Every now and then, just when you're ready to burn your Topps, trash your Rawlings and melt your Mr. Coffee, baseball finds a peach-fuzzed kid to remind you why you loved the game in the first place.
Seventy-two strikeouts in 46? innings. Four-and-oh in the last month. A fastball that's been timed at 101 mph, which is good to know, because nobody has actually seen it yet. Grown men taking grenade cover on curveball strikes. Talk around the cage about Koufax, Drysdale and Gibson.
In 20-year-old righthander Kerry Wood, we've finally found that rarest of players—somebody the Florida Marlins can't unload—and the game is loopy about it. Coaches who haven't stood up for a pitch in 30 years are leaning against dugout rails to warm their gnarled hands on the kid's heat. Atlanta was sold out last Saturday for the Chicago Cubs' rookie. Cincinnati, officially dead, had 33,480. At Arizona, many of the 47,129 fans cheered him on as he fanned their own guys.
"This is why you hang around the game 25 extra years," 59-year-old Cubs dugout coach Billy Williams says. "This is why you keep putting on the uniform, to be part of something like this, to see a kid who could end up among the alltime greats."
Is this fun or what?
"It's not just the strikeouts," says Chicago first basemen Mark Grace. "It's the way guys are striking out. Swinging an hour late on fastballs. Buckling like little kids on curveballs. Swinging two feet above a slider. Crazy stuff."
Listen, how would you like to have been there when Wolfgang Puck made his first sandwich? When Carl Sagan peered through his first junior scientist telescope? When Bill Gates slipped in his first pocket protector? You don't often get a chance to be there when everything's new and preposterous and your legend still has a flattop and some residual acne and paperboy blue eyes, and if he weren't in a Cubs uniform, you would swear he's the kid who helped your aunt with her groceries last week.
Thanks for saving baseball, kid. Can we see some I.D.?
Best of all, Wood seems to have arrived straight from 1953. He's never any good, it's his catcher. ("He called such a perfect game!" Wood will say.) It's not him, it's the fans. ("They got me through the late innings!") Perhaps this week it will be the maintenance man. (Every inning I'd come back and sit on a great varnish job!)
Missing the superstar ego chromosome, Wood has said no to Leno, answers every question about himself with a kick at the dirt—"I just don't see what the big deal is about, well, me" he says—and is befuddled that anybody wants him to scribble his name down and send it to them. "In the mornings I come in and my chair is full of mail," he says, amazed, "so I try to take care of it. But by the time I get back from [batting practice], the chair's full again." So what's a young phenom to do? "Well, I try to answer as much as I can before the game starts."