Once upon a time I loved Kerry Wood.
Forgive me, Cardinals fans. It was 1998 and my first year following baseball again after a 10-year hiatus — one that both started and ended with me as a Cubs fan.
1998, as you recall, was quite a year in baseball. The home run chase became a thrill as I worked my way back into living and breathing the sport again. (And it was my growing admiration of Mark McGwire as the season went on that ultimately led to my Cardinals conversion two years later.)
The ups and downs of the Cubs captivated me again like they did when I was a teenager, especially that hard-throwing 20-year-old rookie pitcher.
Before May 6, I didn’t necessarily know all that much about him — as I said, I’d quit following baseball for 10 years and had to ease my way back in. Plus it wasn’t as easy to keep up with the minute-by-minute happenings back in the old days of 14 years ago when technology wasn’t quite as advanced. I heard about his 20-strikeout game as I was driving home from work, via a sports report by David Kaplan on WGN Radio. Only I missed the beginning of the report, so I wasn’t exactly sure what Wood had done.
From the tone of Kaplan’s voice, it was obviously something incredible — my first instinct was a no-hitter. Not that I was disappointed when I found out the details. And my vague memory is that the game was rebroadcast that night and I saw it. Maybe I just saw the highlights and the strikeouts so many times it seems like I saw the entire game.
After that, watching his starts became appointment viewing. The curveball, those strikeouts — aside from Chip Caray’s overly enthusiastic gushing on TV, I loved watching the kid out there blowing the ball by batter after batter.
I did see Wood pitch in person that year, on Oct. 3. Somehow I’d managed to get through by phone the day Cubs playoff tickets went on sale. Then, the Cubs had to actually make the playoffs — which they did in that crazy game 163 against the Giants to determine the wild card winner. By Oct. 3, game three of the division series, it was do or die for the Cubs since the Braves had a 2-0 series lead.
Honestly, it was one of the most exciting games I’ve ever been to. Of course they lost and our seats were in the top row of the upper deck on a very windy night, but there was such an energy and electricity in Wrigley Field that night. It was Wood’s first start since the end of August, with September missed because of elbow trouble. He lasted five innings against Greg Maddux, Cubs past vs. Cubs future, and allowed only one run. An amazing night despite the outcome.
Then Wood blew out his elbow in spring training of 1999 and had Tommy John surgery and didn’t start again until May 2000 — by which time I was a Cardinals fan.
I did see him pitch later that year, in September at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals were closing in on the NL Central title and he faced off against Darryl Kile on a Sunday afternoon. It was a tense pitchers duel, Wood allowing one run in six innings and Kile allowing two in eight. But the Cubs bullpen and defense were typical and the Cards won 4-2. It was Kile’s 19th win and it reduced the Cards magic number to one — somewhere I have a photo of the scoreboard at old Busch that says “Magic Number: 1.”
But even though my team loyalties changed, I couldn’t ever dislike Kerry Wood. He didn’t capture my day-to-day attention anymore, and his starting-pitching-appointment-viewing was replaced first by Matt Morris and then Chris Carpenter. And, yes, I hated what the Cubs did from time to time — never more so than during most of 2003 — but it was impossible to hate him.
It all goes back to 1998 and the excitement of my return to following baseball, his role in that. Plus I can’t hate him for what he could have been, without the injuries. That unfulfilled promise — and his own way of not letting that bother him.
Plus, honestly, I have to appreciate those times his performances actually benefited the Cardinals.
I can’t be as eloquent as Julie DiCaro in her amazing tribute to Kerry, but I was already thinking about writing this before I read her post. Because when I heard about the retirement but the desire to pitch once more, I knew I had to listen to yesterday’s White Sox-Cubs game. I knew he would pitch.
Once the Sox announcers said Wood was coming into the game in the top of the eighth, I turned my computer’s speakers up. One strike to Dayan Viciedo. Two strikes …
What a storybook finish, a three-pitch strikeout.
The roar of the Wrigley crowd, the descriptions of Adam Dunn tipping his cap and the entire White Sox dugout standing and applauding too, Wood’s son running out of the Cubs dugout to greet his dad … it moved me to tears, just via sound.
Such an amazing close to a career, even just hearing it via computer. Here’s my own applause to Kerry Wood, for knowing it was time and going out on his terms and doing it his own way — and for getting that strikeout.
His career wasn’t perfect — nothing ever is. Yet he did manage to have the perfect ending.
Christine Coleman is the senior St. Louis Cardinals reporter for Aaron Miles’ Fastball. Follow her on Twitter, @CColeman802, or email email@example.com. Also follow @AMilesFastball for the latest updates.