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May 21, 2012

Inside The Park

Farewell to a Phenom

by Bradford Doolittle

Orson Welles used to say the key to playing a larger-than-life character was to give him plenty of advance billing before he actually appears on the stage or screen. Harry Lime becomes the most interesting character in The Third Man more than 50 minutes before Welles makes his dramatic entrance in the film. It was a little like that with Kerry Wood, whose ridiculous velocity, strapping build, and Texas background had him pegged as the heir to Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens before we ever saw him in Chicago.

Wood was the fourth pick of the 1995 draft, taken behind Darin Erstad, Ben Davis, and Jose Cruz Jr., and almost immediately there were problems. Less than a week after the Cubs drafted him, Mike McGilvray, his high school coach back in Grand Prairie, Texas, used him in both ends of a doubleheader in the state quarterfinals. Wood threw 145 pitches in the first game and 32 more in the nightcap. Grand Prairie won both games.

"The only reason you're hearing a lot about this is because Kerry's a No. 1 draft pick," McGilvray told reporters at the time. "I don't think extending him one time is going to ruin his career."

Ed Lynch, the Cubs' general manager at the time, was livid.

"It's just unbelievable that a so-called coach would not only jeopardize this kid's future, but his own position," Lynch told reporters. "This kind of behavior is borderline negligence."

McGilvray defended himself by saying Wood had been babied all season, but now we know how things turned out. That's not to put Wood's troubles on McGilvray. Wood signed with the Cubs, and everything seemed fine during his rapid ascent through the minor leagues. His imminent arrival created buzz for a fan base mired in some moribund seasons, those pre-1998 Cubs whose high point was having an aged Ryne Sandberg come out of retirement for one more go-around.

Wood posted huge strikeout totals as a minor leaguer, but his mechanics were questionable, to say the least, and his issues in that regard were never solved. I'm no expert on pitching mechanics, but it's been written many times that he threw across his body with a short stride, an approach that made him all arm and no legs. His arm motion took the infamous shape of the "Inverted L" when he delivered his pitches. After his follow-through, he fell off to the third-base side of the mound. He threw too many sliders. There were red flags sticking out of his ears.

Whatever Wood's technical issues might have been, his triple-digit velocity and wicked slider were always there, and we all drooled over them. He struck out 322 batters during his two full minor-league seasons, and after making a single start in Triple-A in 1998, he was summoned to Chicago to make his big-league debut. In those aforementioned minor-league seasons, Wood had the strikeouts, but he also had a 3.86 ERA. He walked 201 batters, hit 30 more, threw 28 wild pitches, and committed 13 balks. This was a pitcher ready to take on the world's best hitters?

One of the Cubs' critics at the time was McGilvray, who worried through the media that Wood was being rushed to the majors. Nevertheless, on April 12, 1998, Wood took the ball for the first time as a big leaguer, losing to the Expos at Stade Olympique. He pitched five shutout innings against the Dodgers in his Wrigley Field debut but was shelled for seven runs by L.A. the next time out, when he failed to escape the second inning. Start no. 4 was more promising—seven strong innings in a home win over the Cardinals.

Through four starts, Wood's results had been up and down. He'd struck out 25 but walked 12 in 18 1/3 innings, and his ERA was 5.89. Had he been rushed? In his next start, those lingering concerns would be erased.

***

The highlight of Kerry Wood's final season came way back in January, at the Cubs' annual convention in downtown Chicago. At the time the festivities began, Wood was a free agent, and reportedly his negotiations with the new Cubs management team weren't going too well. The year before, he'd run into old pal Jim Hendry at a gathering in the aftermath of Ron Santo's funeral. Wood made it known that he wanted to come back to Chicago and that it wouldn't cost much to make it happen. He and Hendry reached a quick accord, and a press conference was held.

"I truly feel like I'm back where I belong," Wood said. "I hope to be here for many years to come."

When Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took over, it seemed that practicality had taken the place of sentiment in the Cubs’ way of doing things. Wood was mostly effective out of the bullpen last season, but these guys weren't going to bring him back based on sentiment. The price had to be right. If they couldn't work out the numbers, he'd simply retire. On the opening night of CubbieCon, the players were introduced one by one. Suddenly, Cubs broadcaster Pat Hughes said, "Our most recent acquisition, who might look familiar … Kerry Wood!" The throng crammed into the old ballroom exploded.

Wood didn't pitch a whole lot during spring training, nor that well, but he was battling back problems that weren't expected to extend into the regular season. Then in the season opener, he blew a save by walking three of the four batters he faced. Two days later, he gave up three hits and three runs to the Nationals. His appearances weren't all disastrous, but this news was: on April 21, the Cubs placed Wood on the disabled list because of "right shoulder fatigue."

