After a 14-year career that never quite lived up to its initial promise but still provided plenty of thrills, Kerry Wood finally called it quits on Friday. The 34-year-old Chicago Cubs pitcher announced his retirement after a final swan song at Wrigley Field — striking out Dayan Viciedo, the only batter he faced in a 3-2 loss to the crosstown Chicago White Sox.
Wood hanging it up in the middle of the season should not have come as a surprise if you'd been following him during 2012. Coming into Friday's action he had allowed eight runs, eight hits and 11 walks over 8 1/3 innings of work and his lone highlight before Friday's sendoff — tossing his glove and cap into the stands after blowing a lead last week — was anything but. A lot of Cubs fans were skeptical that Wood had anything left when he signed a one-year contract worth $3 million last offseason and the aging right-hander did nothing to prove those doubters wrong.
That still doesn't mean that this wasn't a sad day in Chicago sports. Wood has always been a fan favorite on the North Side of Chicago, beginning with his days as a phenom in 1998 and lasting through the elder statesman portion of his career. While fans in other locales may snicker at Cubs fans calling him one of the best pitchers in team history, they fail to see it's a judgment levied by people looking for a way to honor a career they enjoyed following.* It's based on his close relationship with the late Ron Santo and his involvement with fans and in the community. Not to get too armchair psychiatrist on you, but I think it's also based on the fact Wood's struggles also seem indicative of the Cubs' plight this last century-plus. Desipio's Andy Dolan — as cynical of a Cubs fan as they come — nicely sums the romance here.
*No one in their right mind, after all, would give Wood that "best" title based solely on a career ledger that never saw Wood post a season ERA under three, start a game after his 29th birthday or post more than 14 wins in one year.
But we wouldn't be here in the first place if it weren't for Wood's unbelievable talent. It might be hard for some baseball fans to remember now, but Wood burst onto the scene in 1998 with that incredible 20-strikeout game against the Houston Astros and every start by "Kid K" after that was the equivalent of "Strasmas" in that pre-social media time. Wood was a fantasy phenomenon, racking up a K/9 rate of 12.6 in his age-21 season and served as the surprise story of the '98 season until Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire artificially muscled their way into the picture. You know the rest of the story: Wood then blew his arm out and missed the entire 1999 season before returning to become a stalwart in the Cubs rotation. He teamed with Mark Prior to lead the Cubs into the 2003 playoffs and then later served as a closer on the 2008 team that won 97 games and a NL Central championship. He finishes his career with 86 wins and 63 saves while his career ERA rests at 3.67.
I recently saw someone say that people are mourning the passing of time when they mourn the passing of a celebrity. That's a little how I feel about seeing Wood's career come to an end. Back in 1998, I made it a point to come home from the University of Wisconsin one weekend to attend Wood's first start at Wrigley. He struck out seven Dodgers in five innings of work that day. I made sure to keep score and wrote "Kerry Wood's first home start" on the back of my ticket stub. Just in case he one day became a Hall of Famer, of course.
Wood's health and mechanics never allowed that to become anywhere close to a possibility, but that's far from the only effective barometer of a career. As he prepares to enter the next stage of his life — I imagine it will involve the Cubs in some capacity — I sit here and remember a few of the milepost memories he planted in mine. Moving a radio around an office in Madison, trying to get the right reception so I could hear the final innings of that glorious game against the Astros. Using a day off of work in Kansas City to watch this September 2003 gem against the Mets and then drinking entirely too much in celebration afterward. Being amazed that the Cubs had won its first (and only) postseason series since 1908 with a Game 5 effort in the NLDS against the Atlanta Braves and then being certain that his home run in Game 7 of the 2003 NLCS — which I watched from the 500-section along the first base line — was going to absolve everyone involved in the Game 6 loss while lifting the team to its first World Series since 1945.
Writing for the next day's paper that an inconsolable Wood considered the loss his fault.
Finally, writing this recollection of his career for a national website, which is certainly a much bigger forum than the dollar scorecard I used to record seven strikeouts on that day 14 years ago.
Maybe you're out there, nodding your head along to these stories, changing some of the details to fit the story of your own life. Or maybe you're just a baseball fan who can look at Wood's career and agree that some of life's best-laid plans never come to pass and that your true score is reflected by what you do when things go wrong.
Either way is viable and they show why we invest our time and emotions in players that most of us will never meet. Kerry Wood could have been one of baseball's most famous flameout stories had he not chosen to battle through all of the misfortune that fell upon that gifted right arm of his.
Instead, by playing the hands he was dealt, he goes out as a great "what he was" tale.
"What he was" ended up being a pretty darn good pitcher.
And, yes, a great Chicago Cub.
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