Thursday, April 26, 2007

Blood Tells, Paint Doesn't

Like any good urban legend, the idea Curt Schilling put fake blood on his sock during Game Six of the 2004 ALCS was the product of spontaneous generation in dozens of places. I ought to know, I was in one of them. And it happened while the game was in progress.

A group of baseball writers covering the NLCS were having dinner and watching the game in a St. Louis bar and grill. Not two minutes after Fox showed the close up of Schilling's sock, someone, not me, I just don't recall who, joked Curt had painted on the blood himself. Please note the verb in the last sentence.

Everyone at the table laughed. The remark was pure traditional baseball humor, designed to express both admiration for Schilling's performance and the mix of amusement, bemusement, and exasperation most folks around baseball get from exposure to Schilling's melodramatic personality. It was a true sharing of the game's cultural ethos.

Ballplayers have been busting on each other in exactly that fashion for well over a century, or maybe you didn't read "Alibi Ike" by Ring Lardner. The writer Roy Blount reviewed the movie "Bang the Drum Slowly" by noting that in a real baseball clubhouse, teammates would come up to the dying Robert De Niro character and ask if they could have his shoes when he croaked.

Baseball humor is cruel, deadpan, and designed to hide any expression of human concern, let alone affection, for its target. But they ARE an expression of affection. Only players who're liked are humor targets. Nobody jokes about Barry Bonds. It's the saddest thing about the guy.

It's astounding that a veteran announcer like Gary Thorne didn't recognize a baseball joke when Doug Mirabelli laid it on him. It's depressing but unsurprising that the omnivorous 24/7 world of Red Sox coverage turned Thorne's goof into an alleged news story. There are times when it seems like the purpose of everyone in baseball, from Bud Selig to the media to the clubhouse boys, is to squeeze every last bit of goofy fun out of the game and replace it with another drop-in commercial.

Jokes about Schilling's sock are in the same vein as the reaction of his Arizona Diamondback teammates after Schilling wrote a patriotic essay for Sports Illustrated after 9/11. Curt got on the team bus and they serenaded him with "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy." No offense was intended to anyone. It was just a friendly reminder that taking oneself seriously (Schilling takes EVERYTHING seriously) is a horsehide sin.

Schilling can be way over the top sometimes. But he's not far gone enough to fake bleeding to milk more adulation out of the finest moment of his career. And even if he was, Curt would do it right. If he'd faked bleeding on the mound that night, the paint would have gushed out of his ankle all the way to box seats, splattering Billy Crystal.


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