"We just felt to be safe, to get him completely ready to go, instead of waiting a couple of days to see how things were going," Sveum said. "Part of the reason we wanted to DL him is because we don't want this to carry on. We want him to get strong for the rest of the season."

Right shoulder fatigue isn't really an injury, and as I've learned the last couple of years, the more vague the description a team uses to describe a player's injury, the more ominous it tends to be. Personally, I figured that was all we'd see of Wood. It was the 16th time he'd been placed on the disabled list since breaking into the majors. Enough is enough.

***

Back on May 30, 1982, Orioles pitcher Steve Stone retired because of a dual dose of trouble—recurrent problems with both his elbow and shoulder. He was less than two years removed from winning 25 games and the AL Cy Young Award, but he'd also had some lean years before that. He was 34 years old, and his options were these: quit or have surgery, then take 18 months off and hope he could make it back to a lesser version of himself. He decided to quit and informed Baltimore general manager Hank Peters of his intentions. Coincidentally, Cal Ripken Jr. started at shortstop for the Orioles that night, which didn't seem newsworthy at the time, but it was in fact the first of 2,632 straight games Ripken would go on to play.

"As I sat in my chair in Baltimore, I wondered if I took off my uniform if it should be the last time, knowing that if I did take it off it would be the last time," Stone said. "I just could never be the pitcher that I was. I'd seen both sides. I'd seen the top and seen the bottom, and I didn't want to see the bottom again.

"Four days later, I was in a booth in Montreal with Al Michaels and Don Drysdale for Monday Night Baseball. A week after that, I was with Al Michaels and Howard Cosell for Monday Night Baseball at Fenway Park. This is 30-some years later, and I'm still coming to the ballpark, which is the best part of the whole thing."

Stone has become one of the more famous color analysts in the history of baseball broadcasting, working for years alongside Harry Caray with the Cubs, then with Caray’s grandson, Chip. After a parting of the ways with the Northsiders, he joined the White Sox, where he now toils alongside Hawk Harrelson. He said he didn't have any idea that he'd leap right into the broadcast booth at the time he retired, just that he couldn't play anymore.

"There is life after baseball," Stone said. "I found it. Everybody that's been a player finds it.

Some players go into managing, such as Dale Sveum and Robin Ventura, who both spoke of their retirements almost as if they were evolutionary processes.

"When you get into that part of your career … one year I played at a high level … when you've played at such a high level, some of my good friends that retired, it's the most difficult thing you've ever had to deal with," Sveum said. "The time comes for everybody, and you make that decision."

Ventura was a better player than Sveum, but that didn't make it any easier for him to quit.

"It's tough, everybody gets to that point," Ventura said. "It's not always easy. Everybody that plays the game wishes they could play longer. That's the toughest thing, is to make that choice."

***

Let's take stock here. Kerry Wood is a 34-year-old right-handed pitcher who has won 86 big-league games and saved 63 more. He was the 1998 Rookie of the Year and made two All-Star teams. He never placed in the Cy Young voting, never won more than 14 games, and led his league in strikeouts exactly once. If he had come up a 90-mile-per-hour sinkerballer for the Kansas City Royals and gone on to play for six other teams, this story would not exist. Why does it?

I think it has something to do with unfulfilled promise, but also something to do with a human being. Because he's been injured so often, he's another chapter in the too-long tome on baseball history titled What Could Have Been.

"Kerry Wood came up with the highest of expectations," Stone said. "He came up with as good of stuff as we've ever seen in this league. You talk about Strasburg, you talk about the impact that Gooden had, the reality was that Kerry's stuff was better than both of those guys, and those guys’ stuff was terrific. Kerry had a 100 MPH fastball, an unhittable curveball, an unhittable slider.

"The hopes and prayers of Cubs fans seeing that thought that this is a guy that's going to rival Fergie Jenkins. He won 20 games six years in a row. This guy's stuff is better, so there's no reason why he can't do that. It was a fatal flaw in the delivery that wound up doing him in."

Sports fans are hard on players they perceive to be underachievers, and Chicago is no exception. Alfonso Soriano, one of the nicest players in the game, is routinely booed because he's paid truckloads of money to be a not-very-good baseball player. Wood was supposed to be Roger Clemens, and he wound up as an above-average set-up man. Yet, as we saw in January, the adulation of Cubs fans has not been diminished.

