Kerry Wood of the Chicago Cubs closes out the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 9th inning for a save at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Cubs defeated the Diamondbacks 3-1. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
This is an update to the Kerry Wood story in the Top 100 Cubs series that I wrote on December 17, 2006. Wood was 64th in the original ranking, done after the 2006 season; his return and good year as closer in 2008 moved him up five spots in the ranking. Most of this is the original post; the additional material is at the end of the post, with a bit of editing throughout to bring dates, etc. up to date. The profiles of the other three active players on the list -- Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee -- will also be updated before spring training begins. The original comments are still here; you can add to them now.
That's what Kerry Wood could have been, entering his tenth major league season in 2007, had he not been derailed by injuries and, talk is, his own stubbornness in refusing to adjust his pitching style to avoid those injuries.
The buzz around Kerry Wood began even before he threw a single professional pitch. Born on June 16, 1977 in the Dallas, Texas suburb of Irving, Wood was a high school phenom, going 12-0 with a 0.77 ERA his senior year, resulting in him becoming the fourth selection in the 1995 amateur draft by the Cubs, right behind Darin Erstad, Jose Cruz Jr., and Ben Davis, all of whom also, oddly enough, had careers partly derailed by injuries.
Just a few days after he was drafted, Wood threw both ends of a doubleheader for his high school team, throwing an estimated 175 pitches. This prompted then-Cub scouting director Al Goldis to say of him:
I haven't seen a guy throw like this in 10 years. If [Dwight] Gooden was in this draft, I would have taken Wood ahead of him.
Wood, blessed with great size for a pitcher, great talent, and a great baseball name, rocketed through the Cub farm system. In the spring of 1998, Wood was clearly the best pitcher for the Cubs during training camp, but at age 20 it was felt he needed more time in Triple-A. That prompted a comment from then-Angels manager Terry Collins, who was asked shortly after Wood was reassigned to Iowa who he thought would win the World Series that year. When Collins said "The Cubs", he was asked why. His answer:
If the Cubs have five pitchers better than Kerry Wood, they'll definitely win the World Series.
I watched Wood pitch twice that spring, and once sat right behind a scout with a radar gun. Every pitch was between 96 and 98 MPH -- except for the knee-bending curveball which would freeze batters in their tracks.
Wood's 1998 stay in Iowa lasted exactly one start -- a five-inning, one-hit, eleven-strikeout performance, upon which he was recalled to make his major league debut, facing the Expos in Montreal on April 12, 1998. It was less than spectacular -- four-plus innings, three walks and four hits and four runs allowed later, he was out of the game in a 4-1 Cub loss.
One more bad start and two good ones later, he was scheduled to face the Astros at Wrigley Field on what otherwise would have been a forgettable, mild but drizzly Tuesday afternoon.
I can't likely tell you very much about Kerry's 20-strikeout game on May 6, 1998 that you don't already know, other than to give you my personal observations, since I was there. As noted, it was an off-and-on rainy day -- started drizzling in the middle innings, then rained more steadily through the sixth and seventh, but stopped just in time for the 15,758 in attendance to stand up and roar on every pitch of the ninth inning, particularly when he got Derek Bell swinging to end the game.
It is arguably the most dominant pitching performance in major league history. The only hit was an infield single in the 2nd inning by future Cub Ricky Gutierrez, that was muffed by 3B Kevin Orie -- had a similar play happened in the later innings, with no other hits, it likely would have been ruled an error. Wood didn't walk anyone -- in fact, when he later spoke to his high school coach about this game, that was what he was most proud of, and rightfully so. The only other game in major league history that might compare to Wood's masterpiece in terms of dominance is Sandy Koufax's 14-strikeout perfect game on September 9, 1965.
Doing something like this in your fifth major league start is a sure way to get national fame. He was invited to appear on the morning national TV shows. T-shirts reading "We Got Wood" started to appear, double entendre and all; I myself bought my first game-replica jersey, and Wood continued to dominate the National League through the rest of the year... well, at least until the end of August, when his high pitch counts and hard throwing began to catch up with him and the Cubs shut him down with elbow trouble, trouble that had likely begun as far back as that 175-pitch doubleheader he threw in high school.
He came back to throw game three of the NLDS vs. the Braves on October 3 at Wrigley Field; leaving behind 1-0 (vs. Greg Maddux) after throwing five innings of three-hit, one-run ball, he took the loss as the bullpen couldn't keep it close and the Cubs lost 6-2.
Wood was named the NL Rookie of the Year -- and not long afterward, had Tommy John surgery and missed the entire 1999 season.
