June 01, 1998 12:00 PM

As one of major league baseball’s best pitchers, Curt Schilling had been in tough spots before, but this was no game. Sitting in a dentist’s chair on March 8, he could see the revulsion on the faces of the periodontist and dentist peering into his mouth. “They made these faces,” says Schilling. “I expected them not to like what they saw, but I didn’t expect it to be as bad as it was.”

Schilling, the Philadelphia Phillies’ ace righthander, had a lesion on the inside of his lower lip, the result of having used smokeless, or spit, tobacco for 16 of his 31 years. And the habit is not his alone. Roughly 40 percent of professional baseball players are among the many Americans—estimates range from 5 to 16 million—who use smokeless tobacco, which can be chewed or, in the case of snuff, tucked between cheek and gum. Addiction can result in tooth loss and oral cancer and can increase the risk of getting other cancers. Schilling had tried to give up snuff more than a dozen times, never successfully. “It got to where my gums were bleeding and my lower lip was like raw meat,” he says. “I would stop for a day or two and then dip again.”

Not even the memory of his father, Cliff, a smoker who suffered from lung cancer and died of an aortic aneurysm in 1988, was enough to stiffen Schilling’s resolve. Then on March 17 he got a call from the periodontist. The results of a biopsy were in: Schilling didn’t have cancer—not yet. But he did have mild dysplasia, a sign of abnormal cell changes and a first step on the road to malignancy. “As Curt was talking on the phone, I saw him picking up cans of tobacco and throwing them in the garbage,” says Shonda, 30, Schilling’s wife of five years. “I hugged him and said, ‘We’re gonna get through this.’ ”

After years of using as much as two cans of snuff a day (an average-size dip delivers as much nicotine as roughly four cigarettes), Schilling had had enough. Since the fateful call, he hasn’t had a single pinch of snuff, thanks in part to a nicotine patch, addiction counseling and his two best motivators—son Gehrig, 3, and daughter Gabriella, 1. “He’s become a better father,” says Shonda. “He used to take himself away to chew, but now he spends much more time with us.” Schilling, who signed a $15.45 million, three-year deal with the Phillies in 1997, also struck out 34 batters in his first three games after quitting. “Those were three of the best games I ever pitched,” he says. “And the first games I ever pitched without dip.”

Schilling’s life has revolved around baseball practically since “my dad put a ball and glove in my crib,” he says. A gifted athlete, brought up in Phoenix, he was 15 when a high school classmate dared him to try some spit tobacco. “I was like, ‘Naw, I don’t wanna,’ and the kid was like, ‘Chicken!’ ” he says. “So I tried it, I liked it, and I got hooked.”

Schilling made his major league debut with the Baltimore Orioles in 1988, and by the time he joined the Phillies in 1992, he was on his way to becoming one of baseball’s premier power pitchers. Along the way, he tried to kick his habit. But none of the reasons for stopping—discolored teeth, bad breath, losing his sense of smell—was ever as compelling as his craving to use snuff. “Our son used to watch Curt spit in a cup, and he would spit his juice back too,” says Shonda. “People thought it was funny, but I didn’t.”

Then, during spring training, Schilling saw a video on the long-term effects of spit tobacco and agreed to be examined in a screening offered to players (in all, 59 percent of 141 players tested had oral lesions). “Some of the guys that chew want to be macho,” says Joe Garagiola, the former player who is now national chairman of the National Spit Tobacco Education Program, which offered the screening. “Curt had the courage to be examined and quit. He really showed what he’s made of.”

Now off the nicotine patch, Schilling plans to steer clear of spit tobacco permanently, greatly reducing his risk of cancer. “And Shonda says I’m a lot more fun to be around,” says Schilling, who lives with his family in a four-bedroom, English Tudor-style house in a suburb of Philadelphia. Yes, he has put on some weight since quitting, but that’s one side effect Shonda can live with. “I’m sure Curt will think about chewing every day for the rest of his life,” she says. “But he lost a father at 21, and he wasn’t going to do that to his kids.”

Alex Tresniowski

Cynthia Wang in New York City

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