"The stuff he does on the field for the team pales in comparison to what he does off the field, what kind of human being he is," Ryan Dempster said. "Sometimes it's easy to just walk away and say 'I don't want to put the work in to come back from this.' He's always fought his way to come back and has done really well, from successful starter to closer, to whatever he's done.

"He's definitely going to be missed. The city of Chicago and Cubs fans love him, and understandably so. When they feel that way about somebody, it's for the right reasons. It's because he's a great teammate, a great player, and a great human."

And perhaps there is something to be said about leaving them wanting more, which is another axiom from the entertainment industry to which Welles also surely subscribed.

"The most games he ever won was 14," Stone said. "I think Kerry epitomizes a lot of Cubs teams. I go back to '84, '88, '98, 2003—no matter how good Kerry was, Cubs fans felt he should be better. I think with those teams, it was the same thing, that they should have been better."

For some, the torment would be unimaginable. To know that you were blessed with the ability to possibly become the best ever at your craft, only to be betrayed, by your body, by your teams, by the game itself. Wood made a lot of money in the game, started a family and grew from a boy to a man, all while becoming a pillar of the Chicago community. But like Roy Hobbs, he could have been so much more.

"Arms like that come up maybe once every other generation," Stone said. "Don't look for the 100 mile-per-hour fastball, with snap-dragon curveball and a slider that just disappears. That kind of stuff isn't coming back any time soon."

And despite so much that was left undone, Wood became a fan favorite, even a hero. Why?

"I don't have an answer for that," Wood said afterwards. "I don't. These fans have seen me. They started reading about me when I was 17 when I was drafted. I spent my adult life, half my life to this point, has been in this uniform. I've been blessed. I feel like fans have always supported me through all the injuries and comebacks and all that."

***

Could Wood have been babied more as a young pitcher, or did his mechanics make all of this disappointment inevitable? We'll never really know for sure.

"Kerry has said he wasn't overpitched," Stone said. "He's gone on record as saying that. His mechanics were the thing that made it very difficult. I've never seen a fireballer who could throw 100 miles per hour that threw that much across his body and held up.

"I've seen a lot of sinkerballers do it, and it helps the sinker, guys that throw from 85 to 90. I've seen them throw across the body and thrive. Rick Reuschel from right here with the Cubs comes to mind. He did that all the time. A real fireballer, you won't find all that many that hold up, and Kerry unfortunately did not hold up."

During his rookie season, during which he turned 21 years old, Wood threw 100 pitches or more in 21 of his 26 starts. He went over 110 pitches 14 times and exceeded 120 on eight occasions. He topped out at 133. There was a four-start stretch in July when his pitch count went 118, 122, 128, and 123. The 133 came in his second-to-last start of the regular season, a 16-strikeout performance at Cincinnati. After throwing 116 pitches his next time out, he went on the shelf for the last month of the season because of a sprained ligament in his elbow. Still, he returned to make a start in the playoffs after the season, when he faced Greg Maddux.

All of this happened under Jim Riggleman, who years later would also oversee the rookie season of Nationals sensation Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg never cracked 100 pitches in 12 starts, but he blew his elbow anyway.

The next spring, Wood's elbow popped. One veteran sports writer who was there told me that, "He threw a pitch, and his elbow flew into the dugout." He missed the entire 1999 season. When he returned, Don Baylor was at the helm. Wood didn't pitch wonderfully that first season back, but he made it through intact. Over the next two seasons, his innings totals and strikeouts edged up, but Baylor used him for 120 pitches or more only three times.

Then came Dusty Baker. In 2003, Wood had 13 starts of 120 pitches or more, two over 130, and a 141-pitch, seven-inning effort. He threw 100 or more in 25 starts that regular season, then four more times in the playoffs. It was his last season as a full-time starter. After three years of injuries and ineffectiveness, he was finally shifted to the bullpen for good. His last start was on June 6, 2006. He didn't make it out of the fourth and didn't strike out a batter.

Despite Wood’s workloads, Stone insists the mechanics were the root of the problem.

"Every fastball, the big ones, the Nolan Ryans of the world, Tom Seavers of the world, even Strasburg, if you watch them pitch, their hips clear," Stone said, demonstrating how a pitcher's hips should square up by the time the ball is delivered. "Their strides are towards the outside of the plate, or the middle of the plate."

I noted that the across-the-body motion of Wood undercut the power from his legs, which were so sturdy looking in his early days.

"That was the school that they've gone away from that was called drop and drive," Stone said. "That's why big lower bodies were not only encouraged, but they were sought after. You used the rubber as something to spring off of. I was always taught, because I was a very hard thrower when I came into baseball, it's like uncoiling a spring. You get yourself over a bent back leg, and then you spring at the hitter.

