I had the chance to talk with former Cub Kerry Wood Thursday in advance of his January fundraiser, the seventh annual Woody’s Winter Warmup, which will happen on January 12. Wood spoke candidly about his career, what he’s doing now as a special assistant with the Cubs, about the 20-K game and about his family.
Tickets to the fundraiser are $250 and can be purchased at the link above.
Here’s the transcript of our talk, lightly edited for clarity. Many thanks to Mike Bruce, Manager of Strategic Partnerships and Events for the Wood Family Foundation, for arranging this interview opportunity.
BCB: Tell me a little bit about Woody’s Winter Warmup that’s coming up next month.
KW: This is our seventh year doing this little get together. My foundation, the Wood Family Foundation has a mentoring program we run in North Lawndale here in Chicago. The name of our program is Pitch In. We mentor fourth through eighth graders and things like this event help us fund that program. We have a few different fundraisers we do throughout the year, this is the one we package around the Cubs Convention and so we can utilize the Cubs brass and personnel, past players and current players that are in town for the convention. They come out for the event, get behind the bar. We basically throw a big party, raise money and have a good time. We have live music and a bunch of celebrities who come in as well. It’s a good time for fans to get in with us and raise money and start talking some baseball.
BCB: Who do you most look forward to having at this event?
KW: Bonnie Hunt’s coming this year, she emceed our gala the last two years, I’ve gotten to know her a little bit and she’s so much fun to be around, I’m looking forward to seeing her. Honestly, everybody. Tom Ricketts is great to be around, it’s just fun to be around all those baseball people and it’ll be good to see all the front office people and talk about all the moves we’ve made this offseason. It’s nice for everybody to get in the room with these people and kind of pick their brains.
BCB: You’re working for the Cubs in a “special assistant” role. What, specifically, do you do in that position?
KW: I’m always going to be kind of a “special assistant.” I promote the Cubs everywhere I go, I’m a Cub for life. I go to the same events and functions where Tom Ricketts goes. So far I haven’t done much, I took some time off after I retired, got involved in my kids lives, making practices, plays, recitals, I’ve really been enjoying family time. We’ve been traveling, so I haven’t done too much in my work duties with the Cubs. But it’s time, 2018 is going to be the year where I get more involved.
BCB: Would you ever get involved in, say, coming to spring training and helping out with the pitchers, or things like that?
KW: I did that a few years ago, I didn’t go last spring, I had a shoulder injury and had shoulder surgery. Then I broke my ankle in the summer. I’ve missed a couple of spring trainings but that’s something I enjoyed, going out for three or four weeks, get to know all the guys I don’t know and just be around all the pitchers. It was nice to be there when Chris Bosio was there and see how he worked with all the pitchers, I was on the other side of that as a player for a long time. Rick Sutcliffe is around, Jon Lieber came out when I was there, it was nice to be around those guys, and it’s good to be one of those guys, just walking around, if a young guy has a question and maybe he doesn’t want to ask an elder statesman on his team, maybe he’d feel more comfortable talking to an ex-player. The Cubs do a great job of bringing ex-players in throughout spring training and I’ve enjoyed my time there.
BCB: Next year is the 20th anniversary of you breaking in with the Cubs and next May is the 20th anniversary of your famous 20-K game. I’d love to know about how you felt about it the day of that game, and how it feels now.
KW: In the moment you don’t understand the significance of it. I was 20 years old, it was only my fifth start, so it was kind of a whirlwind for me the rest of that season. And then things continue, my career went on, it didn’t really set in until my career was over, and I realized how big of a deal that was, and it hadn’t been done that many times. Since I’ve retired, Max Scherzer has done it, but that’s a pretty big gap of time since it happened to me, so it’s pretty rare. As a young player, 20 years old, I thought, “All right, in five days I get to go do that again,” and really I felt like I could do that again, but I didn’t really understand the significance of it until well after the fact. My kids, obviously, have seen it and understand it now since they’re a little bit older. It’s cool to pop that tape in every now and then — actually, I haven’t, but I’m glad it’s there for the kids to take back out if they want to.
BCB: With all the various injuries you had, did you feel like you did everything you could have done as a player?
