Wood brings down curtain on a career that never lacked for drama
Kerry Wood's legacy is one of great talent and several unfrotunate injuries
Wood pitched what may have been the best game ever in just his fifth start
Wood remained loyal to the Chicago Cubs throughout his 14-year career
Kerry Wood's career, just like a Shakespearan play, had five acts, but its classification as a comedy or a tragedy isn't so neatly discernible.
The Cubs righthander -- all 6-foot-5 of hard-throwing Texan toughness and scar tissue -- fittingly struck out the lone batter of his final big league appearance Friday before retiring after a 14-year big league career, that spanned a variety of stages, from pitching phenom to Tommy John patient to reinvented dominant starter to down-on-his-luck D.L. regular to All-Star reliever.
There are two paths to leaving a positive -- and lasting -- legacy. The first is, as Pirates manager and former next-big-thing player Clint Hurdle once explained, "to be very good for a long time." The second is imagination-capturing, game-changing brilliance, which Wood demonstrated early, if not often.
First act: On May 6, 1998, Wood, as a lanky 20-year-old rookie, took the Wrigley Field mound for his fifth career start and made history, tying a major league record with 20 strikeouts in a one-hit, no-walk, complete-game shutout of an Astros club that won 102 games that year. His game score -- a Bill James-devised formula to rate individual pitching performances -- was 105, the best nine-inning mark in baseball history, ranking ahead of every perfect game.
In reviewing the highlights of that masterpiece what stands out first is his sizzling fastball, which hit 100 miles per hour twice that day. More dramatically, but just as notable, was the way Wood manipulated his breaking ball so that it the seemed to pause, Roadrunner style, in mid-air before remembering the effect of gravity and dropping down and away off a cliff.
Wood struck out the Astros' 3-4-5 hitters all nine times they batted that day. He struck out the side four times, in all: once on three strikeouts looking, once on three strikeouts swinging and twice mixing and matching. Eleven of his strikeouts came swinging and nine looking. Twelve were on fastballs, eight on breaking balls.
In the first inning, the TV commentators, who had only seen him throw 18 1/3 innings in the big leagues, interjected with an understated "boy, he looks good," before following up with, "It's not fair to compare this kid to Nolan [Ryan], but just in terms of his stuff ..."
That thought went unfinished (at least in the highlight reel), and so too did Wood's career trajectory on his way toward joining Ryan, his fellow Texan, in the annals of power-pitching greatness.
When in the fifth inning of Wood's 20-strikeout game the broadcasters began hyping Rookie of the Year talk (an award he did, in fact, win), they also included a fateful mention of Wood's "nice, easy delivery."
Second act: It turns out Wood's delivery was anything but. His mechanics of throwing across his body and throwing his striking breaking ball -- a curve/slider combination known as a slurve -- were, apparently, the cause of significant strain on his elbow. He had Tommy John surgery after his rookie season, missed all of 1999 and had a 4.80 ERA in 23 starts in 2000. Those two years were his second stage, the rising action of building himself anew. The slurve was gone, but he could still throw his more traditional curve while adding a slider and changeup. He also studied the approach of veteran teammates Jon Lieber and Kevin Tapani, who relied more on finesse than power, to make himself a more complete pitcher.
Third act: Over the next three seasons, 2001-2003, Wood reached his peak, winning 38 games while striking out 700 batters (third-most in the majors behind Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling) with a .209 batting average against (second-best behind Pedro Martinez). A classic power pitcher who worked deep into counts and sometimes threw wildly, however, Wood also walked 289 (second-most behind Hideo Nomo) and hit 47 (the most).
During that stretch he was joined in the rotation by Mark Prior, the man with whom he'll forever be linked for their mutually tantalizing promise and unfortunate injury-riddled careers.
No regular season was better for those two pitchers than 2003. SI's Midseason Baseball Report that year featured the Cubs' co-aces on the cover, each brandishing baseballs burning with flames and adorned with the headline, "Chicago Heat."
While Prior won 18 games with a 2.43 ERA and third-place Cy Young finish, Wood, who never received a Cy Young vote in his career, led the major leagues in strikeouts that season, with 266, and fewest hits per nine innings, 6.5.
In the accompanying cover story SI writer Daniel Habib explained that the elbow surgery robbed Wood of his dramatic breaking ball but, with study, "Wood was transformed from an unrefined hard thrower with supernatural stuff to a craftsman." Unfortunately for him, that season was the second and last time he reached 200 innings in a season. After that year's crushing NLCS Game 6 loss -- usually referred to as the Bartman Game -- Wood started Game 7, giving up seven runs and losing.
Fourth act: Whether it was faulty mechanics or bad luck or too many pitches, Wood struggled to stay healthy. He missed two months in the middle of 2004 and then from 2005 to 2007 pitched only 110 innings in three seasons with various injuries to his shoulder, knee and elbow. The injuries to Prior, who last pitched in the majors in 2006, and Wood are often hailed as catalysts in bringing about better safeguards for young pitchers -- not the legacy a pitcher craves, but one that can still be meaningful.
Amidst the seemingly endless rehab, the indefinite timetables and the never-ending workouts, Wood kept persevering. He came close, however, nearly ending his career just before his 30th birthday, as was re-told by The Wall Street Journal. He played one final game of catch with his trainer and felt the pain vanish, giving him renewed confidence and launching him back on the path to recovery.
Fifth act: Wood began progressing toward an uplifting final act with his 22-appearance cameo at the end of the '07 season, working exclusively out of the bullpen. As a fulltime reliever, Wood recaptured some of his lost glory and demonstrated that he could still pitch at a high level, just not a high pitch count.
He became the Cubs' closer in 2008, making his second career All-Star Game, and then he filled that closing role for the Indians in 2009 and early '10, saving 62 games in those 2 1/2 years before a midseason trade to the Yankees. In New York he became baseball's best set-up man for two months, allowing just two earned runs in 26 innings for a 0.69 ERA.
Wood's loyalty to the Cubs has always been admirable, not blaming the team for his injuries despite high pitch counts, and returning again and again to the North Side. After 2007 he had multi-year offers elsewhere but took a one-year contract to stay a Cub. Before the 2011 and '12 seasons he again took discounted one-year deals to return to Chicago. His tenure there was always fitting, a partnership of pitcher and franchise who kept falling just short of their best.
His rate of 10.3 strikeouts-per-nine-innings was first among all active players with at least 1,000 innings pitched and ranks second alltime, behind only Johnson. The other eye-popping number is his 16 career trips to the disabled list, where he spent more than 800 days.
But to dwell only on the tragic "what if" of Wood's career is to miss the point. Wood's legacy is admittedly complicated -- a testament to temporal greatness; a warning to young pitchers -- but the themes of perseverance and reinvention should prevail.
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