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Painful season eats at Schilling

Curt Schilling is in pain, the worst of his 20 years in professional baseball. He hurts inside, as do his wife, Shonda, and their children who are old enough to sense his anguish.

Less than a year after Schilling risked his career to help the Red Sox capture their first world championship in 86 years, he is plagued by the guilt and despair of failing to fulfill the expectations of his fans and teammates. It also hurts that at least one teammate has suggested that Schilling has unfairly escaped the public wrath that other Sox players have endured for their disappointing performances.

''Purely on a professional level, this year has been by far the hardest for me of my career," Schilling said. ''It has been very, very painful."

All the glory of last fall has not blunted the repercussions of a new season in which the Sox have gone from ''cowboys" and ''idiots" to injury-ravaged survivalists. After leading the major leagues last year with 24 victories, including three in the postseason, Schilling has been largely ineffective in coming back from complicated surgery to repair multiple ailments in his ankle. And he has spent much of the season trying to mask his sense of failure and futility.

''My heart is hurting because he's not the same person and I don't know how to help him," Shonda Schilling said yesterday from the family's home in Medfield. ''I don't ever remember feeling as happy for him as I feel badly for him now. It's a horrible feeling."

In his bleakest hour, Schilling indicated, he has imagined a better life after baseball. That moment came after a teammate, whom he declined to identify, complained that Schilling should have received more grief than he has from fans for underachieving. Schilling was stung.

''Somebody on this team wants me to get booed to make them feel better, and that really bothers me a lot," said Schilling, 38, who hopes to pitch two more years. ''Those are the kinds of things that really make me look at this game and understand that when I'm done in the game, I'll be done with the game."

Schilling said he suspected the same teammate gave an anonymous quote to the Herald last week in which he aired a similar gripe. Citing the lack of a public backlash against Schilling for his subpar season -- the Sox ace is 7-8 with a 5.89 ERA -- the player was quoted as saying, ''When he comes into the game, people cheer him like he's the Pope? You think they'd let Pedro [Martinez] get away with this? Why does he get a free pass?"

Schilling made no secret of his anger at the criticism, even if it came, as he suggested, from ''somebody who's not wired right."

''As much time as we spend together, you think you know someone," he said. ''But more times than not you find you really don't."

A lightning rod for some critics because of his willingness to hold forth on a wide range of issues -- an uncommon trait among professional athletes -- Schilling has grown accustomed to the sniping. He remembers Ed Wade, his former general manager with the Phillies, once saying Schilling was ''a horse every fifth day and a horse's ass the other four." And he will never forget some other detractors, including Pedro Gomez, a former writer for the Arizona Republic, who chose the day Schilling started Game 7 of the 2001 World Series to describe him as ''a con man, someone more intent on polishing his personal image by whatever means possible."

Yet Schilling seemed to have found a comfort zone in Boston, where he will forever be revered for the personal sacrifice he made to deliver on his promise to end the franchise's championship drought.

''He paid a price for what he did last October," manager Terry Francona said. ''But if you're a fan, you cannot forget what this guy did last year for this organization. I never will."

Still, Schilling increasingly has felt a sense of responsibility for the team's shortcomings. Had he pitched to his potential, he figures, he may have spared some of his teammates from the sourness they endured. He has seen Alan Embree and Mark Bellhorn all but booed out of town, for example, and Keith Foulke depart because of injury and ineffectiveness, even as the fans have generally stood by Schilling.

''I've been given a long leash this year by the fans, which I'm very appreciative of," he said. ''But my teammates were just as responsible as I was for helping to win the World Series last year, and it has been really, really uncomfortable for me to see them go through what they have gone through this year."

His wife has never seen him so low.

''It's been hard in our house," Shonda said. ''It's been a long year, and it has affected our whole family."

She wishes someone Schilling trusts would help him weather the storm. His father, Cliff, died in 1988, and he has no brothers.

''This is when we really feel the effects of Curt not having a father," Shonda said. ''He has no father figure to tell him it's OK, that he shouldn't feel disappointed, that he's doing the best he can."

The unkindest cuts, she said, have been the attacks on Schilling for reporting to spring training overweight and out of shape. Thirteen days after the Sox won the World Series, he underwent three hours of surgery on his right ankle to repair a dislocated and torn tendon, a bone defect, and cartilage damage, among other problems. He spent the next eight weeks at home in a wheelchair, other than when he used crutches for several public appearances. And by the time he broke free of the wheelchair, spring training was little more than four weeks away.

''It angers me when people talk about how out of shape he was," Shonda said. ''It's not very fair to think that anybody who has been in a wheelchair for eight weeks would jump up and get fit in four. It's just not possible."

Schilling acknowledged he weighed the most he had in his career -- he did not say how much -- when he arrived for spring training. He said he was physically unable to train hard enough to report in any better shape.

''I should have realized then that I wouldn't be ready for Opening Day," he said. ''But I was trying so hard to shoot for it because of everything that had happened and because it was in New York and I would be facing RJ [Randy Johnson]. I made a huge, huge mistake trying to come back that early."

By the end of April, he was 1-2 with an 8.51 ERA and wondering whether he would hurt the team more than help if he continued playing. Instead, he went on the disabled list and began the rehab work he missed before spring training.

''I could have shut down at the end of April, that was very clear to me," Schilling said. ''But my dad would have rolled over in his grave if I did something like that. I knew in my heart I wasn't done."

He returned to his training center in Arizona and was relegated to watching his teammates from afar, knowing how much they needed him.

''He looked like a kid who has chicken pox," Shonda said, ''and has to sit at the window and watch everybody playing outside."

Still too weak to reclaim his starting role, Schilling volunteered to pitch out of the bullpen when he returned in July.

''Most people don't understand what a tall order it was to make that transition in the middle of the season when he wasn't even sure how he was doing physically," pitching coach Dave Wallace said. ''But he pretty much saved us, given the job he did with all we've gone through this year."

Even after Schilling returned to the rotation Sept. 5, more than two weeks passed before he felt he was close to regaining his form in a 15-2 victory last week at Tampa Bay. But the other feelings lingered, among them the pain of sensing he is the target of disappointment and resentment.

''They're not going to beat him down," Shonda said, ''but his spirit definitely is dampened."

Schilling's final start of the regular season is scheduled for Sunday, against the Yankees in the Fens. It could mark the most crucial regular-season game of his Sox career, but as much as he expects to relish the moment, he harbors no hope it will erase the pain.

''I'm trying as hard as I can to get back and be part of this thing this year," Schilling said. ''But, God willing, if we get into the postseason and do well and win again, it will still never be like last year. Nothing will be like last year."

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