KW: I feel like I got six and a half years of time I was told I wasn’t going to have. The doctors told me I wasn’t going to throw after the tear in the shoulder, and I look at it as if I got two careers out of it, and the second one I probably shouldn’t have had. I had to go to the pen and learn how to pitch out of the bullpen, pitch in big games, I got to close, I got to pitch both as a starter and a reliever, I enjoyed both of them. I’d have loved to be a starter my entire career. With the injury I had, my pitch count was limited so I worked and got myself to the point where I could throw enough pitches to help a team out of the bullpen because I loved the game, I loved playing and ultimately I wanted to play long enough to have my kids remember it and so I feel I was very fortunate. I had the kind of injury that was devastating to a lot of pitchers and decided to not surgically fix it the second time and figure out a way to rehab and get strong enough to go out and do it. I got back to a pretty successful level, closing for the Cubs and pitching in some big games for the Yankees in the playoffs and setting up for Mariano Rivera. Those were days and moments which, six years prior, I thought were not going to happen again so I look back at 14-plus years of a lot of great highs early and then battling and grinding the second half of it. It was worth every minute of it.
BCB: You’ve mentioned your kids often, so I’d like to know more about your last game, where you came in and struck out Dayan Viciedo and then went off the field holding your son in your arms.
KW: I had told Theo and Tom and Dale Sveum, who was our manager at the time, I’d let these guys know that I was one or two outings away from being done. So I knew that homestand I was going to pitch one more time and I wasn’t going to go on the road trip. I told my wife, too. Obviously you can’t predict when you’re going to get in the game coming out of the pen, so I told her the team’s leaving town after this game, so this is it, I’m getting in today, so I told her, “Listen, if you see me get up, I’m going in the game, they’re not going to warm me up and sit me down, so if you could take Justin and take him down into the clubhouse and get him to the clubhouse guys, I’d like him to be on the bench when I’m taken out, I’d like to sit next to him.” So she brought him in and they took him down to the bench and after I struck out Viciedo, Reed Johnson and Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza grabbed Justin and put him on the steps and pushed him out on the field. He finally saw me and ran out to me and once he realized there were 40,000 people he kind of locked up and froze and couldn’t let go. It was a special moment. He’s got a photo of it in his room, I’ve got one in my basement, we’ve got video of it. To this day I don’t know how I didn’t just break down in tears, how I was able to hold it back as I was saying goodbye to everybody. And he got to hang out with me the entire day. I had brought him to the field early, took him on the field for batting practice, took him up in the scoreboard. I took all the relievers up in the scoreboard that day, told them it was my last day. There were some younger guys there at the time, so I told them, “I’m ending my career today, a lot of you are starting yours out,” had a little talk with them, brought Justin up into the scoreboard with me. I’d never been up there, and it was cool to go up in the scoreboard that day. It’s special moments like that, having him around on that last day, getting dressed for the game, just good to spend the time with my son on my last day.
BCB: How did you feel when the Cubs won the World Series last year? Did you have any mixed feelings because you weren’t able to do that for the team when you were a player?
KW: It was awesome. I traveled with them to Los Angeles and Cleveland. I was happy for the city and for the organization and for the guys who did it, but also extremely happy for the guys who couldn’t get it done, generations before me, our generations and the guys who didn’t stay alive long enough to see it. I was happy for those reasons, extremely happy for those who played here and couldn’t get it done but who were still Cubs at heart, who live and die by the team and who still come and watch them play, come to Cubs Conventions and still are involved. The guys who got it done are a tremendous group of players, tremendous group of men and professionals. It was such a fun ride, I was just glad to be kind of coat-tailing it last year.
BCB: Just to wrap this up, I’ve always been a big fan of yours, enjoyed watching you immensely, was thrilled at the 20-K game, and wish you well with whatever you’re going to be doing with the Cubs and with this year’s Winter Warmup.
KW: I appreciate that, I really do. I was very fortunate for a long time to be able to play here, it’s a great organization that’s gotten better, obviously, over the last few years. I was very blessed, the city’s been great to me and I appreciate it. Have a great holiday!