"If you can pitch six innings with your legs, your arm can carry you for three. If your legs give up after three, it's tough for your arm to carry you for six. We were taught at that time, you tried to get as deep into the game as possible."

Baseball has changed a lot since Stone's day. Wood finished with 11 career complete games, none after the 2003 season.

"Unfortunately, Kerry's body didn't allow him to be any better than that, or he would have been," Stone said. "Believe me, he has a lot of pride. I think that's one of the reasons he came to the decision he came to. Nobody wants to go out there not able to do what he used to do, have the problems that he has, where he can't get the ball over the plate and when he does, somebody hits it hard."

***

The fifth start of Kerry Wood's career came on May 6, 1998 and, no, I didn't have to look that up. I was living in Kansas City by then, suffering through a massive case of Chicago withdrawal. It was almost painful for me to watch the games on WGN, to see Wrigley Field and the wide-perspective shots of my old neighborhood. I watched when I could, though, and taped every game Wood started. I still have my VHS copy of the game from May 6. The results hadn't been great for Wood at that point, but he was awfully fun to watch.

The weather in Chicago that day was mild for early May, in the low 70s, but it was overcast. I always have to remind myself of that, because my memory clears those clouds away. I want to recall the game as being played under one of those perfect Wrigley Field afternoons. Those are the days when the wind blows from the south, there isn't a cloud in the sky, and Lake Michigan shimmers azure in the sun. The ivy is in full bloom, the seats are jam-packed, and so are the rooftops across Sheffield and Waveland.

Stone, as he mentioned, has been a broadcaster for 31 years now and has been in professional baseball since 1969. I asked him where that day's game ranked in his memory.

"The best stuff I've ever seen," Stone said. "There was not a team alive, not a team ever assembled, not the '27 Yankees, not the Big Red Machine, not any of the offensive powerhouses we've seen over the last 20 years that could have hit Kerry that day."

No one did. The Astros, that day's opponent, were 20-12 coming into that game and went on to win 102 contests. This was not a poor team Wood was facing. Biggio, Bagwell, Bell, Alou—those guys could swing it.

"That day, the slider, the curveball, the fastball, everything was just overwhelming," Stone said. "He made some pitches to Biggio, to Bagwell, that just made them look horrendous."

Wood struck out the first five batters he faced. In the third, Ricky Gutierrez rolled a grounder to third that Kevin Orie flashed to his right but couldn't come up with. It was ruled an infield single.

"Should have been a no-hitter," Stone said, recalling very specific details of the game as if it were played yesterday. "Kevin Orie couldn't get to that ball, and the call could have gone either way. Coming in the third inning, they didn't know it would be the only hit, but that was a debatable thing."

After striking out the side in the seventh, Wood had 15 strikeouts. Then he struck out the side in the eighth. In the ninth, he got Bill Speiers swinging, but Biggio put the ball into play, grounding out to short. That brought up Derek Bell. Wood jumped ahead 1-2.

Like everyone reading this piece, I've seen more baseball games in my life than I could possibly recall. Sometimes I'll look at an old scorecard that I kept, and not one thing on it stirs any sort of memory whatsoever. If it wasn't in my handwriting, I'd question if I'd been at the game at all. But if you ask me to describe the most dominant single pitch I've ever seen in my life, the sweeping curveball Wood whipped at Bell immediately springs to mind. Was it a slider? There are no radar gun readings on the old video, but it looked like a curve to me. The nastiest curve I've ever seen.

"I saw another one similar to that in 1972 by Steve Carlton, who went 27-10 on a team that won 59 games, the Philadelphia Phillies that year," Stone said. "He pitched against us in Candlestick Park. Gave up a leadoff single to Chris Speier. We never came close to a hit the rest of the night. As great as that was, a one-hit shutout, it didn't compare to the pure stuff that Kerry had that day."

For Wood, the game may have put him in the record books, but it was also a kind of mixed blessing.

"Good and bad, no doubt about it," Wood said on Friday. "Obviously it raised the bar, raised expectations for me. I felt like I fed off that and thrived at it. But again, you're labeled. You get labeled from it. I'm not going to say it was all bad."

No, it wasn't all bad. The Play Index at Baseball-Reference allows us to sort by Game Score, the old Bill James measure of a starting pitcher's performance. The leaderboards are dominated by guys who went more than nine innings. If you limit the board to nine-inning games, Wood tops the list, ahead of no-hitters by Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax. It's a debatable topic, but on May 6, 1998, in just his fifth big-league start and at the age of 20, Kerry Wood authored perhaps the greatest game ever pitched.

