Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 24, 2012

With A Final K, Kerry Wood Writes A Perfect Ending

The star athlete walks away from the game, more or less on his own terms. It is an event rare enough to deserve special recognition when it occurs. The more common, and infinitely more painful scene to witness, is the one-time great trying to hold on; playing a season or two or three too many, as the inevitable ravages of age and diminishing skills turn his current play into a sad shadow of the career highlight reel. So it is worth noting when a player whose name we all recognize opts to leave the stage with his dignity relatively intact. It happened at Wrigley Field last month, when 35-year old Kerry Wood came out of the Cubs bullpen to face one batter in an inter-league game against the White Sox. After recording the out, Wood left the game and announced his retirement. At the time, the tone of most of the commentary was of the “what might have been” variety, in light of Wood’s fifteen trips to the disabled list during his career. But Kerry Wood deserves better; because while injury certainly cost him much, it should not deny him recognition for the glorious accomplishments that he recorded over fifteen seasons in the major leagues.

Wood’s single greatest achievement came very early on. The Cubs made him the fourth overall selection in the 1995 amateur draft, and after three seasons in the minors Wood made his major league debut for Chicago on April 12, 1998. Less than a month later, in just his fifth start, Wood took the mound at Wrigley Field on May 6th to face the Houston Astros. In the top of the 1st he struck out Craig Biggio, Derek Bell, and Jeff Bagwell. In the top of the 2nd he fanned Jack Howell and Moises Alou before Dave Clark at last made contact with the ball, lifting a routine fly to center field. In the 3rd inning Ricky Gutierrez led off with a ground ball to the hole between third and short. Cubs’ third baseman Kevin Orie ranged to his left and got a glove on the ball, but was unable to control it. The play was ruled a single, though some fans would later lobby to have the scoring changed to an error on Orie.

That was because the single would be the only hit that Houston would record in the game. In the 6th inning Wood hit Biggio with a pitch, making the All-Star second baseman the only other Astros player to reach base. Meanwhile Wood continued to mow down the Houston lineup, striking out one in the 3rd, two and the 4th, and fanning the side in the 5th, just as he had done to start the game. He got opposing pitcher Shane Reynolds looking in the 6th, and then again set Houston down on three straight strikeouts in both the 7th and 8th.

At the plate Chicago had nicked Reynolds for a run in the 2nd and another one in the 8th. Wood headed to the hill for the final inning with a 2-0 lead and 18 strikeouts on the books. He got ahead of pinch hitter Bill Spiers 1-2, before Spiers fouled off a couple of offerings. On the sixth pitch of the at-bat Spiers swung and missed, becoming Wood’s 19th strikeout victim. After Biggio grounded out to short, Wood wasted no time facing Bell. After an opening ball, Wood blew three straight pitches past the Houston right fielder, Bell swinging futilely at each one.

It was one of the most dominant pitching performances ever; and there are no doubt many Cubs fans who would argue with the need to include the qualifier “one of.” The 20 strikeouts broke the single-game record for strikeouts by a rookie, and matched Roger Clemens’ major league record for K’s in a nine inning game. The 20-year old rookie had struck out his age, joining Bob Feller as the only two pitchers to ever accomplish that feat (Feller fanned 17 as a teenager in 1936).

As a rookie Wood went 13-6 for Chicago, helping the long-suffering Cubs to make the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade. The Great Game was in the midst of the steroids era. Mark McGwire and the Cubs Sammy Sosa chased each other to home run heights in 1998. Batters in parks all across the land were trading in their caps for larger sizes. But Wood proved that even when hitters were dominating it was still possible to find success as a power pitcher. He struck out 233 batters in 166 2/3 innings, a phenomenal 12.6 per nine innings. By season’s end he was the NL Rookie of the Year and known far and wide as “Kid K.”

Unfortunately, he also spent the last month of that season on the shelf with elbow soreness. The following spring he underwent Tommy John surgery, thus starting a career-long pattern of accomplishment interspersed with injury. It was two years before Wood regained his form, but beginning in 2001 he recorded more than 200 strikeouts in three successive seasons, including a career high 266 in 2003. That same year he was named to the National League All-Star team, and beat the Braves twice in the NLDS. It was the year the Cubs seemed headed for the World Series, leading the Marlins three games to two in the NLCS and up 3-0 in the 8th inning of Game 6 at home, just five outs from glory. It was the year of Steve Bartman, one of several fans who reached for a foul ball that Moises Alou probably wouldn’t have been able to catch anyway. But we’ll never know of course, and Wood had the unenviable task of starting Game 7 for the shell-shocked Cubs one night late, where he was ultimately charged with the loss.

The end of the Cubs World Series dream in 2003 also effectively marked the end of Wood’s time as a dominant starting pitcher. While he remained a part of the Cubs rotation for the next three seasons, repeated trips to the disabled list caused him to make fewer appearances each year. After bottoming out with just four starts in 2006, many thought Kerry Wood’s career was at an end.

Yet Wood had other ideas. While his shoulder and arm could no longer tolerate the 200-plus inning workload of a starter, he remade himself as a reliever. In 2008 he became Chicago’s closer, and recorded 34 saves while earning another trip to the All-Star game and still firing a 93-94 mile per hour fastball. He went on to pitch out of the bullpen for Cleveland and then moved to the Bronx for the second half of the 2010 season. He became the late-inning bridge to Mariano Rivera down the stretch for the Yankees, and posted a career-best ERA of 0.69, allowing just two earned runs in 26 innings of work, while once again averaging double-digit strikeouts per nine innings.

It was back home to Wrigley Field after his stint with the Yankees, and while Wood was a useful reliever for the Cubs in 2011, this year his velocity was down and the pain had returned. Kerry Wood knew the time had come. Rather than fight it or live in denial, as so many do, he chose to control the moment. He told management of his plans and on May 18th brought his 6-year old son Justin to the ballpark. With the Cubs trailing the White Sox 3-2 in the top of the 8th, Wood was summoned from the bullpen. The batter for the White Sox was left fielder Dayan Viciedo. As if to show that he still could, Wood started with a 96-mph fastball that Viciedo fouled off. His second pitch was a curve, twenty miles per hour slower, which was again fouled away. His next pitch, the last of his career, was another curve; and one last time an opposing batter swung and missed at a pitch from Kerry Wood.

Wood walked off the mound to a hug from his son, the plaudits of his teammates, and a standing ovation from the assembled Cubs fans that would not end until he stepped back out of the dugout for a curtain call. Yes, Wood’s career will always have an element of what if? But it also had plenty of moments of did you see that!? In the end, it also had an athlete controlling his own departure from the stage, and doing so with a signature performance that was the perfect bookend to fifteen years in the Great Game that began with a 20-strikeout masterpiece.  It was a moment that reminded us all that once there was a dominant pitcher known simply as Kid K.

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