 'You gotta get me out! You gotta get me out!' Every time I did that, we had to start all over again."

There was one week, Schilling revealed, that he does not remember at all. He experienced hallucinations, "'Alice in Wonderland' stuff," he said. Later, he realized, he was experiencing withdrawal from the tobacco.

"Before this I never understood how people could take their own lives," he said, "but after a while, I could."

His faith and his family kept him going. He leaned on Shonda, who accompanied him to every treatment. He saw the fear and concern in his children's eyes, and realized, "OK, this is why God chose me. He knows I can handle it."

Schilling drew strength from his fellow patients, including a die-hard Sox fan who had half of his tongue cut out because of years of smoking. Doctors grafted a piece of his forearm and rebuilt his tongue with it.

"You know what crushed me?" Schilling said. "Seeing the little kids in my unit.

"I used to visit kids with cancer all the time. Now I'm in the club. I understand what's happening to these little kids with brain cancer and I ask myself, 'How do they make it through the day?' So you see a little 5-year-old and you say, 'If she can do it, I can suck it up.'"

The outpouring of support was overwhelming and gratifying. Each night someone in the community of Medfield, Massachusetts, where the Schillings reside, dropped off a hot meal. Family and friends took turns shuttling the Schilling kids to school and activities.

Some visitors, like former Sox catcher Doug Mirabelli, were expected and appreciated. Others, like Jacque Francona, the former wife of Terry Francona, were surprising and touching.

When Schilling was finally released from the hospital, in May, he mistakenly believed the worst was over.

"My second day home, I was outside, riding the scooter," Schilling said. "The day after that, I couldn't get out of bed. And the day after that, my oxygen level dipped so low they ambulanced me back to the hospital."

The second time he was released, in June, attorneys from Rhode Island began pressing to depose him. Schilling, who had lost so much weight that Shonda made daily trips to the Cheesecake Factory to fatten him up, was in no shape to talk to anybody.

"I always believed God gave us the tools to take care of ourselves," Schilling said. "I was thinking, 'Yeah, I'm depressed. It's been a crappy few months, but I'll bounce out of it.' Only I didn't.

"I was having a terrible effect on my wife and kids."

He checked himself back into the hospital, this time to learn to mentally cope with his illness. He needed the tools to comfort his children, who were terrified by the decline of their once-strong, invincible father. Part of his therapy also centered on confronting how he got here in the first place.

His first dip was the result of a dare from a friend in high school. It made him lightheaded, gave him "a buzz."

"I thought about it all night," Schilling confessed.

By the time he was in the minors, living on $11 a day for meal money, most of that cash was going toward his habit. Schilling recalls throwing away a seemingly empty can in the dugout after a game, then going back and digging it out of the trash to scrape out what was left once he realized he didn't have enough money to buy a new can for the ride home.

"I remember thinking, 'Well, this is kind of crazy,"' Schilling said.

He can't go back now. He can't eliminate the chronic, throbbing pain in his mouth, can't alter the fact that Ensure and Boost are his meals of choice now, because they don't take 30 minutes to chew, like a slice of pizza does. He takes heart when someone like former pitcher Dan Plesac sees him in Kansas City and says he quit dipping after hearing about Schilling's ordeal.

Schilling has recovered some taste on the very tip of his tongue, an encouraging sign. He's in remission, but he knows the cancer could return at any time.

"It pains me to think about dying and leaving Shonda and my kids behind, but I'm not afraid of it," Schilling said. "When I get to heaven, what am I going to complain about? I've been blessed beyond words.

"The last two years have been a lot of crap smushed into a small sandwich. It's OK."

It has been 10 years since he pitched the Sox to a championship on a shredded tendon in his ankle, and he smiles when he recounts the platitudes he received for fighting through that injury.

"I would tell you pain has taken on an entirely new definition for me," he said.

His pitching days are long gone. He probably won't ever run again or engage in strenuous workouts. One of the greatest clutch pitchers of all time is battling something far more daunting.

Curt Schilling used to own October; now his addiction owns him.