For one shining afternoon, he was everything his potential suggested he could be.

***

Enough is enough. That's what Wood had to be thinking after his penultimate outing at Wrigley Field. He'd returned from that 16th trip to the disabled list, but he wasn't performing despite the rest, rehab, and injections into his shoulder. On May 8, he walked two, gave up two hits, and took the loss in a game against Atlanta. On his way off the field, he threw his glove and hat into the stands in frustration. When asked about it afterwards, he swore at the inquiring reporter and cut off the interview. That's not Kerry Wood. In his first five games after coming off the DL, he had eight walks and one strikeout.

On Friday, I got to the ballpark early, as is my habit, ready to work on a piece comparing the two first-year managers in Chicago. As soon as I walked into the press box, I heard someone swearing about Wood announcing his retirement. That meant a long day was going to be even longer. A quick survey of the Web and Twitter suggested the rumors were true. In the clubhouse, the Cubs deflected any attempts at confirmation. Wood's name was still listed on the lineup card, and we were told that if the game situation warranted it, he would pitch. Wood, himself, would not be speaking before the game. We had to wait till after.

"It was just time," Wood said then. "It was time, you know? With the way things were going this year, not being able to recover and bounce back and do my job essentially, doing what I'm supposed to do day in and day out. The grind of getting ready every day. You go through it, hours to get ready for 15 pitches. Then go out there and not be successful. It was time."

Meanwhile, we went around and talked to various people about Wood, who all referred to him in the past tense. The story emerged that Wood wanted to make one more appearance before calling it quits. While Wood stood in center field shagging fly balls with his young son, Justin, we talked to Robin Ventura in the visiting dugout. I asked him what he remembered about batting against Wood. I'd already looked up the fact that he was 0-for-9 with six strikeouts against him.

"I didn't like it," Ventura sad. "Didn't work for me. Didn't turn out well."

It turned out to be a pretty good game. The Sox led 3-2 in the eighth when after 113 pitches and a walk to Adam Dunn, Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija looked gassed. Bench coach Jamie Quirk came out to the mound. He had replaced Sveum, who was tossed earlier by Marty Foster. Quirk signaled for the righty, Wood.

Wood turned and shook the hand of bullpen coach Lester Strode, then trotted to the mound for the last time. I thought of John Updike and Ted Williams. When Wood was introduced, there was a growing, thunderous response from the denizens of the Friendly Confines. After all, how often do you have advance notice that a beloved player is making his last appearance?

"Both, mentally and physically, we all get to this point," Wood said. "We don't all get to choose when, or have a say in it. I was fortunate enough to play this game a long time and play in a wonderful city in front of the best fans in baseball. It was just time."

The White Sox had Dunn on first with one out. Dayan Viciedo stepped into the box. He fouled off a 96 mile-per-hour fastball on the first pitch, the last fastball Wood would ever throw. His second pitch was a curveball; Viciedo grounded it foul. Then he threw another curve, a sweeper, and Viciedo waved at it. It was Wood's 1,582nd, and last, big-league strikeout. Quirk returned to the mound and waved in lefty James Russell. The roar from the stands was amazing, the sort of mass communion that only a special sports moment can provide.

"I wished I could have been out there to be the one that took him out of the game," Sveum said ruefully. "I wish I would have thought about that before I got carried away. I did afterwards. I was like, 'Man, I'm going to miss this.'"

Wood tipped his cap to the crowd and strode toward the dugout. About 20 feet from the steps, Justin ran onto the field and hugged his father's legs. Wood kneeled down, returned his young son's embrace, picked him up, and went down the steps into the shade of the dugout. The Wrigley Field organist played "My Way."

"It was great," Wood said. "We had a great day at the ballpark. I got to take (Justin) up in the scoreboard and we just hung out here in the field, hung out with the guys. It was definitely special. I wasn't expecting him to run on the field. I couldn't talk about five minutes after that to the guys. It was definitely a special moment for me. A special moment for my family. I just thank the fans for their support."

I looked around after Wood disappeared, thinking about how much time had passed since I'd first heard of the Cubs' coming phenom. It was one of those days at Wrigley Field. The breeze was out of the south and gentle. It was 76 degrees, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Lake Michigan shone through the tall buildings along the lakefront, and the ivy on the walls was thick, green and lustrous.

It was as if time stood still. All the things that Wood never did were forgotten. All that mattered was the moment, one last afternoon in the sun.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bradford's other articles. You can contact Bradford by clicking here

Related Content:  Chicago Cubs,  Cubs,  Injuries,  Kerry Wood,  20 Strikeouts

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