Today is May 6th, 2013, 15 years to the day that something very special happened at Wrigley Field. In 1998, the Cubs made it to the playoffs as the National League wild card after a nine-year absence and when Sammy Sosa was going bonkers and helping North Siders and America love baseball again. But on May 6th, 1998, before Sammy’s power surge kicked in, a young pitcher making his fifth start ever opened our eyes and made us really pay attention.
That Astros team was no slouch either. In addition to should-be Hall of Famers Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, they also had a pretty damned good hitter in Moises Alou and the lineup was good enough to win 102 games and take the Central. Despite having the pitcher’s spot, only one of the K’s was to the opposing pitcher (Shane Reynolds, who also had a bunt) and another was to the pinch-hitter. The game score of 105 is the highest on record, putting this as the most dominating pitching performance of all time at least by this statistic.
You can read all about Kerry Wood here. We know he won Rookie of the Year in 1998, had a bunch of injury problems, came back to grab a couple All-Star spots (one as a starter for the 2003 squad, one as the closer for the 2008 squad), and then those injuries caught up to him. In that 20-K game, Wood threw 122 pitches. Normally that shouldn’t be an issue, but Wood himself suggested that he felt the first of many arm issues during that start.
We can look at Kerry Wood as a cautionary tale for baseball in general. Baseball players come and go, and very few stand the test of time and go on to become all-time greats. That doesn’t mean that Kerry Wood was crap. Wood was very productive during parts of 14 seasons and a key part of four Cubs playoff teams as well as a consistent contributor to the Yankees playoff squad of 2010. He just got very unlucky with injuries, something that unfortunately happens to many professional athletes. He tried to fight through it, and couldn’t…and so he retired in one of the best going-away deals most of us have ever witnessed:
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I know that many folks are cynical about Wood receiving far more praise than he might have deserved. Wood earned over $70MM (before Uncle Sam’s cut) over his career and never really had a bad story written about him to my recollection. He was probably overpaid to be a mascot last season before his retirement, but Wood brings back a lot of good memories and thoughts of what might have been. I think it’s reasonable to think about the hypothetical, and to recognize that at one point, before he was a mediocre GM, Jim Hendry was pretty good at scouting and put together a rotation that had Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano where the sky was the limit. In addition to baseball, Kerry Wood is a steady presence in Chicago events and holds fundraisers periodically to help out local charities.
If folks choose to dwell on how Kerry Wood might have stolen some extra cash over the past couple seasons when he should have retired, that’s their issue. I choose to remember the potential that was and could have been, and the person off the field who still loves Chicago as much as most of us do. It’s good to have good memories. In a century-plus of fail, this was one of the best.