Kerry wood, meet Charlie Sweeney. And Karl Spooner, James Rodney Richard, Herb Score, Dwight Gooden, Harry Krause and even Tom Cheney.
Lord knows the game can use another power pitcher—or 40—and after Wood's 20-strikeout win over the Astros last week, any fan worth the paper he's printed on is rooting for Wood to become the next Nolan Ryan. But history suggests he's more likely to become the next Gary Nolan, who struck out 206 as a 19-year-old rookie, hurt his arm the following year and would never strike out 200 again; so many strikeouts at such a tender age have usually doomed a pitcher.
Lost in the hullabaloo over Wood's tying Roger Clemens's major league strikeout record was the fact that he broke the NL mark, which had lingered since June 7, 1884, when Sweeney, of the Providence Grays, struck out 19 Red Stockings in Boston. Steve Carlton did match Sweeney's performance 85 years later, in 1969, as did Tom Seaver the next year and David Cone in '91, but until that rainy Wednesday at Wrigley last week, no NL pitcher had topped it.
The Providence Grays don't exist anymore. Nor, for that matter, does Sweeney, which brings us to an unhappy consideration for young Wood. Sweeney, 21 when he set the record, jumped to a rival league six weeks later, left the game by 24, was convicted of manslaughter at 31 and died in prison at 38. Thus commenced a long trail of broken careers that the 20-year-old Wood would be well-advised to study carefully.
There are Brooklyn Dodgers fans who still tear up at the memory of Spooner, who struck out 15 Giants in his major league debut, on Sept. 22, 1954, and 12 Pirates four days later. Spooner would pitch in only 29 more games before the arm gremlins got him. His first-game strikeout bravura has been matched only by Richard, who had to retire at age 30 after a stroke. Score led the majors in strikeouts in each of his first two seasons and was still just 23 when he was felled by Gil McDougald's line drive in 1957. And consider Gooden: back-to-back 16-strikeout efforts at 19, drug rehab at 22.
Then there's Krause, who at 22 was the greatest pitcher of all time—for the first half of 1909. A lefthander in his first full season with the Philadelphia Athletics, Krause won his first 10 starts, all complete games, six of them shutouts, four by 1-0. But the avenging gods of pitching granted him precisely 25 more major league victories over the next 3� seasons before he was exiled to the minors with a sore arm.
While Wood now shares the record of 20 strikeouts, a pitcher once fanned 21. That was Cheney of the Washington Senators, in a 1962 game that lasted 16 innings. Cheney had achieved the advanced age (for this crowd) of 27, but the curse claimed him as well. He had 10 wins left in his career.
Wood may break the mold—Lefty Grove led the AL in strikeouts his first year and the six thereafter, and Bob Feller, who struck out 17 as a 17-year-old rookie, didn't exactly drop out of sight after that—but if you're betting on history, sell his baseball cards. Now.