Coming back a month into the 2000 season, on a Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, Kerry did another thing that might have someday just been part of his "legend" -- on his first at-bat back, he hit a two-run homer, and pitched six strong innings in an 11-1 win over the Astros.
He made only 23 starts in 2000, and only 28 in 2001, struggling to regain his 1998 form.
Finally, in 2002 he threw a full season for a terrible Cubs team -- I documented here at BCB in February 2005 how Wood's 12-11 record was deceiving, as the bullpen blew seven leads for him; he could have been a 19-game winner on a better team.
At last, both Kerry Wood and the Cubs hit their stride in 2003, which, of course, we'd all remember a lot more fondly if the Cubs could have got those last five damned outs. But before that, Wood had almost singlehandedly put the Cubs in both the postseason and the NLCS; in September 2003 he was 3-1 with a 1.00 ERA in 36 innings; he walked only 13 and struck out 47 that month, and then he pitched the Cubs into the NLCS with a gutty eight-inning, seven-K outing in game five of the Division Series vs. the Braves.
And he could have pitched the Cubs into the World Series in game seven of the NLCS -- only to fail, despite homering. After the game a tearful Wood, a standup guy, took responsibility for the loss, faced reporters till far past the time most players would have hidden in the whirlpool, and at least for me, cemented his place as the current face of the franchise.
Which makes it all the more heartbreaking that he's suffered so many injuries, ruining the three seasons from 2004-06. He had a decent 2004, but made only 22 starts, and in 2005 was placed in the bullpen before being shut down (and in his eleven relief appearances he was lights-out; in 12 IP, he allowed four hits, walked five, gave up no runs, and struck out 17, giving rise to the notion that he could eventually become an elite closer).
An attempt to return to the rotation in 2006 also failed; after four mediocre starts Kerry was again shut down. Even with all the injuries, with 77 career wins he ranks thirtieth on the all-time Cubs victory list. With his seventh strikeout of 2007, he will pass Maddux into fourth place on the all-time Cub strikeout list (behind only Rick Reuschel, Charlie Root and Fergie Jenkins). [NOTE: Wood begins 2011 with 1407 strikeouts, fourth on the list; he passed Reuschel. Carlos Zambrano is now second behind Jenkins with 1441. Wood does lead all Cubs pitchers in K/9 innings with 10.385; Wood's career K/9 number of 10.354 ranks second all-time for all pitchers with more than 1000 career IP, just behind Randy Johnson's 10.609.]
The following is the material added to this profile of Kerry Wood on January 23, 2011.
He signed an incentive-laden contract to remain a Cub in 2007, and has always said that he feels badly that he was not able to contribute more. In 2008, he was a key contributor to the 97-win NL Central champions; he matched his uniform number by posting 34 saves, having an outstanding 1.085 WHIP, and being named to his second All-Star team.
After the season, though, he was told he wasn't wanted and to "go get some money", which the Cubs apparently didn't want to pay. He signed a two-year, $20 million deal with the Cleveland Indians. The Tribe had a terrible season in 2009, losing 97 games; Wood often went 10 days or more without a save opportunity. Though healthy, he saved only 20 games, and in 2010 he began the season with back trouble which kept him out of action until May, when he had much the same trouble and a couple of really bad outings ballooned his ERA over 10. He was traded to the Yankees at the trading deadline, July 31.
It was a rebirth. Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland found some mechanical problems in Wood's delivery and he turned Kerry into a lights-out setup man for Mariano Rivera. In 24 Yankee appearances he gave up only two earned runs for a 0.69 ERA and struck out 31 in 26 innings.
After the season, it was thought he'd sign with a team to close again, or stay with the Yankees, where he was familiar with manager Joe Girardi, a catcher for a couple of years with him with the Cubs, and new Yankee pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Instead, the passing of Ron Santo triggered the events that brought Wood back to the Cubs. Kerry had some brief conversations with Jim Hendry at Santo's funeral and then longer discussions the same day at a fundraiser for Ryan Dempster's foundation about returning. A few days later he was signed to a far-below-market value $1.5 million deal (with incentives) and the promise that he'd be a Cub for life.
Which pleased many of us who are big Kerry Wood fans. I wrote the following paragraph in 2006 and it's just as true today (except, of course, that he'll be an elite setup man instead of an elite closer):
I have always felt that Wood was indeed a standup guy, and wants very badly to be part of a championship Cub team. His wife Sarah is a Chicago-area native and so he has family ties to this area. I can only imagine what it would mean to him, never mind the rest of us, if he could indeed become that elite closer and be the last one standing on the mound, closing out a Cub World Series win. Perhaps then, Kerry Wood's name would become legendary.