Phillies pitching ace kicks 15-year habit after cancer scare.
First Published 5/18/1998, American Cancer Society (http://cancer.org) (Part 1 of 2)
When Curt Schilling was a 16-year-old boy in Phoenix, far removed from his future in Major League Baseball, he succumbed to a dare posed by a friend: take a pinch of chewing tobacco and put it between your cheek and gum. To Schilling's surprise, he didn't get sick or light-headed. "I enjoyed it from the start," said the Philadelphia Phillies' ace.
So it came to pass over the next 15 years, smokeless tobacco took hold of his life. If he wasn't playing baseball, he was chewing tobacco. And it didn't matter where - in the locker room after a game or sneaking off for a quick dip during a black tie affair - Schilling had to indulge his habit. The 6-4, 225-pound right-handed pitcher, who has dominated opposing batters for 10 seasons, was a pushover for a small tin of tobacco in his back pocket.
The scare hits
Then in March 1998, as part of a voluntary checkup of 141 players during spring training, Schilling was one of 83 ballplayers found to have tobacco-related mouth lesions. In a way, Schilling was not surprised by the discovery. He wavered over whether to take part in the examination out of fear of what would be found. Over the years, he had noticed sores in his mouth, but continued to feed his tobacco habit. When doctors confirmed that he did indeed have a tobacco-related lesion that could be cancerous, he wondered if his children would lose their father to cancer like he lost his father, a lifetime smoker, to lung cancer in 1988.
The power of nicotine addiction, however, can be summed up in Schilling's actions as he awaited the results of the biopsy - he continued to dip. He knew that his relationship with smokeless tobacco had to end. He had known it for years. He had even tried quitting once, only to fail.
It wasn't until his doctor called on March 17 that he knew he had to quit for good.
"The doctor called and left a message to call him back," Schilling recounted, in Baseball Weekly. "I knew right away it was going to be bad news. When I called him he picked up the phone and I said 'hello.' He told me to hold on while he switched phones and went to another room."
The news was that the lesion proved to be benign. But it would only be a matter of time before a malignancy would be found if he continued his habit, his doctor told him.
"They told me it was as close to getting cancerous as I could be without having cancer," Schilling said. "I was terrified."
Life after dip
Life without a dip has been difficult, Schilling admitted. He still craves tobacco and battles to deny the feeling. Ironically, he has found support within the sport that has encouraged his tobacco use. "I've said to other players, 'I could sure use a dip right now,'" Schilling said. "They would just look at me and ask, 'why would you want to do that now, you can beat this.'"
On Opening Day of the 1998 season, Schilling took the mound against the New York Mets. Just two weeks from the day he flushed all the smokeless tobacco he could find in his house down a toilet and armed with a nicotine patch, Schilling held the Mets scoreless for eight innings, striking out nine and giving up only two hits.
His next start was five days later against the Atlanta Braves, where he pitched a complete game, striking out 15 batters, and giving up only one run.
"I've beaten it," Schilling said. "I can say that now."
Tomorrow, Curt Schilling tells how he kicked the habit and the difficulty in achieving that goal.