Kid K Will Always Hold A Special Place In Cubs Fans’ Hearts
On the afternoon of May 6, 1998, I was an 8-year-old boy in Ms. Greenhill’s third grade class at Tripp Elementary. When the school day ended, and I arrived at home off the bus, I turned on the television to WGN as I routinely did to catch the end of the Cubs game. Even at this age, I was already a full-fledged Cubs diehard, thanks to my grandfather taking me to Wrigley or watching the game by my side on the living room couch. On this day, I remember turning on the TV to learn the Cubs game had already ended, as it sometimes did with the 1:20 p.m. start time. I kept it tuned to the post-game show to find out what happened (before instant cell-phone alerts and Twitter feeds basically rendered this obsolete). The highlights immediately focused on a Cubs pitcher I had barely heard of. Who was Kerry Wood? He must’ve done well today because all the plays are of him striking out Astros. Wow, what a pitch! Nobody can touch this guy! 17 strikeouts! Another knee-buckler for 18! Now 19! The camera kept panning to the left-field bleachers where fans held up red and blue K cards with each ensuing punch-out. Finally, they replayed the final out of the game, a sweeping slider Derek Bell had no chance at, and with a fist pump and nary a smile, Kid K was born.
Kerry Wood became a Cubs folk hero before he could legally drink. So fans drank for him (for me it was a cold glass of apple juice, but still).
Wood’s 20 strikeout performance, in just his fifth career start, will always be one of the top moments in Cubs history. At the time, he became just the second player ever to fan 20 batters in a game, and the first to match his age in strikeouts.
That moment was 14 years and 12 days ago. And for every appearance Wood has made on the mound since then, you can’t help but harken back to that rainy afternoon when Wood and the Cubs were on top of the world and the future for both felt brighter than those cloudy skies would suggest. The Cubs made the playoffs that season for the first time in nearly a decade, carried by the inspiration of Harry Carry’s passing, Sammy Sosa’s slugging and Kerry Wood’s rise to stardom. We had our bright young star, the next Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens rolled up into one galvanizing figure. And maybe this was Kerry Wood’s ultimate demise.
Despite all the promise Wood displayed that unforgettable May afternoon, he would never become the next Texan pitching legend. He would never win the Cy Young. He would never lead the Cubs to the World Series.
Sure, there were moments. Times when Kerry looked just like he did in 1998. But they were always fleeting. Perhaps Kerry Wood peaked too soon, dousing Cubs fans with expectations he would ultimately never ignite.
That’s why today is bittersweet for Cubs fans. With announcing he will retire following his next outing, the promise of Kerry Wood will finally come to an end. Even though that promise was broken a long time ago.
In some ways, Kerry Wood will always be the 20-year-old kid with the cannon right arm and a breaking ball that left opposing hitters waddling for a week. He never grew up in Cubs fans’ eyes. He was the Peter Pan of the franchise and we all wanted to be the Lost Boys, hoping to stay in Neverland (the magical 1998 season) forever.
But as Ben Folds once sang, “It sucks to grow up.” At some point, Tinker Bell flies away, and we are all left to walk the plank of life ourselves. The last generation of fans basically grew up with Kerry Wood, whether you were just an elementary school kid like me or a 20-something figuring out what you wanted to make of your life. Woody has been with us for 14 years now, almost all of them spent on the North Side. Many of us have gone from school kids to college graduates, or young adults to parents in that time. Seeing Kerry Wood hang up the red, white and blue pinstripes is the end of an era. An era many of us long for the beginnings of, when hope was blossoming in the form of a 20-year-old Texan with barely the dawn of his trademark blonde peach fuzz goatee.
But none of us could recapture the glory of Wood’s early years, most notably, Kerry himself. After winning the Rookie of the Year award during that ’98 season with a 13-6 record, 3.40 ERA and absolutely ridiculous 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings, Kid K missed all of the 1999 season with reconstructive elbow surgery. It would be a harbinger of Wood’s career, as all told, the righty made 16 trips to the disabled list during his 13-plus seasons. The rest of Wood’s twenties were somewhat of a roller coaster. The highest points were the 2001-2003 seasons where Kid K won double-digit games each year and fanned more than 200 batters a season, including a career high 266 in his first all-star campaign of 2003. Wood averaged 31 starts per season during that span; he would make just 36 starts the rest of his career.
But unlike Wood’s partner in crime, Mark Prior, Wood found a second life in the bullpen. (Prior, of course, saw injuries derail his seemingly invincible upside, having not pitched in the majors since 2006.) Prior could never stay healthy enough to make it back to the Bigs; Woody knew his starting days were done, so he reinvented himself as a dangerous late-inning reliever. By his first full year in the closer’s role, Wood was on his way to a second all-star team, locking up 34 saves with a 3.26 ERA and 11.4 K/9 through 65 games. He helped lead the Cubs to the best record in the NL. Maybe this would be the year, now at 31 years old, Wood would help the Cubs capture what many thought he was ultimately put on the Wrigley Field mound to bring home: a World Series title to the North Side for the first time in 100 years. That did not happen, of course, and after a shocking and once again heart-breaking sweep at the hands of the Dodgers, the Cubs window had closed, and they have not made the playoffs since.
Wood’s time as a Cub looked finished, as well. He used his 2008 season to earn maybe his last substantial contract through free agency, signing with Cleveland for two years and $20.5 million. Wood struggled for a dismal Tribe team, recording just 20 saves with a 4.26 ERA in 55 games in 2009. After more DL stints in 2010, three blown saves and a 6.30 ERA, the Indians shipped what looked like an over-the-hill Wood to the Yankees at the trade deadline. But Wood once again proved he wasn’t dead yet, shining in a setup role for Mariano Rivera, surrendering just two earned runs in 24 games, leaving him with a 0.69 ERA and again averaging better than 10 strikeouts per nine innings.
Wood could have easily parlayed these numbers into another bulky paycheck, cashing in once again on an arm that seemed to fail him as much as it rewarded the hurler. Maybe Wood knew his time was running thin. Maybe he believed he had made enough money. Maybe he just wanted to return to Neverland. But by taking a pay cut to head back to the friendly confines in 2011, it was clear No. 34 only wanted to pitch in one city for the final days of his career.
In Wood’s second stint with the Cubbies, there were glimpses of his pitching prowess that endeared him to the city, appearing in 55 games, striking out 57 and posting a 3.35 ERA. But this season, it was clear the 34-year-old had finally lost his stuff, like Henry Rowengartner after slipping on the baseball against the Mets. Woody couldn’t get a bleacher bum out this season, and he would be the last guy in the world to “float it” underhand to Hedo and hope for a miracle. So he has decided to hang em up, with his next outing being his last.
Wood never lived up to the hype he set for himself that magical May day 14 years ago. And without the injuries, who knows what his career arc could have looked like. But injuries are part of the game, and its not the time to play “What if?” Instead, I, like many Cubs fans, will thank Kerry Wood for a memorable (if somewhat disappointing) career in Cubbie Blue. To us, Kerry will always be the boy who became a man before our eyes, growing up right along with us.
So as I watch Kerry Wood shake hands with his teammates at the mound, and exit the field for the final time as a Major League pitcher, as I hear the applause of the Wrigley Field faithful giving him a much-deserved standing ovation, I can’t help but think of how perfectly his career ended.
With a strikeout.
Photo Courtesy Associated Press