Kerry Wood is probably the biggest coulda/shoulda/woulda story in recent Cubs history, and perhaps with a little time and perspective, we'll find that it might be the biggest such story in all of team history.
You all know the basic story. Drafted No. 1 by the Cubs in 1995. Three years later in the major leagues, setting a NL record with 20 strikeouts in his fifth MLB start on May 6, 1998, a month before he turned 21 years old. Helped lead the Cubs to playoff spots in 1998 and 2003, pitched them to their first postseason series win in 95 years, then failed when he could have pitched them into the World Series. He was a standup guy after that loss, crying at his locker, and I think that cemented the love that many of us felt for him as a player.
Then the injuries, and the comeback as a closer in 2008, helping again pitch the Cubs into the postseason, becoming the first Cub since the 1930s to play in four postseasons with the team.
Dumped -- there really is no other word for it -- by management in 2009, he went to Cleveland, then New York, where he was effective after learning a cutter from Mariano Rivera. On his return, he had a decent year as a setup man in 2011 before his ineffectiveness and more injuries forced his retirement Friday.
Wood was 86-75 with 63 career saves in 445 games (178 starts) and 1581 strikeouts. Those aren't even close to Hall of Fame numbers, nor do they call for any sort of retirement of his No. 34 -- I would emphatically say "No" to any call for a number retirement. Obviously, the injuries and 16 trips to the DL over his career prevented him from becoming the star we all thought and hoped he would become when he streaked across the Cubs sky in 1998.
Why, then, the popularity? I think it's more the standup-guy thing than any performance on the field, even though there were many memorable games, including the home run he hit in his first game back after TJ surgery on May 2, 2000 and an 11-strikeout shutout of the Mets on Sept. 17, 2003 in crunch time in a pennant race. There are many others; I'm sure you have your own memories.
Wood never made excuses. He was reportedly a clubhouse leader who younger pitchers looked up to. The recent glove-tossing incident aside (and surely, that can simply be chalked up to his own frustration at not being able to produce), he's always set a good example for the entire organization.
I mourn a career that could have been great, and never was because of injuries. That's a shame. I hope Wood does stay associated with the Cubs organization in some capacity -- coaching, broadcasting, whatever -- because I think he's a good human being and a person any Cubs fan should be proud is part of this team.
A personal salute, then, to Kerry Wood, for what he accomplished, and sadness that he couldn't be more, and best wishes to him and his family now and in the future. Thanks for the great memories, Kerry. I only wish you could have been the one holding the World Series trophy when it finally comes to Wrigley Field.