|Wood called it quits at 34. (US Presswire)|
If you had told the Chicago Cubs when they made Kerry Wood the fourth pick in the 1995 draft that he would pitch in two All-Star games, lead the league in strikeouts one year, help carry the Cubs to the brink of the World Series, get to 1,000 strikeouts faster than any pitcher in baseball history, throw one of the greatest individual games ever and have a fine 14-year career with a 117 career ERA+ … I suspect they would have happily taken that. The fourth pick in the draft the year before was a third baseman named Antone Williamson who barely made the big leagues The year before that it was a somewhat middling reliever Wayne Gomes. The year after Wood, the pick was the mercurial Bill Koch. All in all, Kerry Wood was probably the best fourth pick of the 1990s.*
*Well, either Wood or Alex Fernandez. It’s pretty close. Fernandez’s 1996 season is probably better than any year Wood had, and his 1993 season was really good too, and he did win 17 games in 1997 as the Marlins won the World Series. But Fernandez got hurt and did not really pitch much after he turned 27.
But expectations don’t allow us to look at life that way. Two picks after Wood was Jaime Jones, an outfielder who never played in the big leagues. Two picks before was Ben Davis, a backup catcher for most of his career. But the expectations never skyrocketed for them. They did for Kerry Wood. When he was still 20 years old -- the fifth start of his life -- he pitched his game for the ages. That was May 6, 1998. He threw a one-hit shutout, did not walk anybody, and struck out 20. I caught the last few innings of that game on television, and it seems like most of the people I know did as well, and watching someone fly that close to the sun*, approach perfection at such a young age, well, no future could possibly soar high enough.*If Icarus lived in modern times, his wings would not have melted and he would not have fallen into the sea. No. He would have had Tommy John surgery, which is exactly what Kerry Wood had the spring after his amazing rookie season.
So that was the baseline. At 20, Kerry Wood pitched maybe the best game ever. What would he be like at 25? The mind staggered. The possibilities were like something out of a comic book. And so the hard reality that followed felt harder. Wood’s future would be checkered with injuries and control problems and more injuries. In 2003, he had what you might call a Nolan Ryan kind of year. He led the league with 266 strikeouts, allowed an absurdly low 6.5 hits per nine innings, and also walked 100 guys and plunked an absurd 21 batters (most for any pitcher since 1970). He was a force of nature, for good and bad, and Chicago won the National League Central. Wood started Game 7 with the chance to send the Cubs to the World Series for the first time since 123 BC. He promptly gave up a three-run homer to a phenom named Miguel Cabrera. After the Cubs came back and, in typical Cubs heartbreak style, took the lead, Wood walked a guy, walked another, gave up a double, a run-scoring groundout and a single to give the lead back. And the Cubs marched inexorably to their losing fate.
Wood would never be the same pitcher. I don’t think this had anything to do with the agony of that Game 7; I don’t believe in that sort of thing. No, I just think it's that the Nolan Ryan life of 100-mph fastballs and lots of walks and lots of strikeouts and pitching under that kind of absurd strain all the time … well, you have to be superhuman to pull that off for a long time. You have to be Nolan Ryan. Kerry Wood broke down and he broke down again and he broke down again -- triceps … elbow … knee … rotator cuff … as one ex-pitcher told me: “The human body is not designed to throw 100-mph fastballs.”
Wood found a second life as a relief pitcher -- first as a reasonably effective closer, then as a garden variety reliever whom you might bring in to get the strikeout. He never lost his ability to get the strikeout.
Kerry Wood is only 34 years old, which is astonishing when you think about it. But that arm is 294. And it was kind of clear this year, it just wasn’t there anymore. His first time out he walked three in one-third of an inning. His second time out he gave up three runs. All in all, he walked 11 in eight innings -- including some four-pitch walks. He went on the disabled list with something called shoulder fatigue. It just seemed over. “It was just time,” he said to reporters after what would be his final appearance on Friday.
In that game he faced one batter: a left fielder named Dayan Viciedo, who was a nine-year-old living in Cuba when Kerry Wood struck out 20 and was unlimited. Viciedo fouled off a high inside fastball that the radar gun read at 96 mph. He fouled off a curveball. And then he swung over and missed on the last curveball, which hit the dirt. Three pitches. A strikeout. The Cubs went to the mound to shake Wood's hand. The fans at Wrigley stood and applauded. Maybe his career could have been more. Definitely, though, it could have been less. As Kerry Wood walked off the field to the cheers, this thought crossed: Life usually doesn’t work out the way you hoped or planned. All you can do is keep on going, and if you are tough enough and a little bit lucky you can get a few things done. And if you are even luckier, maybe, just maybe, you can strike out the last batter you face.