The Legend of Kerry Wood

Back in 1995, I was ten years old and still relatively new to Cub fandom. I remember studying the sports page of the newspaper one day – as I used to do every day before the internet and smartphones – and saw the results of the first round of the MLB Draft. The Cubs selected fourth and chose pitcher Kerry Wood. Not knowing much about the draft and developing minor league players at the time, I didn’t give it much thought other than that I hoped he would be a star for the big league team someday.

Three years later, at 20 years old, Wood burst onto the scene in about the biggest way possible. In just his fifth major league start, he threw a complete game shutout in which he allowed just one hit – a controversial infield single – and tied a record with 20 strikeouts against the juggernaut Houston Astros offense. I didn’t watch the game live, so I can’t say I have memories of it. But I’ve seen lots of replays, and he may have been as on top of his game that day as any pitcher ever has.

As we are about to reach the 20th anniversary of that day, this remains one of the most legendary moments in Cubs history. And while it is indeed worth celebrating, it’s unfortunate that this moment, to this day, defines Kerry Wood’s career. Wood came to the big leagues with huge expectations, which grew even more after the 20 K game. He peaked too early; he was a victim of his early success. There was nowhere to go but down from there.

And indeed, things didn’t go exactly as planned. Wood did have a stellar first year, finishing 1998 with 13 wins, a 3.40 ERA, and an astonishing 233 strikeouts in 166.2 innings while winning NL Rookie of the Year honors. But due to an arm injury, he had to miss the final month of the regular season before appearing in the playoffs against the Atlanta Braves. Then, early in 1999, the team learned that he would need Tommy John surgery. His sophomore season was over before it began. Wood has since been a case study on overuse of pitchers early in a career, though Wood never seemed to blame his manager, Jim Riggleman, or anyone else.

Wood’s return in 2000 was up and down, as we could expect, but then he went on a tremendous three-year run in which he made 93 starts, won 38 games, posted a 3.41 ERA, and struck out 700 batters in 599 innings. This was capped by his win in the decisive Game 5 of the 2003 NLDS against the heavily favored Atlanta Braves. Though his 20 K game still gets all the attention, his Game 5 performance was my favorite Kerry Wood moment. For a team that hadn’t won a postseason series in 95 years, this was a big deal. Wood could have cemented his legacy among the greatest of Cubs legends had he come through in Game 7 of the 2003 NLCS, but instead he gave up seven runs in the Cubs’ eventual 9-6 defeat to the Florida Marlins.

After that, he again had trouble staying on the field, missing good portions of 2004 and 2005, then most of 2006, due to injuries. It would have been easy to give up at that point, but we have to give him credit for having both the foresight and the humility to agree to become a reliever starting in 2007. He was an effective closer for the 2008 NL Central Championship team, collecting 34 saves and earning just his second NL All-Star selection (the other coming in 2003).

After the 2008 season, Wood left for the Cleveland Indians to become their closer. When the Indians came to Wrigley Field in interleague play that year, I remember Wood coming into the game with a lead in the ninth, giving up a home run to Derrek Lee that tied the game. (The Cubs eventually won.) I remember cheering, though a big part of me felt bad about it. Wood did so much for this team, and to root against him in his first appearance back at the Friendly Confines didn’t seem right. The next day, Wood allowed the Cubs’ winning run to score on a wild pitch. That might be the only time I can recall when a big part of me actually felt bad after a Cubs win.

After stints with the Indians and New York Yankees over the next two years – the latter during which he allowed just two runs in 26 innings – Wood turned down bigger offers to come back to the Cubs in 2011, where he stayed until he retired in May of 2012. It was the right thing to do, for both sides. It never seemed right for Wood to pitch for anyone else.

Despite the shortcomings of his career, Kerry Wood remains one of the most beloved Cubs of the past generation. In the era between Ryne Sandberg and the current cast of players that has produced three straight playoff appearances and a World Series title, it’s hard to think of a player that fans revere more. Maybe Mark Grace or Sammy Sosa, though the latter tarnished his reputation with his actions late in his career.

When Wood struck out Dayan Viciedo of the Chicago White Sox in his final major league appearance, he walked off the field to a long and thunderous ovation, one of the few bright spots in an otherwise forgettable 61-101 season in 2012. It was the first year of the Theo Epstein Era, so it was as if Wood was passing the torch to the next generation of Cubs Baseball. Perhaps he failed to live up to expectations throughout his career. But the fans weren’t even thinking about that. They were congratulating a pitcher who, despite many obstacles, managed to stick around for over 14 years and remained loyal to the team that gave him his big chance.

Perhaps more importantly, he stayed humble the whole time. Even at 20 years old, Wood turned down appearances on late night TV after his 20 K game, wishing to not make too big of a deal out of his accomplishment. I think most fans wouldn’t have had a problem with him going on TV, but his heart was in the right place. Staying out of the spotlight is impossible for a Major League Baseball player, but Wood carried himself with about as much character as we could expect from someone in his position. His charity work, along with his continued involvement with this team, has endeared him to fans all the more.

Over the next few days, a lot of people are going to bring up the 20 strikeout game, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s so much more to Kerry Wood than that one game. And instead of thinking about what might have been had Wood been able to avoid injury during his playing days, I prefer to think about what was – and given his continued involvement with the team and the community, what will be.

Brian Johnston is the author of the book The Art of Being a Baseball Fan, his story of following the 2015 Chicago Cubs, available on Amazon. He lives in St. Joseph, Michigan with his wife and two children.

Photo courtesy of UCinternational via Wikimedia Commons. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kerry_Wood_2008.jpg