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August 17, 2001

The Daily Prospectus

Kerry Wood

by Stuart Shea

"I have this strange feeling of...deja-vu..."

"I have this strange feeling of...deja-vu..."

"I have this strange feeling of...deja-vu..."

Only on "Monty Python's Flying Circus" could this happen. Or maybe at Wrigley Field, where the worries about Kerry Wood's health are constant.

Two weeks ago, ominous creaking sounds began to emanate from Wood's right shoulder. At first, the Cubs said it was just a strain, and that he'd be careful throwing on the sidelines. Then, last week, it was decided that Kid K would miss a start. Then, over the weekend, the Cubs placed him on the disabled list.

This is just the latest example of the way information filters out in baseball. And since things generally progress from bad to worse when injuries are involved, make room in your brain for the following precept: "minor" injuries are nearly always worse than initially reported. Especially when they happen to pitchers who have already undergone surgery.

When Kerry Wood ripped open his elbow in spring 1999, there was little room for interpretation. It was a torn ligament, pure and simple. But when something just "hurts," it's tendinitis, a medical term for "we hope it stops hurting soon."

Who knows how long Wood will be unavailable, and how much his game will be affected? It's clear that he will have to deal with physical pain for most of his career. His mechanics are okay, but his arm action is explosive enough to put a huge amount of stress on both his elbow and shoulder.

Much has been made of the Cubs' overuse of Wood, and the organization still has questions to answer. However, it's hard to blame anyone but Wood himself for most of his problems. The guy throws a lot of pitches, even when he's getting people out. And it's hard to count on a starting pitcher who you have to worry about taking out after five or so innings because he's going 3-2 on every hitter.

Wood has plenty of pitches in his arsenal--a 98-mph fastball, fall-off-the-table curve, darting slider, baffling change-up--but rarely are even three of them working at the same time. And his wildness, which keeps batters off balance and can get them to swing at pitches outside the strike zone, also makes it even money that he won't get a lot of close calls from umpires.

Therefore, the very things that make Wood hard to hit also mean that he's going to throw a lot of pitches.

Other great young hard-throwing pitchers have suffered through the same sorts of command problems and grown out of them. Randy Johnson led the AL in walks three consecutive times. Nolan Ryan led his league in walks eight times. Unfortunately, despite having stuff that is equal to theirs, Wood isn't made of the same physical stuff as those men. Early in their careers, Johnson and Ryan weren't coddled. They were just extraordinary physical specimens, the kind that come up once every 20 years.

The Cubs and their fans have to hope that Wood is more like Jim Palmer or Curt Schilling, pitchers who overcame serious arm injuries suffered in their youth, than Chuck Estrada, Dick Drott, Don Gullett, or Gary Nolan, tremendously talented young men who never recovered from debilitating injuries.

20 years ago, Wood might not have ever come back from his disastrous elbow injury. The fact that he has already faced baseball mortality once, and recovered, is a good sign. His reasonably good health should be cause for joy for Cubs fans, but a combination of his poor command and his organization's need to get him in there every five days means that Wood's continued health is not a certainty.

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