Promise. Hope. Those are two very dangerous words. Once the sheen wears from them, we’re often left feeling bitter and despondent; it’s part of growing up. Somehow, though, Chicago Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood navigated that arc and managed to remain beloved. On this, the day he retires from an often brilliant 14-year career, I feel it necessary to join the inevitable pack eulogizing his time on the mound.
By now, Wood’s star crossed baseball career has been well documented. He played a pivotal role on the surprising 1998 Cubs as a 20-year-old rookie, mowing down major leaguers like they were drunk softball players. By May of that year, he already displayed the promise few had before him.
On May 6, with just a handful of major league starts under his belt, Wood lived up to that promise. He blanked the Houston Astros in a 20-strikeout performance, a major league record. He was still a kid with months to go before being able to legally drink. Anyone who listens to today’s game against the White Sox will probably hear Cubs announcer Pat Hughes relay the sentiments of his late announcing partner, Ron Santo, that despite a soft single allowed by Wood, the “Kid K” game was the most dominant Santo had ever seen (I know this because Pat says it just about every time Wood pitches, or when the Astros come to town, or when he’s bored). The game was so dominant, in fact, that it demands gargantuan run-on sentences to properly explain it.
I made it home from school that day to see the ninth inning. I remember my nine-year-old imagination going wild; I thought my new favorite player was going to the Hall of Fame. I get the feeling today that most people eagerly jumped to that same conclusion. We were wrong.
Whether it was due to overuse at such a young age (likely) or “shit happens” bad luck (as he is a Cubs pitcher, just as likely), Wood did not pitch in 1999 because he needed the dreaded Tommy John elbow surgery. He showed rust in his 2000 return, but he still had two years of major league experience at an age when most pitchers are just sniffing Double-A. The awful Cubs teams he played for didn’t much help him, either.
After two more very good years as the team’s de facto ace, the Cubs were finally good again in 2003. Wood made the most of the opportunity to pitch in a pennant race. I was actually on hand for perhaps Wood’s second most dominant pitching performance of his career.
That day, September 17, 2003, was right at the beginning of my freshman year of high school. My school would do an annual Walk-a-Thon to Wrigley Field to raise money, and we got to see Wood pitch a gem against the New York Mets.
At that point in the season, the playoffs were still very much in doubt, with both the St. Louis Cardinals and Astros nipping at the Cubs’ heels. The three-team chase for the NL Central crown was overwhelming. I was nervous beyond belief, thinking I’d somehow jinx them.
Wood looked shaky in the first, but got out of a two on, one out jam with a double play. In the bottom half of the inning, the diminutive Doug Glanville, who looks no larger than my 5’10″, 135-pound frame, launched a leadoff homer to left, and the ballpark was jazzed. The lead gave Wood the confidence to make the Mets’ hitters look silly the rest of the day. He pitched a complete game four-hitter while striking out 11 and I got to see my first ever win at Wrigley Field. More importantly, that game propelled the team to a run which would lead them to the playoffs.
Of course, Mark Prior and the Bartman game happened, but that’s beside the point. Wood had finally entered true ace mode that postseason and the team was going to “win the World Series” in 2004, according to Sports Illustrated. What SI failed to foresee was Wood’s health imploding. 2004 would be the last time he ever made more than 20 starts in a season.
Wood’s career appeared done after two more years of disabled list trips because of an arm that never seemed to work. He made a last ditch effort in 2007 to become a reliever to put less stress on his balky shoulder and elbow, and it worked. He won the Cubs’ closer job in 2008 and saved 34 games for the 97-win NL Central champions.
Early in that 2008 season, I was unlucky enough to see one of Wood’s only rough outings. He blew a save and took the loss. Grumbling as I left the park, I didn’t do my pedestrian due diligence and failed to look both ways before crossing Grace St., a couple blocks from Wrigley. I heard a screech of tires and looked at a car that was a couple feet away from hitting me. The driver? An upset Kerry Wood. I stared for a second, waved sheepishly in thanks, and he even cracked a small smile. I like to think that near accident fueled him on his way to becoming one of the National League’s best closers that year.
He may have left the Cubs for a couple years following the ’08 season, but I think everyone will forget that when they review Wood’s career. After all, he couldn’t stay away for long, and returned for the 2011 season after turning down far more lucrative offers from other teams. He missed Chicago and we missed him. This year may have been a bummer, but the man knows when to call it quits, and I cannot fault him for that.
Wood’s pitching was often electric, but his importance lies in his Wood Family Foundation charity work for Chicago children, his annual bowling tournaments, and adopting Chicago as his year-round home. He doesn’t just play there. He and his wife, Sarah, live and raise their children in the city. That is not something we fans overlook. It shows an investment in us, and that makes our investment in him easy. I’ll miss you, Woody. I’m watching the Cubs-White Sox game on WGN right now eagerly awaiting your final appearance. You may not be a kid anymore, but go ahead and add a few more K’s to your career.