Kerry Wood announced his retirement this past weekend. It’s more of a Chicago story, although Wood briefly played for the Yankees in 2010. The news didn’t created a ripple here in New York, but its interesting how Wood symbolizes such a promising, yet frustrating era in Cubs history. The lessons learned from it can be applied to any sport in any town.
Everyone remembers the 20-strikeout game against the Astros in 1998. Twenty K’s is remarkable, but the fact he was able to do it against that lineup is amazing. Houston had Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Derek Bell and Moises Alou all in their prime. This was a team that averaged 5.5 runs a game that season with the pitcher batting. They combined to strike out nine times, six by Bagwell and Alou. Truly an accomplishment for any pitcher; much less a 21-year old kid making his fifth big league start.
Wood would not only become the second pitcher in history to strike out 20 that day (Roger Clemens is the other), but he would tie Clemens and Nolan Ryan for most strikeouts over a two game span when he fanned another 13 against the Diamondbacks five days later. The Cubs finally had their ace and were entering a new era. Even elbow problems that led to Tommy John surgery couldn’t dampen their hopes. Wood had a 100 mph fastball and a nasty curve and slider as secondary pitches. He wasn’t just a fireballer, he had the tools to be a pitcher. Even Ryan didn’t possess that at the same age.
Wood was teamed with Mark Prior in 2001. In a three year span the Cubs possessed the two most talked about young pitchers in the game. How could anyone beat them in a 7-game series? If they didn’t blow a 3-1 lead to the Marlins in that ’03 NLCS they had a great shot at defeating the Yankees. An inferior Miami team did, so why not the Cubbies?
I know what you are thinking: Steve Bartman. Regardless, the pitching foundation was in place for the Cubs to rebound from that tough loss. The Red Sox lost an equally crushing series that October and rebounded the following season.
You could blame the Billy Goat curse or Dusty Baker pushing both Wood and Prior too hard, too soon. The reality is Wood, just like Prior, didn’t have the mechanics to sustain health for any period of time. Former Cy Young Award winner and Cubs broadcaster, Steve Stone, pointed out how Wood throwing across his body put extreme pressure on his arm. The window for Wood, Prior and the Cubs came and went in 2003. They squeezed another year of contention the following season, but both pitchers already were breaking down.
Could you imagine how baseball would be in the city of Chicago if both these pitchers stayed healthy? With Wood and Prior at the top of the rotation it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t be contenders on a yearly basis. Perhaps it would be the Cubs, not the Cardinals that have two World Series championships the last five years. Maybe they could have gone on a “Red Sox type” yearly playoff run in the National League.
The lesson learned from Wood and Prior is you could never prevent injuries to young pitchers. No innings limit would help these two kids. Science dictated they were bound to get hurt, and it was only a matter of time before it happened. You have to be responsible and put young kids in a position to stay as healthy as possible. You can’t, however treat them like glass china that could break at any moment. That’s because they can, and will, regardless of planning. When you have an opportunity to win you go for it.
The Cubs did that with their two young hurlers and it didn’t work out. Wood started Game 7 in 2003 and didn’t get it done. There is nothing you can do about it. That’s why the Nationals treatment of Stephen Strasberg is laughable. He also suffers from poor mechanics. He will also get hurt- how often or serious we don’t know- and keeping him parked in the driveway won’t change a thing. The Nationals are only hurting themselves.
The fact that Wood was able to stick around for 14 seasons is remarkable. Prior is a true “flash in the pan,” but Wood excelled as a starter and reliever. Want to know how good his first season was? Since 1901 only Pedro Martinez (’99) and Randy Johnson (’01) had a better K/9 rate than Wood’s 12.6. His rookie campaign was better than anything Dwight Gooden produced in his heyday of 1984 and ’85. Stephen Strasburg produced a 12.2 in 2010, but unlike Wood, he didn’t come close to qualifying for the ERA title.
Kerry Wood seemed content after he struck out Dayan Viciedo to finish his inning of work and cap off his career. “I had a blast. I wouldn’t trade it in. I learned from the injuries, I learned about my body and what it takes to compete and go out and play every day, ‘he said to reporters after his Friday appearance, ironically against the Cubs cross-town rivals, the White Sox.
What if? No use thinking about it today. It’s better to enjoy what you have when it’s in front of you. Sounds like Kerry Wood did that and is leaving the game fulfilled, even though he never lived up to the promises of 1998.
Wood and the Cubs gave it their best shot. They came up short.