Kerry Wood, one of the most beloved and iconic modern Chicago Cubs players, retired back in May. In celebration of this, I reached out to a couple of Cubs fans that I know and asked if they would be interested in writing their thoughts about Kerry. My brothers took me up on the task and I will post their thoughts in the coming days. I have intentionally not looked at their posts yet, because I did not want to be affected by what they have to say. If you also want to share some thoughts, feel free to leave comments and/or email me with a post you’d liked me to publish. Matt’s post is here and Brian’s post is here.
So many thoughts about Kerry Wood, it is hard to figure out where exactly to begin. If you look at his career stats alone, he wasn’t particularly special. His won and loss record was just barely above the break-even point and he only made a couple of All-Star teams. He racked up a lot of strikeouts, but not so many that he is going to walk right into the Hall of Fame in 5 years. In fact, he very well might get eliminated from consideration after his first time on the ballot by getting less than 5% of the vote. At a glance, you might even consider him to be a mediocre pitcher. So then, why was he so memorable? Why is he beloved by so many fans?
What is not captured in any of those statistics were the memories. The moments in time when you saw Kerry pitching and you knew you were seeing greatness developing before your eyes. The electric fastball and the devastating curveball making hitter buckle and bend in disbelief. Wrigley Field only fits about 42,000 fans at a time, but if you go around Chicago you will probably find 100,000 people who say they were at “The Game”. The game when Kerry struck out 20 batters and was virtually un-hittable. Despite the fact that it was neither a perfect game nor a no-hitter (he hit one batter and gave up a fluke infield single), many consider it to be the greatest game ever pitched.
From that moment on, Kerry Wood’s place in Cubs history was sealed. Everyone just knew he was going to go on and do unbelievable things. The Cubs made it to the playoffs for the first time in 9 years that season and Kerry won the Rookie of the year Award. The Cubs got blasted by the Atlanta Braves that year in the playoffs, but no one expected much from them that season against the mighty Braves. Everyone had an eye on the future and that this young man with the golden arm might just bring a World Series title to the north side of Chicago. And every one was right, the future was definitely at hand.
Before the season started the next year, Kerry Wood had torn up his elbow and needed reconstructive surgery. In the past, this injury would mean the sudden end of a pitcher’s career. However, the repair procedure was becoming more successful and most saw this as merely a set back on the road to glory. And while there were still those flashes of greatness, Kerry never fully got back on that road.
Kerry seemed to have a permanent place on the disabled list. Worse than the injuries themselves was the fact that there was so much mystery surrounding his injuries. “Kerry is day-to-day”, “We anticipate him back soon” and so many other vague quotes filled reams and reams of newspaper for the next 10 years. It got to the point where my best friend Scott and I would joke about the reports. Some of my favorites were “Kerry Wood secretly died overnight. He is listed as day to day.” and “While in a training session today, Kerry Wood’s arm flew off of his body mid-pitch. The team has reattached it and anticipates him joining the team on the next home stand.”
In those days, you could have also made the same jokes about Mark Prior (and we did). But no one thinks of Mark in the same way as Kerry. In fact, I think many Cubs fans have some degree of distain for Mark Prior. Their fates are linked together, although Kerry has a much more prominent place in the heart of the fan. Both were often injured, but many got the sense that Mark was just babying his arm. This is a horribly unfair statement for anyone to think. We aren’t in his body and we don’t know what he felt. but we know what we felt when we saw him continue to not be available, while Kerry seemed to be willing and able to push through anything to try to get the Cubs pointed in the right direction. To me, the main difference always seemed to be that Kerry was willing to try to make things work. In the end, I think this is why Kerry Wood has a special place in the hearts of most recent Cubs fans.
In an ironic way, Kerry Wood is the epitome of the Cubs. He has the talent and the determination. He shows flashes of brilliance and occasionally he even approaches the pinnacle of success. But in the end, just when the hero is set to claim his prize and attain immortality, the world comes crashing down around him. The Cubs and Kerry Wood are one and the same.
Ryan Sandberg was steady and not at all flashy. Cubs fans probably took him a little bit for granted. Andre Dawson was beloved for playing hard and for showing everyone that he wanted to be no where else in the entire world than in right field for the Chicago Cubs. Greg Maddux left and did his best work with another team. There were countless failed prospects, ill-fated signings and trades, not to mention poor strategic decisions on the field. But through it all, there was Kerry Wood and the hope for a better tomorrow.
For me, my lasting memory of Kerry Wood will be a moment in the 2003 NLDS against the Braves. I believe it was in the first game of the series, which he started. While I knew we had a good team, the Braves were a very good team and were in the middle of an historic run of playoff appearances. I thought we might be able to beat them, but surely fate would intervene. At one point in the game, Kerry is on the mound and unleashes a pitch. The batter hits it sharply up the middle, surely a base hit. Kerry always pulled his body off to the side when he pitched and he was rarely in position to make any kind of play on a ball hit up the middle. Yet on this play, Kerry casually stuck his glove hand behind his back and snagged the ball, throwing to first base to get the out. It was at that point that I realized that we were going to go on to win our first playoff series in 95 years. And for once, that glimpse of the future came true. If only the rest of his career could have followed suit.